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What Shapes Human Psychology More: Nature or Nurture?

nature or nurture

What’s a more important driver of human psychology? Nature or nurture?

I just finished these books about the nature vs nurture debate, both by psychologists and here’s I learned that are applicable to B2B digital marketing strategy.

Each book answered a different side of the question.

If we are born emotionally predisposed to different points of view, rather than shaped through early childhood experiences and environmental influence, it may be impossible to win hearts and minds with logical arguments alone.

If, in fact, political beliefs can be mapped to cognitive genetic factors, no mind is a blank slate that can be drawn to either side of an argument.

This point of view supports Dan Kahan’s ideas around cultural cognition and the view that in some strategic communications instances, the messenger is more important than they message.

Since being accepted and appreciated by your community is so important to most people, environmental factors influence human behavior because n one wants to be exiled by their tribe.

According to Haidt, genetic inheritance takes a back seat to genetic influence.

I’ll admit, before I read either book, I definitely leaned to the nurture side of the equation, which Thomas Jefferson coined best with his immortal declaration that “all men are created equal.”

But are they really?

I’m not referring to race or gender here. I’m talking about the psychological traits you’re born with.

After reading The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt — a brilliant study which draws on ancient wisdom from religion, philosophy and art to suggest that human emotions are genetically predisposed — I’m convinced behavioral genetics are just as, if not more, important than one’s upbringing.

Haidt’s position is in stark contrast to psychologist Alice Miller, who argues “emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood” is the key to self-fulfillment in her treatise The Drama of the Gifted Child, which argues real world experience is what shapes our outlooks.

As far as Miller is concerned, we learn to be happy by acknowledging and outgrowing our past.

Unfortunately, some marketing communications professionals take this to mean they ought to push their organization to acknowledge its shortcoming by bringing their unspoken problems out into the open so they can outgrow them, but that just tends to make people uncomfortable

But while it’s tough to deny that perspective entirely, Haidt says some brains are actually preconfigured for optimism, and others for cynicism, no matter what experiences might be encountered along the way.

Political beliefs only run in families to the extent that the tribe is wiling to tolerate a diversity of opinion. It shouldn’t be a nature or nurture debate, because both are equally important.

According to one of the many clinical studies profiled in his book, tendencies toward positive and negative outlooks are driven by different sides of the brain.

Babies with more brainwave activity coming from the left side of brain were less subject to depression than right brain dominant babies, who were more prone to feelings shame, fear and anxiety, regardless of experience.

“Lefties” were even quicker to recover from negative experiences as well.

So these behaviors are not merely the result of traumatic childhoods. They’re genetically ingrained in the cortical lottery, and you either win or lose at birth.

The stories we tell ourselves about why we see things positively or negatively are really just stories we make up to rationalize our genetic predispositions. 

Personal truth is confabulation. It is a result of a genetics.

Or as Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

Miller, on the other hand, says our political beliefs are learned in early childhood:

“Nationalism, racism and facism are in fact nothing other than idealogical guises of the flight from painful, unconscious memories of endured contempt onto dangerous, destructive disrespect for human life, glorified as a political program. The formerly hidden cruelty that was exercised upon the powerless child now becomes only too apparent in the violence of such ‘political’ groups. Its origins in childhood, in the total disregard of the former child, however, not only by the members of these groups but by society as a whole.”

According to Haidt, Neitzsche was wrong. That which does not kill us doesn’t always makes us stronger.

Too much trauma leads to PTSD, which harms the psyche. Some degree of trauma is, in fact, critical to human development.

“The person who has had more experience of hardships can stand more firmly in the face of problems than the person who has never experienced suffering. From this angle, then, some suffering can be a good lesson for life,” says the Dalai Lama.

What does it all mean for marketing communications professionals?

It means that when people feel passionately about something, you can’t always just change their minds with a message or a rational argument.

You can’t win an emotional argument with intellect, particularly if it a matter of genetics.

Al Gore should be talking to military commanders, agribusiness owners and religious clergy about climate change, not liberals, because conservatives aren’t going to listen to anyone outside their tribe.

Haidt says happiness comes from within, without and in between.

Miller says happiness comes from honestly acknowledging your feelings, without self-deception. Both perspectives are inspiring and eye opening.

I highly recommend both these books that explore the nature or nurture debate.

They are useful to anyone open to exploring why we act the way they do, particularly when those actions are irrational.

Marketing communications professionals who are communicating politically polarized environment can benefit tremendously from understanding these concepts.

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