Why Do We Do What We Do?
Nature and nurture interact in complex ways to determine behavior.
Posted Oct 26, 2016
Why do we do what we do? Why are we the way we are? What makes us different from each other? These kinds of questions naturally intrigue us. Historically, they have been approached through one of two perspectives. First, the nature perspective suggests that human behavior is driven mostly by biology (evolution, genetics, brain chemistry, and hormones). In contrast, the nurture perspective suggests that behavior is driven mostly by the psychosocial environment (for example, how we were raised, our peers, the situations we are in at present).
Interestingly, almost everyone in our culture seems to believe that nurture is more powerful than nature. More than likely, this is because it is easier to observe the effects of nurture in our lives and because it feels more empowering to believe that nurture has more of an effect, perhaps because it seems more controllable.
The nurture assumption has many effects on our lives. For example, we often attribute adult problems to problems with early home life. Parents often take on much of the responsibility for how their kids turn out. Members of romantic relationships often assume that they will get their partner to change someday.
Given this, it may be surprising to learn how powerful nature actually is, as revealed through the best available science. For example, research from across the world has found that people who are adopted tend to be more similar to their biological relatives than their adoptive relatives. Similarly, identical twins raised apart in separate environments often are amazingly similar (and often show greater similarities than even the non-biological siblings they were raised with). Thus, there appear to be strong biological predispositions that act on our behavior. In fact, most scientists estimate that at least half of the explanation for why we are different from each other boils down to differences in genetic predispositions.
What this means to me personally is that there is a strand that runs through our lives that is stable. This strand may be developed, and it may be evoked differently in different situations, but it is there. For example, then, I imagine that you now bear much resemblance to the person you were when you were a young child. If you tried to explain this, you might say it’s because “my parents raised me this way,” or “some experience shaped me.” The research mentioned above suggests at least some of the stability we show across life is due to our biological predispositions. As a result, if we are to be happy with ourselves, we must accept ourselves for who we are. Maybe even more profoundly, if we are to be happy with others, we must accept who they are and give up our expectations for them to become a different kind of person.
A good example of the implications of this comes from research on the effects of couples counseling. Most couples counseling focuses on teaching partners to effectively communicate, solve problems, and compromise. However, when research examines the effects of this kind of intervention – for example comparing how much couples in distress divorce if they go through couples counseling vs. if they don’t – they find little positive effect. This has led some marriage researchers to rethink the old idea that good communication is all you need to make a relationship work out. Some researchers have suggested instead that acceptance of differences plays a bigger role than communication, and have experimented to see if this is the case. In this research, distressed couples are randomly assigned to participate in therapy helping them to accept (and even appreciate) differences, learn to communicate more effectively, or no treatment at all. Interestingly, the couples who go through the acceptance training have the best long-term outcomes. Perhaps the reason is that it is much easier to change one’s attitude toward someone than it is for the other person to change who they are, particularly if the desire to change comes more from one’s partner than one’s self. (Of course, this kind of treatment only makes sense if differences really are “acceptable;” the treatment doesn’t aim to condone things like cheating, abuse, or lying). (For more on relationships, see my post on “Love for a Lifetime.”)
On the other hand, there are powerful nurture forces that operate on all of us. Perhaps the most important of these is our culture. One of the reasons why culture most interests me is that culture is an often neglected factor in our perceptions. Unless we have spent significant time in a different location, we might never fully realize how different it is in different parts of the world. I spent Fall semester, 2009, teaching in a study abroad program in Scotland, for example. Just for fun, I identified 30 ways in which everyday life was different there, as compared with life in the United States. These differences appear below:
1. Restaurants typically do not supply water with meals, apparently because they believe people otherwise would drink too much water.
2. The public library has a meager supply of books, with many more non-fiction books than fiction books in the children’s area. This might be because they only have books published locally. There also seem to be a disproportionate number of books about kings, queens, and castles.
3. It is not traditionally British to use wash cloths.
4. All children through high school wear uniforms for school.
5. Children are welcome at pubs until about 8:00. (Pub actually stands for “public house.”)
6. People need to rent grocery carts (maybe to avoid thefts). A one pound coin will get you a cart and when you bring it back, you will get your coin back.
7. Tips are not expected at restaurants (waiters and waitresses are provided a living wage without tips).
8. Budget airlines do not provide seat reservations. It’s first come, first served.
9. Zip lines are at all the kids’ parks (there generally is much less anxiety about kids hurting themselves).
10. Older gentlemen seem to really like playing lawn bowling (which actually seems more similar to bocce ball).
11. Different words are emphasized such as “lovely,” “smashing,” “mad,” and “brilliant.” (My favorite example of this is when an Irish friend always called me “lovely,” which I thought was more appropriate when referring to a woman, but I guess not!)
12. Foods are similar, but taste different. Much of this seems to be due to less reliance on high-fructose corn syrup.
13. Most towns seem to have a store with fresh locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
14. People seem to live in small houses, with small yards, often with little or no grass.
15. Consignment stores abound, and most seem to donate their proceeds to a charity of their choice. (Our town, Dalkeith, which is about the size of Hastings, had at least five, such as U.K. cancer research.)
16. There are pubs that are anti-American, and some where fights are caused by someone coming in wearing certain football (soccer) team colors.
17. People dress up a lot to go out, even to the pubs. (Ties are common for men.)
18. There is a lack of American brands. (For example, there is no Tylenol.)
19. Boys and girls often are divided into separate groups (for school and other programs).
20. In-line water heaters are used (rather than bigger water heaters).
21. Toilets often have a half-flush or full-flush option (to save water).
22. People generally seem more formal and surprised when you say “hi” to them.
23. Sinks have separate “hot” and “cold” water faucets (rather than one). And, the “hot” water gets really hot!
24. Cereals have more grains and much less sugar.
25. Specialty stores abound and there is a lack of megastores with everything you’d ever need.
26. Incandescent light bulbs are banned.
27. When ordering at a pub, you must go to the bar to order and you pay before receiving food and drink. The waitress / waiter only comes to the table to bring the food.
28. Every Sunday morning in Edinburgh, they have a car boot (trunk) sale (similar to a garage sale, but in a car).
29. The ale is served at room temperature.
30. A visit to the local health centre involves no receptionist or health insurance, and seems much more efficient (including cost)!
One of the insights that comes from being in a different culture, or from studying culture, is that it helps us to realize how much we have been shaped by cultural forces. It is not correct to say that we are cultureless in the United States; in fact, we would be extremely different individuals if we had been raised in a different part of the world, just as we would be very different if we had been raised in a different religion, or with a different gender. (For more on culture, see my post on “Blending the Best of Different Cultures.")
And, yet, we would do well to question the idea that behavior is so culturally-determined that there are no universals across our species. When I lived in Scotland, for instance, I noticed many more similarities across cultures than differences. For example, I remember one time when I went to a pub and sat next to two young women, one of whom had a baby. I noticed that the baby started to fuss a bit, at which point the mom (I assume) put a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. This calmed the baby for a while, until he spit out the pacifier. This sequence repeated a couple of times, until the baby started to cry. The other woman then picked the baby up and spoke musically and bounced the baby up and down a bit while making exaggerated facial expressions. This calmed the baby down right away and within a minute or so, the baby was smiling.
Dare I say that this basic scenario is repeated countless times across the world. Babies, no matter where they are from, likely get fussy, then cry, but ultimately get calmed by pacifiers, touch, a musical voice, and exaggerated facial expressions. Perhaps behavior is more universal than many like to think. Although culture is a powerful force in shaping behavior, people seem to be people, no matter what their culture. Maybe the most important race is the human race.
Overall, then, nature and nurture cannot be separated; they are intertwined and depend on each other. In fact, if I were to offer a single maxim that summarizes everything that scientists have learned about the causes of behavior, I’d say that nature and nurture almost never influence behavior by themselves; rather, nature and nurture almost always interact to influence behavior in complex ways.
Andy Tix, Ph.D., also often blogs at his site The Quest for a Good Life. You can sign up to receive e-mail notifications of new posts at this site.