Nature vs. nurture – can nurture (in some shape) win?
When I decided to start a blog about a week ago (if I don’t count the 2-3 years since I first entertained the idea), I had only very vague concept what I really wanted to blog about. Yesterday it struck me that one area of my interests has been really sticking out and many thoughts have troubled my brain around it. Some people call it theory of mind, i.e. the ability to understand (or at least make assumptions) what the other person is thinking about something else. It is likely not a unique human behavior and other species probably have some capacity for that, but it surely flourished in us humans.
One particular aspect that have definitely gone through the roof, likely in some sort of evolutionary arms race is our application of the capacity to “understand” what the other person is thinking about us! I intentionally put “understand” in double quotes as often our ability mis-fires and we make wrong assumptions about what others think about us, but after all, evolution is blind and the selection mechanisms don’t care if the selected trait which is beneficial in the environment where it appeared will apply in a different environment — like ours today, where we have more complex relationships and with lot more people than our hunter-gatherer ancestors did long ago. We all know what our sweet tooth does to us in the current world of sugar-based products on every corner 😦
Not only we’re obsessed about others’ opinion of us, we’re also obsessed (as Dennett says in Breaking the Spell) “with our personal relations with them: worrying about our reputations, our unfulfilled promises and obligations, and reviewing our affections and loyalties. Unlike other species, which have to worry all the time about lurking predators and dwindling food sources, we human beings have largely traded in these pressing concerns for others.”
At this point you may be asking what does this have to do with the post title? Am I going to come up with a theory how our obsession with relationships came about? Or maybe preach about how evolution shaped us?!
First, I mention this as a little interlude in what I want to discuss, and that is how our personality is shaped — not in evolutionary time, but rather a human lifetime! In my opinion, the relationship focus the evolution endowed us with plays a very important role in that.
Second, I will not be concerned in my writing how the relationship focus came about, but I will accept it as simply being part of our mind, i.e. a brain organ consisting of one or many modules concerned with filing information about other people and running thoughts about them — let’s call this organ a relationship organ, after the example from Harris (she uses relationship system, but I prefer organ) in No Two Alike, one of the two books that triggered much of what I plan to write about in the next posts.
Finally, now that I mentioned Harris and her books, her book The Nurture Assumption set me on a path to understand why we are who we are and with No Two Alike provided a theory that provides an interesting opportunity to shape who our kids are — something many good-intentioned child psychologists and parental advice-givers have failed to do so far!
I know the above makes me sound like someone who wants to social-engineer his kids, or worse, others’ kids! For goodness sake, we already had one experiment of this kind, it was initiated by Marx and it was called communism — he believed that people’s personality can be shaped through social changes, but didn’t account for the genes, among other things! Or am I maybe trying to revive the behaviorist ideas of Watson and Skinner who believed they can shape one’s personality by conditioning them with the right system of rewards and punishment like Pavlov did to his dogs?
Well, first, I have no ability to conduct experiments, so writing a blog is as far as I can go 😉 More importantly, though, I’d like to discuss some thoughts I have around how our experiences shape our kids (and the relationship organ plays one of the starring roles in that).
If Harris is right that it is the noise that gets amplified and impacts the person’s personality, my goal is to contemplate what can we do so that some characteristics leading to successful life can be given a boost and others leading to misery, personal problems and similar can be damped down.
If Harris is right, the noise does not lead to random characteristics and there is some system that filters it and applies feedback loops to choose what will have a long-term impact and what not. Knowing that, we could maybe impact the outcome if we take the right approach, and as Harris has shown in The Nurture Assumption we won’t impact it by teaching the parents how to raise their kids.
I will leave this post at that, and elaborate my ideas slowly in consecutive posts. I will likely still add posts on various other topics, but I plan to keep a general course around the topic of personality development!
Stay tuned to figure out if I’m yet another ideological person who is blind-sighted by his fate in the topic he’s defending, or maybe a self-help type advice-giver who thinks is the smartest person on the planet, or simply someone who has some thoughts that sound interesting and worth further exploring! 😉