Nature vs. nurture series
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About this page
If you’re new to my blog, welcome! I hope you will find the articles interesting and in particular would be interested to check my thoughts on the age-old debate around the influence between nature and nurture on our personality, i.e. how we’re shaped as we turn from kids to adults. This page is designed to offer an overview on the topic and organize the articles in an easily accessible format.
If you have already read some of my articles, I hope you will still find this page useful in connecting some of the threads in those articles in a coherent view as I try to answer some key questions I believe are important to understand for anyone interested in the topic.
But before we do that, I want to first make an introduction!
The Nurture Assumption
Back in mid 2009 I decided to follow the advice of one of my favorite authors, Steven Pinker – of The Language Instinct fame, and check an author he warmly recommended as someone who has become an authority in personality development with her 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption — that author was Judith Rich Harris.
Given my interest in topics like evolution, psychology and theory of mind and my commitment as a parent to make sure my two daughters have a bright future, I hungrily started devouring Harris’s book — knowing very little what kind surprise was waiting in the wisdom emerging from all that research that Harris so devotedly have compiled in the book!
The book shattered my belief that I play a huge role in shaping my daughters’ personality. Harris have decidedly proven that the kids are not shaped by their parents but something else. The last blow came when Pinker himself said that “the biggest influence that parents have on their children is at the moment of conception”!
Now, I trust the scientific method and I am no hostage to ideology, so I had to concur with the evidence and accept the findings, no matter how bad I felt. However, the fact that Harris went further and tried to put forward a theory of how could the environment shape the kids’ personality made me think if there is any chance to benefit from having a theory that one could try to test! And this is what lead me to start writing articles on the topic.
Sun Tzu said “Know thy self, know thy enemy” and I decided to embrace that in my “thousand battles” with the “enemy” — the group socialization shaping my kids as I stand on the side and watch! Not being formally educated in anything even remotely close to subjects like evolution, behavioral genetics, psychology, personality development and similar, I couldn’t even hope in having a chance to actually test the theory, of course. Therefore, I could do the second best thing, which is this blog 😉
I see myself writing the articles listed at the end of this page as a way for me to better understand the theory, try to put together a model of how the theory could work, and ultimately, do something like a thought experiment to test the model. Whether this will help me personally as a parent is of course questionable and only time will tell — not to mention that life is more complex than any models we may use to understand it — but I still think that the experiment will be useful as a kind of a sounding board for me to reflect on parenting and the issues that come with it.
Without further ado, I’d like summarize the theory I am exploring in my nature vs. nurture articles by reusing some key aspects I already list in one of my articles, before listing the articles in order.
Kids are predisposed to certain behaviors and drawn towards selected interests by their genes – roughly 50% of similarities between siblings is due to genes according to the research, which can (very) approximately be translated as “genes contribute to around 50% of the personality traits of an individual”. This is a very rough approximation as the 50% number makes no sense at individual level, but is rather an average across a large number of people.
Kids come with innate mechanism that allows them to recognize, catalog and constantly update information about the people they meet, read about, etc. Relationships are central to human life and kids already at birth start to exercise this skill by imprinting on their mother’s face, voice, smell, etc. and later they master in using this skill with all people in their lives. Crucially, early on in their life they also build a sense of self and use the relationship system to understand how other see them — sort of like looking into the mirror, except in the human personality case there are many mirrors!
From the moment the self is discovered, two opposite forces influence the kids to turn them into the person they’ll eventually be — the first one is the force to conform to the norms and culturally accepted behavior of the group they belong to, driving their sense of identity; — the second is the force to find a niche for themselves so they can uniquely contribute to the group they belong to, but also out-compete the rest of the peers in their group in the constant race for social dominance, leadership, etc.
To make it easier to follow, I have separate the articles in few groups.
The first group discusses the motivation behind writing the articles:
- Nature vs. nurture – can nurture (in some shape) win? explains why I started writing about this topic
- Nature vs. nurture – digression discusses the importance of understanding the human personality and what shapes it
The second group is a set of articles that are trying to delve in detail into the theory initially proposed by Harris in The Nurture Assumption and later expanded in No Two Alike, along with my amateur attempt to cast a systemic view over our brain and propose a model how could it all work together:
- Nature vs. nurture – practice set provides a backdrop story that is used to explain the theory set forward by Harris
- Nature vs. nurture – set 1 deals with some myths around parental influence and sets the stage by introducing the systemic model for personality development
- Nature vs. nurture – set 2 describes the Relationship organ as a cornerstone on which the model is possible
- Nature vs. nurture – set 3 discusses the Social organ responsible for making the children identifying with a certain group more alike
- Nature vs. nurture – set 4 introduces the Status organ driving the process of differentiation that makes all individuals very different
- Nature vs. nurture – set 5 uses another story to bring the picture back together and enable the readers to understand the possible interaction between the three organs
The third group is concerned with the question what can parents do to try to make a difference and let nurture score few points after all?
- Can parents score few points for nurture? opens the question “could parents do something that have a lasting impact on their kids” and proposes three possible areas where this may turn out to be possible
- Could knowledge get parents back in the game of nature vs. nurture? discusses the first area – knowledge – explaining the type of knowledge that could and the one that will likely not have a lasting impact
- If you can’t win them … invite more! – Can parents soften the influence from the peer group? discusses the influence of the peer groups and how can different experiences shape or steer that influence in, if not predictable, then novel and interesting areas
- TBD – I intend to write more articles to explain what I mean by the third area of influence – love – and discuss a bit more how could they all together have any impact, if at all
Of course, you’re invited to check out my other articles in the General category 😉
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