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Nature, Nuture, and Free Will

Nature, Nuture, and Free Will

9 Mins
December 13, 1992

Summary: Despite the influence of genetic and environmental factors, which limit the scope of free will, we do have extensive volitional control of our actions and character. In therapy, it is crucial to assess what is and is not in the patient’s control.

Allan Blumenthal, M.D., a psychiatrist practicing in New York City, spoke on "Nature, Nurture, and Free Will" at the final IOS Forum of 1992, held on December 12.

Following are some excerpts.

When a beautiful woman tells me she can't stop pulling out her hair—and that has happened—and a man with emphysema insists he can't stop smoking—and that certainly happens—I run smack into the question of free will. What is free will? What is its role in human motivation? What are its limitations—that is, what other considerations enter the picture? These are questions that have intrigued both philosophers and psychologists for generations.

This evening, we are going to discuss the factors underlying psychological development and motivation, exploring some of the contributions of biology, environment, and free will. The biological or nature component includes heredity, hormones, chemicals, and neurophysiological mechanisms. The nurture component consists of environmental factors, operative from birth, that create learned and automated behavior. The free will component is our power to make choices. Because these three factors are interrelated—often in complex ways—it is difficult to isolate the dominant element at any given time and in any given issue. Understanding the precise contribution of volition in mental health and mental illness is an especially challenging problem.

From the outset, I want to say I firmly believe that human beings do possess free will. Any questions I raise pertain not to its existence but rather to where, how, and under what conditions it operates. Some part of what I say may be controversial. I hope so, and I hope it gives rise to some lively discussion....


According to the Objectivist view, free will resides in the choice to focus or not to focus, to think or not to think, to activate the conceptual level of consciousness or to suspend it. Certainly that is the fundamental way to explain free will. However, from that identification, some leap to the conclusion that virtually all psychological problems are the result of irrationality, the consequence of an individual's failure to think, failure to act by reason, failure to have developed rational premises and mental habits. Because it consigns all human action to the realm of morality, such an idea effectively invalidates the entire science of clinical psychology. If that view were correct, all psychotherapy would consist essentially of moral instruction and very few patients would be understood and helped.

And further, when put into practice, the belief that all psychological problems are the product of volitional, moral defaults has disastrous emotional consequences: If an individual assumes responsibility for actions that are, in fact, beyond his volitional control, he is destined to experience undeserved guilt. If he believes he should be able to perform or to resist performing certain actions by will alone, and if he then fails, he will necessarily feel inadequate and self-doubtful. For this reason, it is critical that one's standards of behavior and self-expectations be realistic, achievable, and actually within one's volitional control.

A valid theory of psychotherapy has to be based on two essential elements: the philosophical understanding of man's nature and the scientific observation of human behavior. We understand that man's unique means of survival is reason—a faculty that must be exercised by choice. However, the volitional nature of consciousness is not so simple...

To understand the operation of volition and the manner in which reason is exercised, we must know a great deal about the particular psychological nature of man, including his needs, his alternative ways of satisfying them, his methods of thinking and learning, his psychological mechanisms (such as suppression, repression, compartmentalization, denial, and projection), and the effects of particular psychological states (such as anxiety and depression). This understanding cannot be acquired through philosophy alone. It is not possible to deduce the nature of all human mental operations from the singular metaphysical fact that man is a rational being. Knowledge of man's psychological nature must be acquired through scientific observation and research....


There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we are born with psychological proclivities. With our ever-increasing understanding of the role of biological factors, particularly genetics, we are seeing more and more evidence that at least some individual traits and predispositions are, in fact, inborn. Genetic factors influence intelligence, temperament, personality, mental illness and, possibly, sexual orientation.

Let us look first at intelligence. It is probable that intelligence—as a capacity—is innate. However, the degree of an individual's functional intelligence is the product of additional factors—some environmental, some volitional. Because we can really measure only an individual's functional intelligence, it is difficult to assess the precise role of heredity in all cases.

We can be far more certain that we inherit temperament. Temperamental components include characteristic activity levels, rhythmicity (the hunger and sleep-wake cycles), the threshold of responsiveness to environmental changes, the intensity of reactions, the quality of mood, the attention span, and distractibility. Temperament as a component of human nature has been recognized since antiquity.

Temperamental characteristics are manifest from birth or even before. Some babies are especially active even in the womb; others are placid in utero. Some kick up a fuss from the moment they are born; other newborns are "good" babies who eat, sleep, and seldom cry. These traits may well be the precursors of characteristics that persist throughout life.

Personality is a similar and related issue. The term "personality" in the colloquial, non-technical sense is the outward form or manner of expressing the individual's unique constellation of character, behavior, temperament, emotional, and mental traits. We cannot be certain of the extent to which our personalities are self-made or innate or influenced by environmental factors.

However, there is reason to believe that personality contains at least a genetic component. A comparison of identical siblings separated at birth and brought up in totally different environments shows a high concordance of personality qualities and even specific values and preferences, including colors, music, food, hair styles and dress, speech patterns, and interests. In New York, there are identical triplets, three brothers, who constitute a wonderful example. Separated at birth and unaware of each other, they were raised in Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant homes. During their college years, they found each other and now work together in the same business. They are astonishingly similar not only in physical appearance and demeanor, but also in aptitudes, attitudes, and tastes—even including the color of their wives' hair....


In the case of mental illness, we have much clearer research evidence for genetic factors. Researchers have observed, for example, that in the families of individuals suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive illness), depression, personality disorders, and substance abuse there is a higher-than-average incidence of mental illness. A study of bipolar patients has shown that 50 percent have at least one parent who suffers a mood disorder. Similar studies have established that children of alcoholic parents become alcohol abusers about four times as often as children of non-alcoholic patents. Some of the biological factors underlying mental disorders including anxiety, depression, bipolar illness, and obsessive-compulsive syndrome have been identified and many of these conditions are successfully treated with appropriate medication in conjunction with psychotherapy....


Now, let us look at some of the environmental factors that play a role in the development of individual psychology. Some background factors are crucial, others are not. For certain individuals, race, ethnic origin, national background, religious orientation, and the traditions stemming from them are relevant to psychological development. For example, some individuals are programmed, as it were, by the Puritan work ethic, by Jewish guilt, or by Catholic guilt. Locale and customs of the region in which an individual grows up may contribute to value development. Midwesterners—we are told—have "down to earth values." An individual's position in the family may affect her development: some psychological schools of thought take the position that there are traits characteristic of the first-born, the middle, and the youngest child—or the only child, or the child of late life, etc. For example, some think that the oldest child tends to be an "achiever"; the middle child, who receives the least attention, tends to develop and value strong relationships among peers; the youngest child tends to be spoiled and is typically demanding. These observations are sometimes borne out, sometimes not.

A recent study adds to the list of environmental factors relevant to psychological development. Some researchers think that the early interplay of siblings may exert a lifelong influence. The effects of sibling rivalry may persist into adulthood, influencing the manner in which an individual deals with people at large and affecting even the marriage relationship....


In spite of all I have said about the role of biology and environment, I come not to bury free will but to praise it. As much as biological and environmental factors influence psychological development, reflection and introspection tell us that they do not determine it. They may predispose us in one way or another and certainly the environment gives us material to think about. But if we take responsibility, if we decide to think about what we want in life, then our choices, our values, and our personal psychological natures can be, to a great extent, of our own making....


Let us first look at some of the areas where we can be most certain of the dominant role of free will.

The first is character. I'm convinced that our basic moral character is essentially within our volitional control. Certainly we can be influenced by parental guidance, by teachers, by religion, and by what we see around us, but in the final analysis it is the individual who is responsible for his ethical values and his moral behavior. Obviously, when we speak of a "good" person, an honorable person, a conscientious person, a reliable person, or a fair person, we are speaking in praise, implying that his or her virtuous acts were chosen, and that the virtue is, therefore, self-made....

Apart from character values, volition appears to contribute substantially to the development of abroad range of personal values and attitudes. For example, in some families it is traditional for children of each generation to follow the same career—to become doctors, or lawyers, or politicians, or to enter the family business. Sons and daughters are expected to attend the same schools as parents, play the same sports, maintain the same political ties, etc. Obviously, some children do what is expected of them, but others do not. While we can theorize how biological or environmental factors might influence these decisions, it is probable that volition plays the largest role....


In the illustrations I have given so far, the ultimate decisions were, I believe, largely volitional. However, it is possible to cite cases where the role of free will is much less clear. In these cases, the question arises: under what conditions and to what degree can an individual surmount negative biological predispositions and environmental pressures? For example, when an individual suffers from a biologically caused major depression, he is unable to concentrate, unable to function in his job, and unable to cope with human relations. Well-meaning friends may offer such advice as "You mustn't give in to it" or "You must grit your teeth and carry on in spite of your feelings." But can a deeply depressed person do that? Is it within his volitional power? Sometimes, he can make himself function—for short periods. But, at other times, he appears barely able to look after his most primitive needs. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to form an opinion about what is volitional and what is not....

Many times, inappropriate actions appear to be—and I stress appear to be—directly volitional. Some of these actions involve failing to think in the face of clear necessity for thought or acting against one's conscious knowledge—in other words, evading. One cannot act against that which one fully knows except by pushing that knowledge or its implications out of mind. But free will means that we possess the capacity to do just that. Criminals do it as a way of life....


Obviously, the question of free will is of paramount importance in psychotherapy. The therapist must help a patient to make necessary changes in his or her thinking and behavior. To be of help, the therapist must have a realistic idea of what changes are possible in general, and what actions are under a particular patient's control at any given time. To believe in the power of free will is not to think that an individual's capacities are limitless. The therapist must have expectations that are within the patient's volitional control and, ideally, expectations that are neither unrealistically high nor low.

Because all self-doubts and defense mechanisms operate automatically, an individual with problems must learn to control the mental processing that leads to inappropriate emotions and actions. But how much of this is possible at a given time is not self-evident. Who is best judge of what is volitional? The therapist? He, of course, must make educated calculations, but he is not omniscient. The patient? Perhaps. But he or she is even less likely to have realistic expectations….

It is the therapist’s job to encourage the patient, not to browbeat him with moral condemnation. This is particularly true in areas where no one can be certain of the degree of volitional control. All therapists have observed that, at some time in the course of therapy, patients appear to be unable to take or refrain from taking certain actions that to the outside observer appear to be volitional. Obvious examples are the inability to stop smoking, drinking, abusing drugs, overeating, engaging in compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive pack-rat behavior, etc....

While I'm on the subject, I should say something about the extent of psychological change possible in general. How much change does free will allow...?

I do not believe that anyone can change himself fundamentally. For one thing, a fundamental change would mean changing your identity—your concept of who you are. I do not think that anyone, no matter how neurotic, would be willing to abandon his identity, to become another person. I doubt that an individual can change his or her basic character, free will notwithstanding. In any case, I've never seen it. I don't mean that one cannot become more honest, more generous, more just, or more conscientious, etc. One can always increase the degree of the virtues one already possesses. But that is not the same as changing the basic character....


Now, for a pleasant change, let's finish by taking a look at some of the positive aspects of volition in everyday life.

The awareness of our capacity to act by choice is a uniquely human trait. Even if we humans are not alone in facing alternatives of action, only we are aware of choice. For us, that awareness is a psychological need. In order to enjoy living, we need to know that we are our own masters, that it is we who determine the course of our lives. Knowing that we are free to act on our own decisions and in our own interest makes effort worthwhile and allows for a sense of accomplishment. Human beings require this psychological freedom as much as they need political freedom.

The belief that there is nothing we have to do, apart from what we decide is valuable to us, creates positive motivation. The very idea that we don't have to get up in the morning, that we don't have to go to work, we don't have to solve problems, we don't have to eat vegetables, we don't have to floss our teeth, is liberating. (Of course, we have to be aware of the consequences of these choices and we must be willing to accept them. We cannot escape reality.)...

Oddly—or perhaps not—as we acquire increasing knowledge of the significance of nature and nurture, we develop a growing appreciation for the power of free will—not simply because we cannot voice an opinion without assuming it, but because we understand free will to account for the incredible variety of human reaction, imagination, and behavior that colors our world and delivers us from the grey conformity of automatons.

We human beings find that the more we think about choices, the more possible choices we discover, the more opportunities and challenges. Life is an adventure it could not be without volition.

Originally Published in IOS Journal Volume 3 Number 1 • May 1993

Alec Mouhibian
About the author:
Alec Mouhibian