Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

What's bred in the bone

A friend of mine was chatting with me about irritating situations at work, and she mentioned that she'd really lost her cool with a supervisor the previous week who apparently is notorious for being a bit of an asshole.  I mentioned that I tend to put up with such nonsense and later wish I'd spoken up for myself -- that it has to be pretty bad before I'll blow up (at a supervisor or anyone else).

She laughed and said, "Of course I have a quick temper.  My family's Italian.  It's in our genes."

She was joking, of course, no more serious than my father was when he quipped that our family was "French enough to like to drink and Scottish enough not to know when to stop."  But it's a common enough view, isn't it?  We get our personality traits from some nebulous genetic heritage, despite the fact that a great many of us are pretty thorough mixtures of ancestry, and that all humans regardless of race or ethnicity are well over 99.9% similar anyhow.  As geneticist Kenneth Kidd put it, "Race is not biologically definable.  We are far too similar."

Ha.  Take that, racists.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The whole thing gets complicated, however, because race and ethnicity certainly have a cultural reality, and that can certainly affect how your personality develops as you grow up.  If you're raised in a family where arguments are regularly settled through shouting and waving your arms around (apparently true in my friend's case), then you learn that as a standard of behavior.  (Or, sometimes, decide, "That was a miserable way to live, I'm never going to treat people that way," and swing to the opposite extreme.)  All of this is just meant to highlight that teasing apart the genetic components of behavior (and there certainly are some) from the learned ones is no simple task.

All of this just gained an additional complication with a study last week in the journal Social Cognition that looked at another factor contributing to our behavior -- how our notions about our genetic makeup influence how we think we should be acting.

The study, by Ryan Wheat and Matthew Vess (of Texas A & M) and Patricia Holte (of Wake Forest University), was simple enough.  What they did was to take a group of test subjects, gave them a (bogus) saliva test, and split the group in two.  They were then given the "results," regarding what the sample said about their genetic makeup for a variety of characteristics.  The salient part, though was that half were told that their genetic sample showed they had an unusually high propensity for risk-taking, and the other half were told their genes said they tended to avoid risk.

Afterward, they were given a personality test, and only one thing was important; the questions that evaluated them for risk-tolerance.  Across the board, the people who were told their genes predisposed them to taking risks scored higher on the risk-tolerance questions than did the people who were told their genes made them risk-averse.

So not only do we have how we were raised complicating any sort of understanding of the genetic component of human behavior, we have our subconscious conforming to our perception of how people with our genetic makeup are thought to behave.

So even if there is no Italian gene for quick temper, maybe my friend's short fuse comes from her belief that there is.

Coupled, of course, with having been raised in a shouty family.  The "nurture" side of "nature vs. nurture" is not inconsequential.  All the more reason that question of whether behavior is learned or innate has been going on for a century and still hasn't been decisively settled.

In any case, I better wrap this up.  I think I'm going to go get another cup of coffee.  It's a little early for a glass of red wine, and you know us people with French blood.  It's either one or the other.


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