“The world is your oyster. You can be whoever or whatever you want to be.” So we are told by our adoring parents and and broader society. But is it true? Can we really become anything we, or our “Tiger Mothers”, set our minds on? New research suggests that people have limitations. Sad, I know. The nature part of the nature/nurture debate is staging a comeback!

The more we explore human nature, the more popular notions about what makes people tick are exposed as misguided at best. We rely on some pretty dicey information about one of the more important aspects of our lives. When you think about it, how we think about and live out our lives is dependent upon our understanding of human nature. It shapes everything from the expectations we place on ourselves to how we parent, make and retain friends, manage people, run organizations, regulate the banking industry, and love our partners. It is central to most everything we do. As Mr. Greenspan and more than a few parents have noted, an incorrect view of human nature can have pretty serious implications.

Researchers from a variety of disciplines have been publishing a lot on this topic recently, but much of it isn’t accessible to a broad audience. One of the authors, Steven Pinker, does research and popular writing. His TED talk is particularly good. In his work, Pinker identifies three popular, but misguided notions of human nature—the Blank Slate, Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine.

The Blank Slate is an old idea found as early as Aristotle that keeps popping up. In this view, when we are born we are like a new hard drive, clean without even an operating system. Who and what we become is a complex mix our parents, environment, culture and relationships. The idealization of the Noble Savage arose in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. “Primitive” indigenous people, as yet untainted by the corruptions of civilization, retained their nobility, virtue and naivete. We find this idea lingering today with those who regard the natural and primitive as inherently good and pure. Finally, the Ghost in the Machine (Rene Descartes) separates mind (soul) and body in a way that locates what is ultimately good about humanity separate from the body. It tends to diminish any appeal to aspects of human nature located in our bodies, brain and biochemistry. The material world weighs us down.

These three views of human nature are misguided, but they remain very influential in our society and impact us all negatively. In the next series of blogs we will explore these in greater detail. We would love to have you join us!

In the meantime, consider your view of human nature. Do you subscribe to any of the three views above, or a combination of them? Let us know below.

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