Almost every year, we hear news about inevitable school shootings by children with a previously unknown violent history. Sometimes we hear of people committing violence against their own families, sometimes even to the extent of murder. The question then arises, what makes these people commit such acts. Is it that the person had an aggressive and violent personality? Did he become this way because of bad influences from his surroundings? Was there anything in his upbringing that led him to commit such crimes? All these questions are related to human nature and behavior.
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The human body’s eventual form in an adult can be considered a result of intrinsic factors, those built-in him like parental genes and extrinsic factors, those which are due to events in his upbringing, like how many scars he got while playing rugby or his nutritional intake. Just like the human body, scientists think that human behavior and personality also develop in the same way, i.e., it is a combined result of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.
There are two schools of thought on this. One believes that it is the personalities that are received like genetic traits, transferred from parents to the offspring, along with parental teachings. Another school of thought believes that personality development is an ongoing process that has more to do with persons own perception of the environment rather than the environment that he is actually in. (Cervone. 2001)
About parental influence on the character development, “Rogers suggests that people develop a positive self-concept if they experience ‘unconditional positive regard’… In contrast, less positive personality development occurs if people experience ‘conditions of worth.’” (Cervone. 2001)
If this concept has t be accepted, then we would expect good personalities to develop if the upbringing by the parents is good and the parents give their children the freedom to express their creativity and are guided parents towards a good personality. Then why is it that sometimes people from respected backgrounds commit extraordinary crimes? How is it that the personality which was molded by sound upbringing just gone wrong? This would lead to suggest that there are other forces at play.
Scientists suggest that the surrounding environment has a role to play in behavior modification. In 1971, scientists at the Stanford University conducted an experiment called the prison experiment, in which college students were chosen with sound backgrounds and no criminal or violent histories. They were randomly assigned either to become a prison guard or a prisoner. Once this was done, their behavior was monitored. This experiment had striking results. These average normal college students who were assigned as guards started behaving in a dominant manner even up to the level of cruelty.
Whereas the students acts as prisoners had started behaving live “zombies” obeying every order and resigned to their fate. This showed that normal people could be made to behave rather violently and not according to their upbringing given the suitable environment, in this case, prison. This showed that circumstances and the opportunities available are also a factor in determining human behavior. (Demonstrating the power of social situations via a simulated prison experiment.2004)
It has been hypothesized that human behavior be it violent, can be considered as a disease in the literal sense. Like diseases in the community, then violent human behavior can also spread like an epidemic. (The Tipping Point. June 1996). According to this theory, violence behavior can not be thought of, in a “linear” relationship. Rather, it behaves in a curve pattern in a community up to the point that society acts according to the norms until a certain level. Once that certain tipping point is crossed, the all the society starts behaving in a similar manner. This was demonstrated by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University.
He placed 2 identical cars, one in New York and one in Palo Alto and left them over night. The next day he noticed that the car left in New York had parts missing where as the car in Palo Alto had been untouched. The next day he smashed the mirror of the car in Palo Alto and left it parked another night. Next day, this car too had parts missing. His experiment perfectly showed that both cities’ communities had behavioral tipping points. That point was crossed in Palo Alto’s case once the mirror was smashed and the behavior of the society as a whole changed. (The tipping point. June 1996). This experiment showed that behaviors changes in communities as a whole as well as individually in a person when considering a certain situation and also proved that behavior in a community level can affect the judgments of individual personalities and blur the boundaries that have been set by parental teachings in personality development.
“Sukhwinder Shergill at University College London did a study in which pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.
The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on.” (Daniel Gilbert. July 2006)
The results were astonishing. They showed that even after the volunteers trying deliberately to exert the same amount of pressure as was exerted upon them, they ended up exerting much more. This showed that an involuntary and false and increased perception of the pressure stimulus was being appreciated and the response in kind was greater than that received. (Daniel Gilbert. July 2006)
From all this we can conclude that human behavior is a dynamic state. And is affected multiple factors some of which we can control and others beyond our control.
Cervone. (2001). “Parental influences on personality: A comparison of trait and phenomenological theories.” Theories of Personality.
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Daniel Gilbert. “He who cast the first stone probably didn’t”. International Herald Tribune. 2006. Web.
“Demonstrating the power of social situations via a simulated prison experiment.” American Psychological Association, (2004). Web.
“Resiliency”. Family health international. Web.
“The Tipping Point”. The New Yorker. 1996. Web.