A police office in clown makeup is shown.

Human Nature

The assignment for today is to write something that is not true about human nature.

While it’s not impossible, the assignment may take a moment’s thought. Whatever human nature is, it’s full of contradictions, varying with one’s heredity and with the situations we face. The term is irreplaceable, but it’s slippery and treacherous. It’s worth a look.

Human nature is behavior that is shared by all of us and by no one who is not human. We have ways to make such an impossible standard useful. For example, humans are eusocial. So are ants, but we avoid attributing human nature to ants by positing exceptions like convergent evolution. And there are certainly people who avoid others, but we can explain them away as abnormal, exhibiting shyness or antisocial behavior.

Even among those we agree are purely human, there are individual differences. As children develop socially, we see that some are more sensitive than others; they are orchids compared to tougher dandelions. Testing reveals that most kids are at neither extreme, so a third type was invented: tulips.

Orchids, tulips and dandelions define a trait dimension in psychology rather than types. Think of an axis on which we all vary, from easily stressed people to very resilient people. At the easily-stressed end are the orchids and at the resilient end are the dandelions.

However, we really do not fall into fixed types. Someone who functions as a dandelion in war may be terrified of hypodermic injections. A shy mother orchid may fight off a vicious dog to save her child. If you remember the old story about the scorpion and the frog, you won’t deny that we have to take situations into account.

Situations have their limits, too. The dominant model of personality posits five factors or dimensions (test yourself here), so each of us inhabits some point in a five-dimensional space of personality variations.

This is preferable to classifying people into types. Types are either-or, like signs of the zodiac: Pisces, Aquarius, and Libra. All Libras are supposed to share similar characteristics. The only way to explain why one Libra is different from another is to resort to the trick used in the Asian zodiac with their metal years and water years within a sign like Year of the Rabbit for 2011. Making types within types is an endless game.

This distinction between traits and types is one that crops up often. For example, psychologists and psychiatrists debate the existence of an “addictive personality”, which characterizes someone who will develop compulsive use of another reward if the preferred one is not available. The danger lies in interpreting a type as an inner nature that generally doesn’t exist.

There’s a widespread tendency to attribute the way people behave to their inner qualities, which is the “fundamental attribution error“. It’s also an example of essentialism. Essentialism, the belief that people have an inner nature that drives them to do what they do, is what underlies some criminal profiling and stereotyping by race or sexual orientation. It’s a sin that my colleagues in the profession have sometimes committed, so I rant about it. Looking for the inner qualities that make a person immune to drugs or destined for success is a snipe hunt, a mug’s game.

Traits like depression and mania or compulsiveness and risk-taking are not black-and-white features of behavior, either present or absent, but more-or-less characteristics of behavior that vary in severity.

Normality does not establish boundaries between peaks and valleys the way that diagnoses do. Normality is a range of variation in a population that can change, and our attitudes change with it. What’s more, people differ in their views at any moment.

Doctors need to agree on what is pathological and needs treatment. They invent artificial categories for diagnosis. Among other results, such diagnoses determine whether insurance companies will pay for treatment. Psychologists have applied statistics to set limits on what is pathological and what is not, but this is to establish consensus and clean up confusion rather than to reveal natural boundaries–the borders of disorders.

Kids playing in the snow are shown.

BIO: Human nature reflects the outcomes of biological evolution and of cultural evolution and their interaction. It is not “nature” as opposed to “nurture”. It’s always both.

The fight-or-flight response a revealing example. Someone who was exposed to frequent threats for a long time will react quite differently from someone in a less stressful environment–right down to their body’s cells.

When we wonder why we are different from each other, genes are half the answer. The other half is experience, or “nurture”. And while the genes that increase reproductive fitness (more kids) in a specific environment will spread through the population, that’s a generalization. In some cases we’ll trade off reproductive fitness for individual survival, as in wartime.

Nature and nurture work together. As this site shows, we progress from an inborn brain architecture to innovative modifications of the circuitry. Brain development is not programmed entirely by genes but interacts with the environment beginning in the embryo. This is the nature-nurture interaction.

When a trait results from the combination of heredity and the environment, the interaction is not additive in a simple way. That is, the development of the trait is not guided by genes and environment in a sequence, like following traffic signs.

Rather, the trait resembles a baked cake, in which we can no longer separate the influences of the eggs (genes) and the flour (environment). Sometimes it’s not worth the trouble of pulling them apart.

Interactions can be intriguing, though students studying the analysis of variance in grad school find cruder adjectives. The interaction of genes with the environment begins at birth and continues through life.

The simple view that every acorn will grow into an oak instead of a pine accounts for a public fascination with ancestry. We all know we inherited half of each parent’s genes. Yet there is no one-to-one relationship between genes and behavior.

As a result, evolutionary psychologists offer hypotheses about groups rather than individuals. Evolution, too, acts on populations, not individuals. It simply can’t occur in one individual in single generation. It’s a change in the distribution of genes in a population.

So, first, genes are not destiny. Experience can alter the influence of our genes and how they express themselves. Or when we read that the heritability of some trait like intelligence is high, we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that our own IQ is an unalterable trait.

Second, we shouldn’t apply group generalizations to ourselves without a lot of thought. Some folks try to predict behavior from genetically-influenced traits and claim to do it fairly well: criminal profilers, for example; divorce researchers; even physicists who study mobility. Even if their claims hold up, we should avoid applying their conclusions to our own behavior because of the ecological fallacy, which is the belief that group statistics can predict individual behavior.

However, if human nature is thought of as an inner essence, it doesn’t exist. We’re free to think of human nature as a set of statistical averages, but perish the thought that there is a human nature that is disconnected from animal nature. We are part of the animal kingdom.

Biological evolution, of course, is a necessary account but not the whole story. Biologically we have yet to prove our superiority over bacteria, springtails, and horseshoe crabs. Culturally we are inimitable, though that is not the same for our species as immortal.

PSYCHO: Aside from biology, people may believe in human nature as the inner essence of a person.

There is no permanent human nature, though the belief, essentialism, goes back centuries. Like many ancient beliefs, we are better off thinking of them as metaphors.

We are fortunate in psychology for an effort not to “essentialize” psychological disorders the way we do with physical disorders.

We see it today in the prices of celebrity memorabilia and accepting organ transplants or other people’s clothing and the belief that different sexes and races are not humans in the same sense of the word.

I imagine that personality types and learning styles have an appeal because they simplify variation. In many ways we vary continuously, yet we all have to make a lot of yes-no decisions about ourselves and other people.

Types, such as those the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory indulges in, are either-or categories. I don’t favor them when they lock people into fixed boxes that ignore variation among all the people who exhibit the type.

Often it’s better to identify traits on which people occupy different positions. Traits are dimensions of behavior, ways in which behavior may vary in stable ways. They are how the five-factor theory of personality locates people within a multidimensional space of characteristics on which we all vary. Each person shows a profile of positions on the different traits. The MBTI types–INTJ, etc.–aren’t profiles because you aren’t informed how strongly or weakly each person displayed each factor.

Types can be appropriate for sex differences or the distinction between living and dead. But we all know that people vary a lot more in gender–masculinity vs. femininity–than in sex–male vs. female–and even in gradations of being alive.

(Incidentally, much the same happens when we take a scientific look at any attempt to draw boundaries around types of people with different skin colors.  There’s really a “Human Spectrum”.  (Click on “Human Variation”, then on “The Human Spectrum”.) 

Furthermore, most psychologists have rejected the notion of learning styles. We may feel like we learn better through one sense than another, but the widespread concept of learning styles is more an industry than a science. Learning styles have been labeled a myth, one that’s unlikely to be validated. For the research you can try here and there.

Meanwhile, ideas that used to be on the back burner have started to boil–particularly cognotypes, or the hypothesis that we differ in how we think. Are there three of them? Four? Dozens?

Next up: praxotypes and who knows what comes after that. We like to put people in “type” categories. This is not harmful if we view the labels as temporary changes in appearance, like calloused hands or a new hairstyle.

Even the study of intelligence started with boxes–like idiot, imbecile, and moron–that were supposed to correspond to types of people, to each person’s inner nature, which is a conviction that is still around in less virulent form. This is essentialism.

British psychologist Bruce Hood has offered the interesting insight that modern psychodiagnosis may be making the problem of essentialism worse again!

SOCIAL: We are not born as blank slates, of course. Babies show social propensities at birth. But this is also not to say that genes are a blueprint or that their evolution was a climb from primordial depths.

Human nature does not lie at the top of a hierarchy. Evolution branches and branches again to produce new species, but there is no topmost branch, only a dazzling variety. So we can learn about ourselves from our evolutionary relatives, such as the chimps and the bonobos.

As humorist Robert Benchley once wrote, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.” (His humor, like that of James Thurber and Stephen Leacock, remains worth reading when you have exhausted Twain.)

Those two kinds of people resemble the chimps and the bonobos. When we meet strangers, we tend to fight them or get excited by them–defend our precious bodily fluids or start new families. Both kinds are biologically important.

With the past century’s increased travel and social contact, we are letting our defenses down and sleeping with the enemy, so to speak.

This seems to limit the fear of strangers, but the bonobo strategy didn’t work out so well for the indigenous Americans  (or even the strangers, truth be told).

The chimp motto seems to be “better safe than sorry“. Their human counterparts are not just folks who are rarely exposed to strangers but others who merely watched the fear in others or got pregnant!

We all have a long history of identifying with social in-groups, and we can form in-group loyalty as quick as a wink. (Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment is a classic and worth committing to memory.)

The chimp strategy is part of a behavioral immune system (also here) that protects us from foreign invaders. Our immune systems are a defense against germs. We extend the feeling of protection through xenophobia and prejudice when we build walls against “them”.

We feel safe among “us” because we share our immunities starting before birth, for one thing, although some victims of misunderstood body signals can’t even trust their immune systems.

Nowadays xenophobia appears to be a losing strategy. There are ways to overcome it, including education.

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