• Scott

"For some people, this world ain't never gonna be right."

In the fantastic western biopic "Wyatt Earp," Wyatts best friend Doc Holiday approaches him after his girlfriend Mattie has attempted suicide. His approach to advice giving is the sort that I tend to give to my clients--especially the male ones. A big dose of painful truth with a smattering of my opinion infused.

Man I wish I was alive back then. Regardless, Holidays observation about people for whom "this world ain't never gonna be right" is the topic of this post. I am, of course, talking about the diathesis-stress model!

Ah, psych humor. The diathesis-stress model is a fancy way of saying "the debate between nature and nurture is stupid because it presents a dichotomy where there is none, and we should continue to research the impact that both biology and the environment have on human behavior."

Yet, I can think of no topic in the arena of explaining human behavior that gets people so riled up! There are people lined up to fall on their sword for one extreme on this spectrum or the other. They believe it is either ALL biological (usually they mean genetic) or ALL conditioned. So lets start there, shall we?

I think the most obvious reason people want to believe that environmental factors are the only relevant ones in how one turns out has to do with ideology. Everyone has a worldview, and this is true whether or not they can articulate it coherently. In the west, the dominant view of the individual is one shaped by the Christianity of the last 500 years. Even if you are not a Christian, if you have grown up in a western country in the last five centuries, the idea of biological determinism of any level is anathema. This idea that you have, cognitively, all the tools you need to become what you want, accomplish whatever goals you set for yourself, change for the better or worse, is the dominant mental framework of most of us. And that's just the secularized version of it. For the faithful, freewill at the individual level is absolutely required in order to make sense of what it means to repent, be "saved" and all that. Not to mention the racial/ethnic/eugenics angle. In recent history, Slavery, eugenics, and the holocaust have all accelerated this postulate and made everyone 100 percent assured in the belief that individual choices are only shaped by their environment. The Nazi who rounded up Jews in cattle cars and the KKK member who lynched the black guy were products of racism, taught to them by the adults around them, reinforced by other environmental factors and if only the cycle could have been caught early, the entire thing could have been avoided. This worldview is understandable in context. I get it.

The belief in the other extreme of this spectrum is a little more difficult for me to grasp. It would be easy for to me to attribute it to a set of Spock-like, purely rational, probably atheistic survival of the fittest mentality types. It could also be "racism" or "bigotry." The most vocal proponents of this understanding tend be very concerned about things like ethnic nationalism and preserving the cultures, traditions, and institutions that have passed through and survived via tight knit ethnically homogeneous groups. I relate to this as well, since as a "white" American I am constantly receiving the message that having pride in my particular ethnicity (a combination of Serb-Scot-Irish) is "racist." The double standard (because every other group of non-white ethnicity is encouraged to celebrate, be proud of and make sweeping generalizations in favor of their group) is distressing to say the least.

But what does the literature say? What does the state of the art understanding of this conundrum tell us? It tells us what should be intuitive to just about everyone, but clouded by a priori beliefs they find it difficult to engage with. Biology (including the field of genetics) can tell us quite a bit about behavior. In particular, it reveals quite a bit about predispositions to certain mindsets. I call this being an "anxiety flavored" person or a "depression flavored" person, when I talk to my clients about it.

So much of our biology primes us for certain behaviors. Those behaviors become patterns. Those patterns become our personality--the "who we are." Those biological predispositions come primarily from our sex and our genetic makeup. They immediately interact with the environment and over many years of experiences you eventually become--you.

If you don't think biology has anything to do with your behavior, try this non-threatening, non racial, non-offensive example. Lets say you have a nightmare. In that nightmare, your wife is cheating on you. You wake up, in a really bad mood, suspicious, hurt, angry. You look over at her sleeping and realize instantly that it was just a dream. Does all the crappy feeling just vanish? According to strict cognitive-behavioral models, it should. You can now rationally move on knowing it was just a dream. But you are in that mood, that funk, sometimes for hours after, while your biology catches up with your cognitions. Several axes in your brain are resetting the levels of mood altering hormones, causing your neurotransmitters to fire on the nodes that allow you to reach a homeostasis or euthymia.

Now, do you think some people have more trouble with that process than others? Of course they do. You know why? The are predisposed by the mapping that genes provided before they were born.

Is it possible that some of those differences may have aggregated over time within certain populations that evolved in isolation from each other over tens of thousands of years resulting in what we call races and ethnicities? Why do people use certain dog breeds for certain types of work? The temperament of a Labrador Retriever is perfectly suited for fetching ducks out of the water. But the "hard mouth" of an Austrailian Cattle Dog would make him miserable at this activity. Does recognizing this mean one "hates" one breed and not the other? Why is it so hard to believe that this same thing exists in people? Are humans somehow exempt from this basic concept in the genetic explanation of variance in behavior?

Might it also be possible that men and women, with their wildly different ratios of hormones like estrogen, testosterone, oxytocin, may be predisposed to different mindsets and commensurate behaviors? Again, does this aggregate into observable difference in choice patterns (like professions, or the internal processes by which we choose mates)?

But what about all those behavioral experiments in conditioning we all read about in psych 101 back in college? Those experiments conducted by Pavlov, Watson and Skinner were fantastic. I still find that stuff fascinating and I am a PhD! It is super cool to know that a complex organism can be trained (conditioned) to respond to certain stimuli like that. But, like all "isms" behaviorism went off the rails when Skinner started subjecting children to bizarre, torturous experiments trying to prove his theory that he could "take any baby and turn them into Hitler or Mother Theresa" with the correct information, training and environmental manipulation. Does anyone with more than one kid really believe that?

"For some people, this world ain't never gonna be right." I meet these people all the time. Straddled with a genetic load for mental illness, then thrust into an environment created by their parents, their socioeconomic status, their friendships, and everything else, they turned out being the type of person who just plainly sucks at life. They seem to be incapable of making better choices, leading to different outcomes. No amount of therapeutic intervention, psychiatric medications, incarceration, consequences, or what have you ever seems to sink in. They are suicidal, miserable, angry, anxious, depressed, etc.

Their humanity is not in question. God loves them, I love them and you should love them too. You should hold them accountable to the same standards of behavior that you hold yourself, and never choose a stance of feeling sorry for them or being overly condescending. Don't be too proud of yourself, because much of what you have in the way of coping style was given to you by your parents as a genetic inheritance that you had nothing to do with.

On the genetic question, psychologist Donald Hebb was once asked “which–nature or nurture contributes more to personality?” To which he replied “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?” This is still the basic conundrum. It's not "which one" but rather, "how much, and in what complex ways do they interact?" Or to use scientific terms, "how much of the variance is explained by each?"

The "you" that everyone knows and loves is a magnificent amalgam of genetic predispositions, your sex, and the environment you developed in. Recognizing this is not "hate." It is not scary. It doesn't mean you want anyone to go to a gas chamber or a gulag. But understanding that your parents, your parents parents all the way to the larger ethnicity or race you are member of probably had a pretty significant impact on your behavior can give you so much enjoyment and fulfillment. You shouldn't pretend like its nothing--justto prove how enlightened you are.

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