Sep 09 2019

Born That Way

If someone is a bad person based on their behavior, are they more likely to have been born that way, or the result of environmental factors? Does it matter to how you would treat them, or how they should ethically be treated? If someone is a very good person, is their behavior the result of nature vs nurture? The actual answer to this age-old nature vs nurture debate is – it’s complicated. Both factors play a role in a complex interaction that differs for different people. It’s likely that true psychopaths were born that way, lacking an empathy circuit that most typical people possess in their brains. But of course there are also cultural norms that have a profound effect on our behavior.

Psychologists have been asking a slightly different question – not what the answer objectively is, but what do people assume that it is, and how does that affect their behavior toward other people. The assumption or belief that behavior is due primarily to instrinsic factors is called essentialism. A recent study looked at both children and adults and how they thought about characters with both morally good and morally bad behavior. Prior research suggests that in general we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to essential factors. People don’t just do good vs bad things, they are good vs bad.

This is part of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute our own behavior to external factors and other people’s behavior to internal factors. I am the victim of circumstances beyond my control, but that other person (perhaps acting in an identical way) is just a bad person.

The new study adds some further nuance to this effect. They found that study participants (both children and adults) were more likely to attribute good moral behavior to essentialist causes than bad moral behavior. So if someone does good things, it’s because they are a good person. If they do bad things, it’s because of their bad environment. This is an interesting result, and suggest several questions to me. First, how universal is this? Is that result itself a product of learned behavior, a product of our time and culture? Would the result have been different in the 1950s in the US, and would it be different in other countries? I would also be interested in seeing how the results differ based on ideology.

This it totally meta, but in other words, is the tendency to think that good behavior is innate itself an innate human trait, or is it learned? There does appear to be a trend in our culture to view as enlightened beliefs that bad and criminal behavior are largely due to societal factors, and not fully the fault of the person. This further creates the possibility that some people may have answered questions this way in the study because they felt it was the “correct” answer (meaning politically correct).

There is also an element of racism lurking in the background of this study. Inherent to many racist beliefs is the notion that members of the other despised race are inherently inferior or morally corrupt. They are “savage” or “animals,” and may even lack the capacity for sophisticated moral behavior. Racism itself is essentialist to the core. Therefore a backlash against racism is likely to include a backlash against essentialism, especially for negative attributes.

Another way to interpret the results of this study is that we want to think that people are inherently good, partly because we want to think that we are essentially good. Bad behavior, however, is a reaction to the environment. So perhaps we may be extending the fundamental attribution error to our own species – humans (like me) are inherently good but can be made to do bad things. And again it’s always hard to separate in these studies if the subject really feel that way, or just think that is the socially acceptable answer. Even children (and perhaps especially children) will give the answer they think the adults want to hear.

The second component of the study is also interesting. They challenged the subjects to see how much of their own resources they would be willing to share with the morally good or morally bad characters they were told about. The children were asked to share their stickers, while the adults were asked to share lottery tickets. The adults were more likely to share their things with people they thought were bad due to external factors, and therefore contained the potential to become good. They did not want to share resources with people who were innately bad, implying less of a potential to change. Interestingly, for the children there was no difference.

Again, there are multiple ways to interpret this (confounding factors are always tricky with these types of studies). Perhaps children lack the capacity to suppress innate human greed, and so regardless of their moral reasoning, they wanted more of the stickers for themselves. Perhaps, again, they did what they thought the adults wanted, trumping whatever moral calculus they were doing. Meanwhile the adults were less constrained by these factors, and so were more free to behave based on their assumptions about essentialism and potential to change.  It’s also possible that treating innately bad people worse is a learned behavior in adults not yet acquired by the children.

In any case, the study does suggest that we make perhaps unconscious assumptions about the ultimate source of other people’s behavior, and this in turn affects how we treat them. There is now a large body of psychological research showing that humans (and some other animals tested) have an inherent sense of justice, and that this calculus might be largely subconscious. This may be part of it. And again I can think of at least two ways to interpret these results, which are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the subjects felt that if someone was able to change, they deserved the opportunity for redemption. It was worth investing in someone who had the potential to be a better person. Meanwhile, someone who is inherently bad is not worth the investment.

Also, we may assign blame differently depending on our essentialist assumptions. This study suggests that in some way we blame people more for their inherent qualities than learned qualities. This, however, is morally backwards. We have zero responsibility for the qualities with which we were born. One might also argue we lack responsibility for our environment. But at least with a learned behavior there is the potential for someone to take responsibility for their environment and behavior, and to make an effort to alter their behavior. This leads down the rabbit hole of the entire free will debate, which I don’t want to get into. Let’s just say there may be no ultimate difference between inherent and learned behavior in terms of the responsibility of the individual, but functionally we have to hold people responsible for their behavior, regardless of the origin.

But it’s interesting that there is a difference in the subconscious moral calculus that adults make (at least in this study) between innate and learned bad behavior.

Clearly there is a lot of room for further research. For now I think the lesson for critical thinkers is to simply be aware that this is a dimension of our own moral reasoning, and that we should not necessarily go along with our subconscious feelings in this regard. Further, I think the whole thing (in most circumstances) is a false dichotomy. For most people their bad behavior will be a complex interaction between their inherent proclivities and environmental and circumstantial factors. We should always strive to give people some benefit of the doubt, consider the external factors, and not jump to conclusions about the essential nature of others. Further, taking a nurturting approach is always a good default.

If nothing else recognize that other people are probably no more inherently good or bad than you. Interpret their actions the way you would want your actions to be interpreted. I would be suspicious of essentialist assumptions, but recognize that there are probably exceptions to this as well.


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