WHY ARE YOU YOU? WHO DO YOU BLAME WHEN YOU FAIL? OR PRAISE WHEN YOU DO WELL? GENES OR THE WAY YOU WERE RAISED? IS IT NATURE OR NURTURE? Most blame one or the other. Moreover, either way parents are faulted. Here’s the thing, if either our genes or the way we were raised determine who we are, don’t the same two things determine the way our parents are, so are all fault free? And here’s another question. Wouldn’t that mean we were all more or less alike? And yes, in many ways we are; but in many others the wonder of life is that we are all so different.
My favorite human development guru Jerome Kagan, retired Harvard professor, claims hundreds of different things make us who we are. He suggested eight that he thinks are particularly important.
First on his list is nature mainly genetic makeup. He focuses particularly on those genetic factors that determine our temperament. As there are eight factors that make up temperament, Kagan’s eight are automatically doubled. But they get more than doubled, for we all start with the pairing of our mothers 23 chromosomes with our father’s 26 chromosomes. Then one needs to think about mutations, random changes small and large that make us one way or another.
Moreover, things happen during the course of our lives that change our biology and the way our genes function. Poor nutrition dampens intelligence, so does trauma, so does not stimulating a child to learn. Deprive the body of an essential mineral or two and the body begins to fail. Head injuries turn one into a completely different person. Disease can do the same. So it is easy to see why Kagan thought there were hundreds of things that influenced who we become.
After genes he listed the following: birth order; who we identify with; how our parents treat us–what they valued us for and what values they taught us; whether we live in small towns, on a farm on in cities; our culture and ranking with in our culture; the historical events impacting on our youth. He ended his list with chance. How I loved him for that.
I think he failed to mention another major factor–the beliefs we hold. When I taught human development over the years I came to believe four things contributed to who we are.
- Our biology, both what we are born with and what changes our biology as we grow.
- Our experiences
- The beliefs we create from the first two
- The way we behave.
Sounds simple, but is very complicated for biology, experience, beliefs and behavior not only are ever-changing variables but influence and drive each other.and that in turn affects our behavior and biology. The influence and drive go all ways. Think eating habits.
- Biology says we must eat.
- Biology says we must eat certain things.
- Biology shapes what we like to eat.
- Biology determines how easy or hard it is for us to gain or let go of weight.
- Experiences with food include how our biology reacts to specific foods, the foods that are available and are seen as acceptable to eat, and how we are fed.
- Biology and experience create beliefs about food and what we should, should not eat as well as what we want to eat. Food is scare we eat dogs and cats; food is plentiful we make pets of dogs and cats. Moreover, other people’s ideas about beauty and strength create beliefs about self-worth. Mr Fat in a world that values skinny will have different beliefs than Mr Slim. Put both in a world that values Mr. Fat and sees Mr. Slim as weak and both will have different experiences.
- Beliefs guide behavior. Believing dogs and cats are food creates different ways of behaving than believing they are pets or as some have thought throughout the ages were one god or another. Beliefs about the health, bad health, or magical properties of some food determine what is eaten. Beliefs about how fat or how thin one should be for both health and vain reasons guide behavior.
- Behavior changes beliefs. Taught sugar is evil, but Aunt Katherine sneaks you a chocolate bar and you think it is just yummy, your belief will change. Eat lots of sugar and you change your biology and experiences as well as your beliefs.
So it is all very complicated. Further complications:
- Sometimes one force trumps all. A child born with half a brain, is more ruled by biology than by anything else. A person with a severe head injury is a changed person and not always in control. The same for people suffering multiple traumas. Allergies mean some people die of peanut poisoning. Get shut up in a closet for the first four years of your life and you will be very different from then if allowed to roam free in a village interacting with lots of caring people. Be sexually abused painfully and you will experience sex differently then those not abused. Live in a culture where everyone believes a woman’s sexuality is too powerful for men to use restraint and you have a very different beliefs about how to dress than someone raised to think women need to bare their breasts in order to be attract men
- Change is possible and also can comes via any of the four paths. Modern medicine has found drugs that sustain life, prevent and defeat all sorts of illnesses. Finding the right mate or mentor can undo the negative experiences of an abusive childhood. Become a success in a job or at school changes perceptions of self; failure in either does the same. The changing thought processes of adolescence can change beliefs and so can extreme experiences. Behavior can change belief, experiences, and biology.
- Change is possible. Moreover, the changes of biology change our experiences and our beliefs and our behavior. Star athletes cannot compete successfully past a certain age. Beliefs are hardest to change, particularly the older one gets; the Catholic Church and Freud agreed. As we develop we create beliefs about the world and how it is. Deviation from expected beliefs creates uncertainty which most people find uncomfortable. Once again, biology seems to play a part as some like risk taking, so does experience behavior.
So in the long run, you may think you know what made you the person you are. But you don’t. Nor do the scientists, your mate, your children, your parents. We want a simple explanation, but as one pundit said–Simple explanations are usually wrong.
Staying strong tips: Dealing with troublesome behavior that won’t go away, don’t rule limit your search for change to one avenue. one-way roads to change often pass by simpler more direct approaches. As my father used to say, “Find what floats your boat.”
Also instead of blaming yourself for troubles or blaming someone else think chance and luck and hope your bad luck will become good luck.
What % of who and what you are is determined by genetics vs your own choices? Is it 50/50 or more or less of one?
Or should there be three numbers: your genetics, how you were raised, and your own choices (33/33/33 or 10/40/50).
Share, care, and grow strong.