Human nature is the central characteristics, including the ways of thinking, acting, and reacting that are shared by most or all human beings, and which humans display naturally. Each one of us is a unique being and various facets of human nature determine our individual personalities. The question posed by personality theorists is, what factors influence the development of our personalities? Simply stated, how did we become who we are? Who we are is not determined by any one characteristic or concept of human nature, but by combination of influences.
Is human nature determined by our own free will or is it pre-determined by our past experiences and forces which we have no control? Are we dominated by our inherited nature and genetic composition or the nurturing environment of our background and education? Are we dependent or independent of our past? Is human nature unique or universal? Are our life goals motivated by the simple satisfaction of physical needs, or are we driven by a deeper need for growth and progress? Is man kind’s outlook one of optimism or pessimism? Do humans develop relationally or individually?
Questions about human nature focus on these central issues and theorists attempt to answer this question, while defining their image of human nature. Free Will versus Determinism The ability to make choices unrestricted by certain factors is called free will. In contrast to free will, determinism dictates that there are forces over which we have no control. These forces externally shape our personality and that each event is determined by preceding events. How can we have free will if everything is determined for us? On the other hand, if everything is determined, how can we have free will?
Free will and determinism are companions and you cannot have one without the other. We need to feel that our will is free and not determined for us. We need to be able to assign responsibility, bestow blame and praise, and allocate punishments and rewards. If we do not have free will, are we then not responsible for the choices we make? If we are not responsible for our actions, then we should not be punished when our behavior justifies it. The decisions we make, and the emotional reactions we feel, about the choices we make, are a learning process. When we make a choice, we learn from the outcome.
The next time we are in the position to make a similar choice, we draw on our experiences and either choose similarly, or differently, depending on our previous outcome. In this sense, it can be said that determinism is a strong factor. The choice made is determined by the outcome of previous decisions. We cannot learn to choose more wisely, unless we can recognize a particularly good or bad choice. Gordon Allport held a balanced position on the free will versus determinism debate. Allport bestowed free choice in our considerations about our future.
However, Allport also recognized that some behaviors are determined by personality traits and personal dispositions. Once the behaviors are formed, they are difficult to modify (p. 203). Inherited Nature versus Nurturing Environment For the purpose of the nature versus nurture debate, nature is defined as inherited traits and attributes. Nurture is the characteristics of our environment (nurturing influences of education, childhood, and guidance). Given that genetics and environment both influence human nature and personality, which plays a greater role?
The genes we inherit determine physical characteristics about us from the color of our eyes, hair, and skin to how tall or short we will be. However, behavioral tendencies and personality attributes are not hard-wired. As human beings, we are features of our environment and the conditions by which we live shape our personality and our intelligence. We come by our personality traits through observed behaviors, not through genetic endowment. At birth a child’s mind is a blank slate. How he develops from birth is determined by the knowledge he obtains and his experiences.
Adopted children support this position. A baby girl is surrendered by her biological parents and adopted. As she grows, she receives high marks throughout school and is accepted to a prestigious college. Is this child academically successful because of her genes, or is her success a result of the enriched environment her adopted parents provided? Adoptive and foster parents have a much greater impact on the personalities of their adopted and fostered offspring than the genes inherited from birth parents. The nurturing environment is the dominant influence on development and behavior.
Erik Erikson supports this position in his theory. Erikson held that personality is affected more by learning and experiences and less by hereditary. Psychosocial experiences have a greater influence on personality, not biological forces (p. 172). Dependent versus Independent of Our Past Is personality more influenced by our past events? Or are people independent of the past, with personalities more powerfully shaped by events which occur later in life? For some, personality is dependent on childhood and subject to little change over the course of life.
For others, personality is independent of the past. These individuals are influenced by their own experiences, as well as by their objectives and ambitions. For those independent of their past, early experiences do contribute to the formation of personality, but not permanently. On the issue of whether we are shaped more by past experiences, or events which occur later in life, there is no one size fits all answer. Every psyche is unique and each one of us draws on the more powerful determinant. Human nature is both dependent and independent of our past.
In one individual the events he experiences in childhood and adolescent years may be a strong contributing factor to his personality. In another, the here and now events of her later life may be the stronger factor in who she has become. An example is given for both sides of the continuum. A brother and sister, one year apart, are raised by the same mother and the men who enter and exit their lives. The two children lead a dysfunctional childhood fraught with homelessness, neglect, poor adult guidance, and mental, physical, and sexual abuse. From adolescence on the brother takes a dark path.
He murders a third sibling and is institutionalized. Within a short time of his release from the sanitarium, he commits arson (burns down his sister’s apartment) and is sent to state prison. Upon his release from state prison he leads the life of a drifting loner with anti-social tendencies. Now a 42 year old man he has no family of his own (a good choice given the danger he presents to others at times); possesses only an eighth grade education; is paranoid schizophrenic and suffers from delusions; and cannot maintain employment for extended periods of time. The male child is an example of historical determinism.
The extremely unfortunate serious of events of his childhood have made him who he is. His personality is dependent on his past; it was mostly fixed in the early years and has changed little throughout his life. The sister half of the equation began her adolescent and early adult years coping with her past in her own dysfunctional way. While early on she turned to methamphetamine use and sexual promiscuity as escapes from the past, she made a cognitive choice in her 30s not lead the life of her mother. The trigger of a life change for her was predominantly self-motivated by her hopes and aspirations for a future.
However, it was influenced by negative events she had experienced in her present situation, as well as positive relationships she formed. She is now 43 years old, married and has four beautiful children. She works full time, owns a beautiful home, is growing in Christ, working toward a college degree, and has goals and aspirations for a fantastic future. Her personality is one completely independent of the past; it was not fixed by the tragic events of her childhood. While childhood and adolescent experiences may have contributed negatively early on to shaping her personality, it was not permanent.
She is influenced by events and experiences in the present and they have modified her early personality traits to make her a happy, healthy, productive member of society. Albert Bandura supports the position that behaviors can be modified. He believed that our self-efficacy and a set of ideal behaviors are established in childhood. However, these early experiences can be reversed later in life, and performance standards and behaviors may be replaced (p. 344). Carl Jung also believed we are affected more by our experiences in middle age and our hopes and expectations for the future (p. 102). Unique versus Universal
The position that personalities are unique holds that each person’s action has no complementing action or behavior in any other individual. There is no comparing one person to another. The universal position follows that there are overall patterns of behavior among people. That within individuals of the same culture, there are similar identifiable behaviors. Is there such a thing as an innate universal characteristic of human nature? Our experiences shape our behavior; however, two people with a universal pattern (such as those from the same tribe); still grow into two separate and unique individuals.
The human personality is both unique and universal. While fully functioning persons share some universal characteristics, we all possess traits unique to the individual. Maslow reinforces uniqueness of personality in his theory. Maslow believed that incentive and needs are universal, but how the needs are met differs between individuals because behaviors are learned. He went on to state that even self-actualizers, despite the fact they share certain abilities, do not have identical behaviors (p. 256). Satisfaction versus Growth Theorists break down the issue of our life goals to opposing motivating factors.
Are we driven by satisfaction or growth? If satisfaction is the goal, we are content as long as balance is maintained and our needs are met. In contrast some theorists believe our major motivation is growth. The choice of growth or satisfaction is different from one individual to another. A man in his forties has a comfortable home, a family who love and respect him, plays golf on Saturdays, goes on vacation once a year, and has a job with a decent salary. While he has not reached his fullest potential, or all of the goals he initially set out to attain, this man is satisfied.
His position is one that his needs are met, and he sees no need to expend the energy or stress for further growth or development. He may even ask himself, what more could I want? Sigmund Freud took the satisfaction position in his pessimistic view of human nature. Freud believed that we continually experience stress and conflict and that the ultimate goal was to reduce stress (p. 61). While some individuals are satisfied as long as their needs are met and they can sustain a stress free life, others crave knowledge and growth of body and mind. A woman in her forties is in a similar situation as the man in the above example.
She has a comfortable home, a family who love and respect her, goes on vacation once a year, and a job with a decent salary. However, the woman is not satisfied. She is driven by her desire for growth, and the need to improve herself. She has aspirations for the future, a longing to help others, and recognizes she has not achieved full potential. While she can certainly live comfortably in her present situation, she knows that she has not reached self-actualization. She realizes that she would not only be cheating herself, but those who surround her and society, by not persevering until she reaches her goals.
Carl Rogers supports this position in his theory. Rogers believed our outlook is progressive rather than regressive, toward growth rather than stagnation. In his opinion we seek challenge and stimulation, instead of the satisfaction of familiarity (p. 274). Optimism versus Pessimism For centuries theorists have examined the question of optimism or pessimism. Do humans have an essentially optimistic outlook on life, a positive, upbeat, and hopeful view? Or is the human personality one of a pessimistic outlook, a negative, hopeless view? On the issue of whether our virtues outweigh our shortcomings, in general most of us are optimistic.
Collectively, we are socially conscious, unselfish beings with a drive to improve the world around us. People are basically good, caring, and kindhearted. To believe anything else would create a dark portrait of human nature, one of despair and hopelessness. Pessimists would argue that there are wars being waged all over the world, entire cultures being treated as second-class citizens, and poverty is rampant. However, these occurrences do not originate from our human nature. They are activated under given conditions, enabled or hindered by social environments.
Gordon Allport presents an optimistic view of adults in control of their lives. We rationally attend to current situations, plan for the future, and form and identity (p. 203). Erik Erikson had an optimistic view of human nature. He believed that although not everyone successful in their goal to attain hope, wisdom, and the other merits of intrinsic worth, we all possess the ability to do so (p. 172). Individual versus Relational Personalities are formed both individually and relationally. When we are born we develop relationally. We form bounds with our parents, siblings, and care-givers relying on them for our needs.
During this phase of life, how we grow individually is determined by these early relationships. In return, our relationships often motivate and nurture us to grow individually. For healthy development of the psyche, personalities must form individually and relationally. My own growth is an example of how this continuum is not a matter of individual or relational, but instead individual and relational. For more than ten years I was a lost soul struggling with methamphetamine addiction, depression, periods of homelessness, and all around selfish bad choices. During this dark period, I did not have healthy relationships.
At that point in my life, I had lost sight of who I once was and did not like the person I saw in the mirror. When I made the decision to reclaim my life, initially I could not form healthy relationships, or repair damaged ones. I first needed to concentrate on healing myself and developing as an individual. During this healing period, I made a friend and my relational growth fostered my individual growth. Because of this one individual, I have grown individually and reached goals I never would have dreamed possible without the inspiration and love fostered by this relationship.
We all have relationships which stimulate our individual growth. In contrast, there are also situations where we cannot develop relationally until we are secure as individuals. The individual versus relational issue was not a continuum addressed in the text book, nor could scholarly information on theorist’s positions on the question be found in my search. Conclusion Human nature is a combination of instincts and environment which compose how we decide on which actions to take. There is no right or wrong answer to the questions about human nature posed by personality theorists.
It is easy to see why theorists such as Fromm, Murray, Jung, and Erikson leaned neither right nor left on three or four of the six issues. When first assigned the project, I held a firm position on where I stood on each of the issues. In an attempt to better understand the fundamental issues themselves, I began to read what surely amounted to hundreds of pages of material on the questions about human nature. These essays, papers, definitions, and postulates were written by psychologists, theologians, students, and (I’m ashamed to admit) the folks at Wikipedia and Ask.
com. The more I read, the more I began to drift from my previous position on most of the issues. To counter this, I would read more viewpoints in a fruitless search to find something, anything, which held a firm position one way or another on any of the questions. I was desperate for an answer that would lead me back to a firm right or left position on the issues. I discovered that on the questions about human nature, there is no black and white answer; the answers are different for each of us.