Why Do We Do What We Do?

What drives us to do what we do? There are several novels written on this subject alone, with hope that one day I can contribute to as well. We have to look at Nature Versus Nurture in the relational model to understand our actions in the present moment. Why do we do things for reasons we don’t understand? This is the very subject that Sigmund Freud studied through psychoanalysis. He and other trailblazers in the therapeutic realm used this understanding of the subconscious to analyze people’s current actions.

“With increased awareness comes an increased chance for change.”

Genetic Empiricism or Environmentalism

Is it nature or nurture that governs our actions?
Is it nature or nurture that governs our actions?

Nurture’s Effect On Behavior

It is impossible to remember everything from our past. The brain cannot comprehend and recall the various and cumulative years of environmental stimulus, reinforcement, and punishment that have all shaped the way we currently behave. This mode of thought is the behaviorist perspective on human behavior. Philosophers such as John Locke followed this exact paradigm. They believed that people were born with a tabula rasa, or blank slate. This is the theory that people’s identities (values, personalities, behaviors, thoughts, emotions) are all formed during the course of their lives. The philosophers did not understand that there were any underlying forces that directed our behavior. This is most likely because the theory of evolution had not taken precedence yet within the field of psychology.

John Locke and other behaviorists see humans as simple stimulus responders. For example, the reason that we eat because it releases the dopamine chemicals which makes us feel good (via Positive Reinforcement). You go to work to not be poor (Avoidance of Negative Punishment). You workout because it makes you feel good and keeps you from getting fat (Positive Reinforcement & Avoidance of Negative Punishment). In this viewpoint, any behavior is seen as a result from either reinforcement or a lack of punishment (namely, fear).

There is actually merit in this school of thought. In my career, I have seen the wonders of using Applied Behavior Analysis (also known as ABA Therapy) in working with children that struggle with Autism. Through this technique, there was notable decrease in their negative behaviors and increase in their socioemotional development which Children with Autism are deficient. Yet, I still have an issue in believing that the thousands of years of reinforced behavior did not get ingrained into our genetic code.

Nature’s Effect

On the other side of the coin is what evolutionary psychologists believe. The first pioneer in the field of Evolutionary Psychology was Charles Darwin. Evolutionary Psychologists believe that our motives and drives in life are all visceral, or at least our behavior can be explained through secondary causes. I’ll explain this side of the debate with what I know best (via our Attraction Tactics!)

Why are heterosexual men attracted to women with wide hips, symmetrical faces, and large breasts? Why do heterosexual women prefer men that are taller, more muscular, and have a high social status? Has society shaped those cues, or is there a deeper, hidden reason that can be explained through evolutionary selection. Evolutionary psychologists believe that men prefer larger breasts and a 0.7 waist to hip ratio due to the fact that is a reliable cue that the woman is healthy and capable of bearing children. Likewise, women might just prefer that men are tall, and that muscles are sexy because it is an evolutionary cue to them that the man can be a protector.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking – When you see a woman with a J-Lo booty:

Is this a sexually attractive waist and hips ratio
Is this attractive to you?

You don’t think, “Yea man. She’d be a successful mother to give birth to my future offspring.” But, if you’re anything like me then you do have this gut reaction and get caught like a deer in the headlights. And go ask any woman how it feels to be held in her Man’s strong arms. She probably mention that she feels safe and protected. Similarly, facial symmetry signals a lack of diseases while being raised and money signals a resourcefulness for future offspring. Almost any human behavior can be traced back to an evolutionary underlying motive.

So between Nature & Nurture, which has more influence?

This question is still under debate within the scientific community. Much like everything else in life, it probably isn’t so black and white. Every individual has different experiences, and some people have more mastery over there internal drives and desires.

Jonathan Haidt gives a great analogy in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.” He says our primitive motives are much like the elephant, while our logic is much like the rider. With practice – the rider can become more adept at controlling his or her inner beast.

What are your thoughts? Please write your experiences in the comment section below.

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