People like to think they are born a certain way, that their nature, intelligence, personality, morals and more are deep-rooted, even part of their biological make-up. Partly a symptom of a general faith we have in science, it’s also an attractive explanation for our differences. Take poverty. Isn’t it easier to accept the idea that certain people are poor because they are somehow inferior, rather than the product of an unjust society?
Holding such a view can be extremely limiting to self-development. Assume that you aren’t intelligent enough to get a certain level of job and you won’t even try for it. And it can be an instrument of oppression, the most obvious example being gender differences. Put these down to biology and we reaffirm the view that women should have a limited role in society-if there are fewer women working in the fields of maths and science, for example, it’s how should be, given women’s natural abilities.
But the message is that it’s nurture, not nature that has a more significant effect on our selves, that people can change and we can improve our lives for the better. Our brain isn’t something that dictates who we are from birth, but instead it’s a cultural engine, whose function is to absorb new information from the surroundings, and so learn new skills and ideas. The discovery is that human brain isn’t fixed, but has plasticity, is actually the discovery of incredible human potential.
Of course, while knowing that the freedom to escape our biological make-up can be liberating, the flipside is that every aspect of our mind-our values, our perception of the world and others, our ability to do maths -is affected by culture in very dramatic ways.
That said one way to harness our plasticity and make real changes is through labelling. Tell a shy, retiring type that they are capable of being a great public speaker and this can be the jolt they need to help them climb out of their prescribed script. Because although the bilogical contribution to personality is significant, it’s absolutely not fixed.
Another domain where acknowledging the role of culture is useful is morality. We take the values inherited from our parents to be fundamentally true, universal even. So when we come to moral conflict, or feel constrained by our values, it can be immensely difficult to deal with. But if we can recognize we’re not born with these values, that they can change, it gives us the chance to step out of them, to develop new ones, and live a more fulfilling life.