The classic understanding of the origins of behavior is that it involves biological and environmental influences, which have been called "nature" and "nurture." However, we need a more refined understanding of behavioral development - one that includes ourselves as a factor in the mix of causes that help our behavior develop.

In the traditional view of understanding the causes of behavior, it is neither the sole outcome of biological factors such as our genes nor the sole outcome of environmental and learning factors such as our parents, schooling, and experience. Rather, behavior is considered the result of an interaction of genes and environment. For example, the development of intelligence depends on both the genetic influences on the brain and the environmental influences that affect learning in the child. Nature and nurture work together in behavior. Moreover, the science of epigenetics is showing just how complex things can get -- environmental factors can turn off genes, and the effects of this action can be transmitted over generations.

Although we have developed a better understanding of the determinants of behavior in this traditional view, we need to consider that all of us contribute to the development of our behavior beyond the influences of nature and nurture. For example, we have an innate curiosity, we have the will to understand the world, and we are active in dealing with the world. We have both a particular intelligence and specific personality, and they seek corners of the world to fit our individual needs. We have ways of coping that help us work on difficulties in our world. Therefore, behavior reflects not only nature and nurture but also our individual selves, for example, in leading our way in the world and in acting nobly in doing so.

One truism in this area of study is that biology predisposes but the environment disposes. Although biology predisposes and the environment disposes, the individual composes. We are the architects and bricklayers of the behavioral buildings that we construct out of nature and nurture. We are the leaders of the orchestra that composes our behavior and our pathway in the world.

However, leaders sometimes face great difficulties. For example, each of us might somehow be disadvantaged either in our nature or in our nurture. We might have some inherited difficulties or we might have had to face an abusive world from early in life. Nevertheless, any behavior can be changed for the better. We have a voice in the story that we compose about ourselves and that the world hears about us. We can author great chapters in the narrative of the story, no matter what our starting point. All of us are like heroes who have been given difficult lots; all of us have potential for great hopes, new habits, new pathways, and new positives.

The extent to which we lead ourselves and act nobly in our effort to get on the right path and to stay on it is ours to determine. Feeling good about ourselves is not caused by external factors alone but also by an internal mindset. The internal mindset that brings hope springs from wanting to lead ourselves to better options. For example, by forever striving to keep growing no matter what the circumstance, we could grow through the worst of anything that we have to face and emerge the better for it.

Life is never fair when we think that we are owed a simpler and easier way. Life is always fair when we think that we can make it better no matter where we find ourselves and if we try as hard as we can. Getting to where we aim to go depends not on the quality of the tools that we bring to the task but on the quality of the person that the task brings out in us.

In psychotherapy, all patients should be viewed as having more positive possibilities and the therapist should help them become noble leaders of themselves. When my patients reach a better point in their path, I might hold up a sign from the stands that indicates, "Building Your Behavior: Nature, Nurture, and Nobly." However, they might be too busy and cheerful succeeding in their daily lives to notice.

About the Author

Gerald Young, Ph.D.

Gerald Young, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at York University.

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