Big ups to Philip Zimbardo and his attempts at creating his own version of Real World: Attica.
PZ was a homeboy of Stanley "shocker" Milgram and like his colleague is associated with one of the more notorious experiments in psych 101 text books, the Stanford Prison experiment. Basically, PZ wanted to answer the question of which comes first, the role or the behavior?
Or in other words, are prison security guard pricks because of their job or because the job attracts pricks? Anecdotally, I would say the latter, but this experiment may suggest otherwise.
Let me let wikipedia break it down for you...
Participants were recruited via a newspaper ad and offered $15 a day ($76 adjusted for today's inflation) to participate in a two-week "prison simulation." Of the 70 respondents, Zimbardo and his team selected 24 whom they deemed to be the most psychologically stable and healthy. These participants were predominantly white, middle class young males. All were college undergraduates.
By a flip of a coin,PZ randomly assigned folks into one of two groups, prisoners and guards and sent them on there merry ways. A few hours later the Palo Alto PoPo rolled up and arrested the "prisoners" and took then to a mock jail set up in the basement of the school.
PZ gathered gaurds and gave them simple instructions. Essentially, do what it takes to keep the prisoners in line, take away their individuality, mess with their minds to create a sense of powerlessness, just don't be violent.
Now, here's where it gets interesting.
In order to make prisoners less like people and more like things, they were dressed in matching muu muus and reffered to by numbers. In order to make guards less individual (accountable) and authoritative, they were dressed in militant khaki's, given prick cop sunglasses and a beat down stick.
A few days into the experiment, PZ had no choice but to pull the plug, as rumors of a planned escaped hatched and hunger strikes and riots erupted among prisoners in protest of the gaurds actions which included...
Bathroom rights became privileges which could be, and frequently were, denied. Some prisoners were made to clean toilets using their bare hands. Mattresses were removed from the "bad" cell, and prisoners were forced to sleep on the concrete floor without clothing. Food was also frequently denied as a means of punishment. Prisoners endured forced nudity and even homosexual acts of humiliation.
Before the experiment, these were peers, probably even friends. In less that a week they were going all Abu. While it doesn't necessarily prove it, it does suggest that in some cases, given the right catalysts, nature can be trumped by nurture.
In other words, perceptions surrounding beliefs and expectations associated with roles can become reality, and cause one to lose sight of one's true self. This is especially relevant when signs of the individual are masked, identity is concealed, and people are less associated with their actions (rather their actions are associated with their roles).