What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Nature vs nurture: the debate rages on

Where does evil come from?

Recently, there has been more research on the brain indicating that psychopathy (more commonly known as sociopathy) may be biologically based. This means that while it may be true that some people who are incapable of experiencing empathy towards others have had abusive or traumatic childhoods, these experiences don't cause their condition. Indeed, there are people in our society who would qualify as psychopathic who have had childhoods no different than most (and no different from their siblings, who turned out differently).

This is likely to surprise most people; we live in a society where we like to believe that all children are born good (or at least neutral) and it is entirely in the hands of the parent how that child turns out. Until recently, for example, Autism was believed to be caused by a cold, unloving mother. Now that we know it isn't the fault of the parent, there are many who want to believe it is caused by environmental factors such as a vaccination. It remains difficult to stomach the idea that kids are sometimes born with biological factors that cause them to turn out a certain way.

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Why is this difficult to accept? Perhaps believing it is the fault of the parent (or environment) gives us a feeling of control and satisfies the need to blame someone. When an individual commits a terrible crime it may be psychologically easier to think "he must have had terrible parents!" than it is to think that at any moment a child could be born who grows up to commit such a crime, regardless of the parents. This is also true of children who never develop good social skills, are toxic in some way, or who suffer from mental illness.

This is not in any way an attempt to let parents off the hook. It is well established that parenting for most kids is a crucial aspect of their development, especially in regards to how they develop the ability to form relationships with others later in life. But it is also true that we may have less control over our children in many more ways than we would like. In 2000, Dr. Nancy Segal released a study that contends that studies of twins, raised together or apart, demonstrate that genetic influence affects virtually every human characteristic, including IQ, personality, longevity, sociability, job preference and satisfaction, mathematical skills and athletic prowess.

The question of nature versus nurture will likely never be fully answered. But it may be time for us to accept that sometimes it is nurture, sometimes it is a combination of both nature and nurture, and other times it just is the way things are going to turn out, no matter what we do.

 


Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

 

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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