Nature or Nurture? Alice Miller and Jonathan Haidt on Ingrained and Learned Behavior

It’s an age old question.

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

I just finished these books about nurture and nature, both by psychologists. They were so riveting I wrote this to crystallize what I learned.

Each book answered a different side of the question…

Are we born emotionally predisposed to different points of view or is our development more a result of our experiences?

Can political beliefs be mapped to cognitive genetics, or is every human being a blank slate that can be drawn to either side of the spectrum, depending on their exposure?

I’ll admit, before I read either book, I 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 brain 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 nature is just as, if not more, important than one’s upbringing.

Haidt’s position lies in stark contrast to renown 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 is all about how real world experiences shape our outlooks.  As far as Miller was concerned, we learn to be happy by acknowledging and outgrowing our past.

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

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.

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

Miller, on the other hand, says political beliefs are learned in 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 marketers? It means that when people feel passionately about something, you can’t change their minds with a message or a rational argument. You can’t win an emotional argument with intellect.

It means the messenger is more important than the message, and that Al Gore should be talking to military commanders, business owners and religious clergy about climate change, not liberals, because they’re the only ones with a chance of getting heard by conservatives.

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