Ep 196: Do Genetics Determine Teens’ Behavior?

Episode Summary

Jesse Prinz, author of Beyond Human Nature, joins us to discuss the role of both nature and nurture in teens’ development. He explains why we shouldn’t attribute teens’ abilities to biology, and shares the significance of both parental and peer influence on teens.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For centuries, parents have been locked in a nature vs. nurture debate, trying to uncover the forces behind our teens’ development. Some parents believe nature has majority control over who teens become, and that things like personality, mental health issues and risk of addiction are passed down through the gene pool. Others think that these factors are mainly influenced by socialization, parental behavior and cultural influence–meaning the way we treat our kids shapes who they become. 

When teens are exhibiting behavior we’re not exactly proud of, it can be tempting to blame biological factors. We let ourselves off the hook, claiming that there’s nothing we could have done to stop their substance use or aggression anyway. But constantly attributing kids’ behavior to nature can be inaccurate and even harmful! It stops us from critically examining the way we’ve influenced our teens, and even perpetuates certain sexist or racist agendas by declaring “natural” differences as the foundation for discrimination.

To understand the nuances of this ongoing nature vs. nurture debate, we’re talking to Jesse Prinz, author of Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience can Shape the Human Mind. Jesse is a Distinguished Professor of philosophy and Director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He’s been conducting research on the mind for over twenty years, and has authored multiple books and over a hundred articles on topics like consciousness and emotion.

In our interview, Jesse and I are discussing how using nature as the default explanation for kids’ development can lead to harmful discrimination. We’re also discussing how affluence plays a role in who teens become, and debating whether parents or peers have a biggest influence on teen behavior.

Why We Shouldn’t Blame Genetics 

With so much revolutionary tech and research in the field of genetics in recent years, Jesse notes that humans seem to be trending towards biological explanations for a variety of human conditions. However, as we discuss in the episode, he finds that we’ve been categorizing too many things as innate and out of our control–and it’s been holding us back.

In the episode, Jesse and I discuss a concerning conclusion drawn a few years back, when this idea of natural, biological differences was incorrectly used to explain discrepancy. When Harvard president Larry Summers was examining levels of enrollment in STEM fields at his university, he found that there were significantly less women in math and science majors. To explain this gap, he remarked that there must be an innate difference between men and women that endows certain natural talents to males–and males only.

As Jesse and I discuss in the episode, this explanation fails to take into account the real reason why women shy away from STEM professions. Young women are constantly socialized to believe they aren’t as capable as men when it comes to crunching numbers or solving equations! In our interview, Jesse dives into a wealth of research that indicates parents and administrators are much more likely to encourage male students to challenge themselves on math or science homework, while simply giving female students the answers. Most shockingly, Jesse explains that we usually do this subconsciously, even if we believe that male and female students are equal in their capabilities.

In fact, students face a lot of unequal treatment, and not just on the basis of gender. Jesse and I are also discussing how lower socioeconomic status can hold students back, even on tests that are simply supposed to measure innate intelligence.

How Affluence Affects Teens’ Abilities

Relying on nature to explain the differences in our teens’ aptitude can often fail to account for differences in socioeconomic status, Jesse explains. Our education system hands our kids a lot of standardized tests, assuring us that if our kids are naturally smart, they’ll perform well. But as Jesse and I discuss in the episode, wealthier students who can afford private tutoring or advanced classes for the test typically score 20% higher than those who can’t…meaning that being gifted sometimes isn’t enough.

Some students also face a phenomenon known as the stereotype threat, a sensation experienced by minorities who fear that stereotypes about their race or gender might apply to them personally, explains Jesse. This often occurs during high pressure situations, and is especially common for those from poorer backgrounds. Many women and people of color have been socialized to believe they aren’t going to perform as well as their counterparts on these standardized tests–and studies show that when they have to write down details like their race or gender before taking these exams, they usually score lower. 

The same is often true within the world of sports, Jesse explains. Although certain aspects like height and build are a result of biology and give some kids an upper hand, they don’t always promise athletic success. Affluence plays a huge role in which athletes get a leg up. Having access to better coaches or expensive lessons, a healthy and individualized diet, and certain digital assets are all indicators of probable athletic success–and also cost an arm and a leg! So if kids are struggling to make the basketball team, it might have less to do with their innate abilities and more to do with the fact that you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on their dunking skills.

Affluence and socialization clearly have a significant impact over who a teen becomes… but how much responsibility lies on parents? Jesse and I are tackling the “nurture” side of the debate and explaining how much of an effect parents really have on their teens’ development.

The Influence of Parents and Peers

In our discussion, Jesse brings up a commonly believed theory, originating from those who tend to lean more towards the nurture side of the debate–that peers actually have more influence over kids than parents do. Those who subscribe to this theory typically believe that parents don’t have a remarkably deep impact on their kids, given that the parents are decent enough caretakers. Instead, kids are mainly influenced by the peers they hang out with regularly. This can lead parents to become a bit nervous about who their teen is spending time with, and maybe even cause them to micromanage their teen’s friends.

However, Jesse explains that peer groups can actually be a safe haven for teens. The validation that fellow kids provide while your teen still evolving can do wonders for confidence and identity formation. Sometimes, this group of friends might be a bit more rebellious than you’d like, but the rebellious crowds can actually help your teen break free from convention and feel more comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone, says Jesse. This can be critical for teens’ long term happiness and wellbeing.

In the end, teens’ identity, behavior, and personality are influenced by many different factors, not just family or friends. Jesse explains that we shouldn’t blame ourselves or our teens’ peers for any shortcomings, as pointing fingers only oversimplifies the nuances of development. Growing kids are capable of remarkable plasticity, meaning that everything from school to sports to the news can shape who our teens become. Accepting this can remind us that we play a significant part in their development, but also help us stop blaming ourselves for everything they do!

In the Episode…

Jesse brings lots of fascinating research to this week’s episode! In addition to the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • Why we should be skeptical of IQ tests
  • How the “nature” debate factors into the dark history of eugenics
  • Why language is critical to our relationships with teens
  • How cultural differences affect the probability of addiction

If you want to find more of Jesse’s work, check out his website, subcortex.com! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So talk to me about this book. Now, I’ve been reading your book, I said, for the past couple days, Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience Shape the Human Mind. This is obviously not something that you just decided to write on a whim. There’s an impressive amount of thought and research that clearly went into this. So talk to me about where this came from, and what was the evolution of this idea, this argument that you are threading through this book, and why did you think it was so important that you wanted to write a book about it?

Jesse: Well, I’ve always been interested in how the mind works. And as somebody who pays attention to scientific research on the mind, I was struck at the extent to which we’ve been buying into a very biological view. So when I’m trying to understand human behavior, we’re again and again, told my genes did that, my neurotransmitters did that, evolution did that. I think it’s natural at a moment when it feels like neuroscience and genomics are advancing, to look in those places to understand ourselves. But I began to think that, more often than not, those styles of explanation were leaving a lot out/ not only leaving a lot out, but were even damaging and destructive. They do have a very complicated history that includes some real breakthroughs of understanding, but some real abuses.

Jesse: So people have used presumptive biological differences to explain why male students outperform female students in some fields, why white students outperform students of color in some areas, to explain why certain aspects of behavior might be inevitable because they’re universal, to treat mental illness as if it were merely a matter of taking the right pill and not understanding the social factors that contribute. So I think for anyone who works with young people and is trying to understand how they’re getting along in the world, to assume that the challenges they face or the ways in which they excel are simply fixed by their genes, is potentially not only incorrect, but missing out on possible aspects of explanation that could make a real difference.

Andy: You take a pretty strong stance in this book, that many of the things that we think of as being innate abilities or hardwired into us, are maybe not as innate as we think they are.

Jesse: Yeah, really, I do think everyone in this conversation believes that nature and nurture both contribute. And of course, that’s true. I mean, if we had the brains of squirrels, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, or wearing clothing, or living in the kinds of shelters we inhabit. But it is equally true that things like clothing and shelters are very much products of human invention, not even innateness. So our biology gives us the ability to do stuff that other creatures don’t do. But that ability, the key to human uniqueness is really our capacity to recreate ourselves and our worlds. So humans are, in a certain way, unique among the animals of the world and that so much of our lives are inventions.

Andy: And we’re taught the central conflict of the book or the central argument that you’re making is this division between naturism and nurturism. We’re arguing on the nurturism side of the spectrum here. What are the two ends of this scale? Or talk to me just a little bit about what the viewpoints are and why people would be in each of those camps.

Jesse: In a way, the two viewpoints can be thought of as methodology. There are ways of thinking about a problem, there are assumptions we take when we begin to look for an explanation. And the naturist begins with the assumption that what we observe in human behavior is biological. So if we observe a difference in group behavior, say, a difference between boys and girls, if you’re a naturist, your default is going to be, “Well, that must be because there’s a biological difference between the sexes.” The default assumption for the nurturist is the opposite of that. It’s going to be, “Let’s look for what factors have led to that difference, what factors of experience, what factors of socialization, what factors of even oppression, or political forces, or bias have led to those outcomes?” So for example, some years ago, Larry Summers, who was then President of Harvard University, in a private corresponsive meeting with some other educators was musing over the possible sources of the different outcomes for women and men in sciences.

Jesse: And he was struck by the lower enrollment rates for women in science majors at Harvard, and thinking out loud about what this might result from. And his go-to, his starting place was biology. He said, “Maybe just women aren’t as gifted at this naturally.” So their lack of presentation in STEM fields and the core sciences is a function of some difference in how young women think. And he was quick to dismiss the possibility that there might be gender bias or gender discrimination. And what’s revealing about that is twofold. First of all, that biology should be the first place you go is an indication that he’s a naturist, that there is this deeply rooted mode of explanation that gives the nature over nurture. But the other thing is, in this particular case, given that there is enormous evidence and lived experience supporting the conclusion that there is enormous bias and discrimination, to not think that this glaring factor that is clearly demonstrable, not at all speculative, might contribute, is a bizarre oversight. It’s an oversight that shows how deeply we’ve bought into this biological view of behavior.

Andy: Also though, just in general, it’s easy to feel like kids just have natural abilities in certain areas, and not in other areas, and to throw in the towel in certain regards. “Okay, well maybe this isn’t my kid’s thing, but hey, she’s really good at this other thing, and maybe we’ll focus there.” But I mean, you really break down a lot of arguments in the book for where people have said, “Hey, this is innate,” and look really at a lot of specific studies showing that, well, maybe it’s not as innate as we think it is. Do you think that we shouldn’t be putting our kids in boxes, that, “Hey, this is what my kids seems to be good at.” Isn’t that kind of like our job as parents is to figure out what they’re innately talented in, and facilitate them in pursuing that?

Jesse: In a way there’s been a cultural shift in years that followed Sigmund Freud’s very strong influence on our understanding of behavior. Everyone blamed the parents, we thought it was all really nurture. Freud’s views are more complex than that. He thinks there are innate… In fact, he thinks the edible complexes and very odd

Andy: He said some strange things.

Jesse: There was this blame the parent model.

Andy: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s mom’s fault. Yeah.

Jesse: It’s mom’s fault. And I think when parents saw behavior that they thought was self-destructive in their kids, they thought, “This was my fault,” or institutions around them would blame them for that.

Andy: Yeah.

Jesse: And in a way, parents started getting themselves off the hook by adopting a nature model, the nature model, as I say, I can’t help my kids’ behavior.

Andy: That’s just how this kid is wired, yeah.

Jesse: Exactly, it’s hardwired. The truth may be somewhere in the middle, but I do think from a perspective of parenting, one needs to simultaneously recognize that kids may have certain predispositions, and their plasticity, and their ability to change and adapt. The very fact that we send kids to school shows that we know kids adapt, they learn stuff they didn’t know before, they can adopt new ways of thinking, new modes of understanding, new patterns of behavior, new patterns of conduct. If we didn’t think that, we wouldn’t send them to school. In the early years of childhood parents correct their children’s behavior, every 6 to 10 minutes of waking life, parents are constantly molding and shaping their kids’ behavior. And that doesn’t end in toddlerhood it is something we continue to do and continue to try to do. But as kids develop their interests and their personalities, their self-conception and their peer groups, they become a bit more resilient to that overt intervention on the parental side.

Andy: Sure.

Jesse: And sometimes parenting isn’t going to be the best means by which they can be taken to a new place. But when we give up on the possibility of that change, I think we’re making a mistake, a mistake about how minds work. Just one other thing on this point, when a parent says, “That’s not my kid’s strength, let’s develop their strengths,” there is room for bias there. So for instance, there’s studies that show that in high school, girls and boys perform equally in math, girls sometimes a bit better, better work habits. But their aptitude for math courses comes out the same, as measured by testing and grades and scores. But if you ask parents about their sons and daughters, they not only tend to think that their daughters are less interested in math and less capable of math, but the way they interact changes as a result.

Jesse: So for instance, when helping a daughter with math assignment, a parent might actually just complete the assignment. When helping a son with a math assignment, a parent will say, “Hey, here’s a harder problem for you to work out.” “Hey, why do you try this?” “Oh, I’ve got one for you.” So this turned out to not only be true among parents in general, but it’s even true among parents who are liberal side of the political spectrum, parents whose values would be self-described as feminist, as progressive, as believing in gender equality, believing there shouldn’t be separate gender roles. So their overt beliefs about how gender differences work are actually not being put into practice when they perceive their own children.

Jesse: And so a parent who’s obviously very in touch with and very concerned with their child’s performance may nevertheless, because of this cultural overlay, have a false judgment. And of course, it’s the kids too, because they’re perceiving themselves. And a young girl might be socialized to say to a parent, “Hey, I don’t really care about math. This is not my jam, I’d rather be doing something else. So all of these ways in which the stereotype.

Andy: Give up more easily.

Jesse: Yeah. Those things impact self-perception and how we perceive others in ways that ultimately impact performance. But in those high school years, the impact hasn’t happened yet. So parents really need to be thinking, not just, “What is my kid good at?” but they need to be on guard to look for ways in which their perception of that may be bias, and how talent and abilities and skills are always a work in progress.

Andy: I love that. And yeah, I mean, we’ve had a number of people on the podcast before talking about the SAT, and how much your scores on the SAT can be changed by studying the right way and how much it is related to socioeconomic status. Families that can afford to spend more on tutoring and prep, well, their kids tend to get higher on SAT, which is interesting because it’s supposed to be such a measure of IQ and this innate intelligence that people have. And well, it kind of seems like that’s not the case, if you can change your score by 20%, just by spending a few thousand dollars on some tutoring and prep classes.

Andy: And I wonder just how many things are like that, and how much we start to write things off as, “Well, that’s just not my kid. My kid’s not really good at that. My kids, that’s not really their thing, but they’re really good at this other thing.” When, if we just persisted a little more, or we just push them a little more in certain areas that they would be able to develop that capacity or that skill, that we’ve written off as not being their thing.

Jesse: Yeah, absolutely. And standardized testing, I think, is really pernicious and deeply biased. Both for the reasons you raise, which involve class, I do think the very fact that you can pay a prep company to improve your kids’ test score proves that these test scores are measuring the amount of expenditure on education, not some innate ability. And given the correlation between SATs and IQ testing, it, again, would establish that IQ tests are not tests at some fixed level of intelligence, but are really also a function of the amount of expense that’s been made on education. But there’s another thing which might have also come up in previous podcasts, which is that there’s a phenomenon that was discovered by a standard psychologist, Claude Steele, called stereotype threat.

Jesse: And when girls put their gender, their sex, on a standardized test form, they list their name and their sex, it actually degrades performance. Their assumptions about how women perform on these tests impact their performance. And there have been now dozens and dozens or hundreds of studies on this effect. And it’s quite robust. There was a study done at NYU where girls were placed in a room with boys taking SAT tests. And the more boys you added, the worse their test scores got, they just declined, because their presence as an inferior scholastic performer became more and more salient to them, with the added number of boys in the room. So it’s extremely important to recall that all of these measures of things that are supposed to be fixed features, or our cognitive ability, are constantly informed by social values, social biases.

Andy: If you can change your scores that much on an IQ test, by how much you study or how much money you spend on tutoring, how much is IQ even really, does it really even exist?

Jesse: Yeah, I, myself am a skeptic. I think IQ testing emerged at a time when people were becoming increasingly interested in measuring human differences. And it was the same time period where the concept of eugenics was taking hold, and people were thinking there are different aptitudes that are indicative of life outcomes, and these are innate. And what we need to do is make sure the gene pool is protected from these negative influences. So people like Francis Galton, who was cousin of Charles Darwin, and who coined the term eugenics, believe that poverty is a result of innate inferiority. And one consequence of this is that many countries in the West started creating mandatory sterilization programs. So the United States, and Sweden, and England, Germany, in the most egregious case, began finding that if somebody had, say, a cycle of poverty in their background or had too many kids and was living without the means to care for them, or maybe finding themselves in the criminal justice system with repeated minor offenses or major offenses, the best thing to do is to treat this as an innate defect, and to prevent these people from reproducing anymore.

Jesse: So a very, very sinister chapter in Western history. IQ testing was a big part of that. So somebody who was found after, say, a criminal act to have a low IQ score, might be a candidate for this sterilization procedure, because they would be deemed an imbecile, that was a name for an innate incapacity to make good decisions. So IQ testing has a very bad history and it was used for immigration quotas, it was used to justify segregation in schools, and it has continued to be used to argue for things like white supremacy, for patriarchy, to generate anxieties about an Asian threat, about a Jewish threat, by worrying that some people’s IQs are too high. So there’s a very, very dark way in which IQs have been marshaled as forms of social discrimination, and oppression and control. Now, you ask, is IQ real? I think the critical commentary here is political, but it’s also scientific because IQ tests purport to be claiming something, measuring something, a what they call G for general intelligence.

Jesse: And there are statisticians who believe this is completely an artifact of the measurement, there is no such thing as G. The mind has many, many different kinds of abilities, many different kinds of skills. And there isn’t a single underlying construct that drives all those skills. So somebody could be extremely skilled, say, socially or extremely skilled in maths, but not particularly good at thinking about skills that involve language, like writing stories. There might be somebody who has amazing physical skills. And when you think about prowess in, say, gymnastics, there’s an enormous amount of intellectual ability that goes into that, but it might be of a different kind than the intellectual ability that comes in, say, the context of healthcare, of looking after people in needs, and being sensitive to the social conditions and emotional states of members of your community. So once we start to just recognize what should be obvious, which is that human skills are widely, maybe open-endedly, varied. The idea that there’s a single factor, the G factor, that correlates with high performance and all of them is a hopeless hypothesis at the starting gate.

Andy: Talk in your book about even autistic savants, people who are really, really skilled in certain areas. And they’re really, really low in other areas. And if there’s supposed to be this general idea of intelligence that drives all of these things, where is that? But I guess then also, with what you’re talking about, then, people who are really skilled in gymnastics or certain areas wouldn’t that be that they’re just innately or a really good gymnast? Wouldn’t that be pointing us back to them having just innate abilities.

Jesse: I mean, sports are an interesting case because one of the factors that has the biggest impact on high achievement in those areas is, again, education and experience. So there are certain sports, tennis is a classic example, where affluence is a high predictor of outcome, and people without the resources to spend on special camps or have access to clubs where tennis is regularly played from an early age, will just not develop the skill set to be high achievers there. So lots of physical things can contribute to sports outcome, just consider height. So some of the greater height might be better at certain sports than others. No doubt that nature is part of it, the point is that nature is just by no means sufficient, without giving somebody who has the right physical traits the right training, the right discipline, the right access to the latest scientists. We’re in an age where sports involves diet, it involves careful computer-based analysis of performance and correction of error on the basis of algorithms. Somebody who’s not in a position to gain access to those resources is going to be at a really decisive disadvantage.

Andy: You talk about a book that was really fascinating to me called The Nurture Assumption, that was the parenting podcast, so it is really interesting to me reading this book, which really argues that parents don’t matter that much, that really peers are what’s really important for kids. As long as you’re just kind of decent, you’re good enough, you don’t really make that much of a difference and your kids are going to turn the same way, no matter what you do. What is your take on that? Or given all the research that you’ve done, do you agree with the premises of what Judith Harris is arguing in that?

Jesse: Harris’ book was really a big wake up call. I think it was, she was coming from, in some ways, outside the academy, she had a degree and was writing textbooks, but she wasn’t known as a research scientist, she didn’t hold an academic post. So I think when she came from left field, as it were, with this hypothesis that was meant to shake up the orthodoxy, it was really an exciting moment. And I do think it is, we’d all do well to listen to people who are maybe coming from a different background or a different perspective because academic researchers of a tendency to repeat and recapitulate and reconfirm our own biases. So if you can talk right now in the context of social media and polarization, about echo chambers. And academia is an echo chamber, and we traffic in a set of received opinions that we repeat to each other, design studies to confirm and congratulate ourselves on having firmly established. When somebody looks at our fields from the outside, they often see things that we don’t.

Jesse: I put Harris’s book in that category. I, myself, I mean, I think the formula it’s the peer, it is not the parents, is too simplistic. One point it’s just about methodology. If you’re trying to figure out what factor makes a difference, the import of any given factor will always be inflated if you keep the other factors constant. So if you control for one thing, then the factor you’re investigating will stand out. Now, it may be that if you look at, say, middle class kids, you look at kids who fall within a certain demographic, say, North American middle class kids. There are ways in which the parenting that they receive may be relatively uniform, consistent enough that differences in parenting don’t stand out statistically. So in the context of that kind of research, the impact of something outside the home might look much more important and parenting might look like it doesn’t make a difference.

Andy: Right.

Jesse: But if you design this study differently and instead kept the peer groups constant, with the kids all in the same school, for instance, and said, “Let’s see if the outcomes of test scores of kids in this school look different as a function of parental attention at home.” Then my guess is you’d start to see big, big impact of parents. Everything matters, a single experience in a kid’s life can matter, health and nutrition, sleep habits can matter, substance use can matter. And of course, peers can matter. The blame the parent formula can do a lot of damage because it’s simplifying. The blame the peers one is equally old and problematic. And I can remember the moral panics of the 1960s, where parents were worried that their kids were hanging out with the wrong crowd, and maybe they were listening to rock and roll with their peers, and might turn into delinquents.

Jesse: I think those kinds of inflated views that peer influence need to be looked at with equal skepticism. And instead, we should accept all of these factors as important. I also think that when we’re playing the blame game, it’s really important to recall that peers are often a place of refuge, for teenagers who are not being accepted for who they are for their identities at home, finding a group of peers who accept you is a big challenge and a big achievement, but also a place of enormous safety and validation. So creating a concern that peers are driving your kid in bad directions, I think is undermining to the development of kids’ identities, in ways that we need to guard against. If you have a kid, for example, who’s maybe acting out or maybe performing poorly in school.

Andy: Yeah.

Jesse: And you say, “Okay, well, they’ve just come into contact with the wrong crowd. Let me ground them. Let me get them.”

Andy: Got to keep you away from those bad influences.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. What you might be missing out on is actually their scholastic performance, and their behavior could result from depression. Their depression could result from a struggle with their gender identity, that’s making it difficult to find comfort with themselves, comfort with expectations that have been placed on them from every direction. So if they end up with a group of peers who might not be emphasizing scholastic performance, who might not be insisting on conformist behavior with respect to rules and regulation, by giving them place to figure out who they are with respect to some other dimension of their identity, that might be a safeguard against the really dangerous directions depression could take them. That might be an opportunity for self-discovery that could give them a foundation that puts them on much better footing for success well into the future.

Jesse: So I think kids do act out, and one way they do that is finding peer groups who are able to give them free space to break rules, to violate hopes and expectations for them. But often, those peer groups are providing other goods with respect to identity formation that can be invaluable and have very, very long-term positive impact.


About Jesse Prinz

Jesse Prinz  is the author of Beyond Human Nature.

Jesse is also a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies CUNY Philosophy Lab. He’s been researching the mind for two decades, and has taught courses focusing on everything from  the philosophy of art to  symbolic logic. He’s  authored seven books, over 100 articles, and a great many research papers.

In 2003, he won the Stainton Prize for Notable Achievement in Cognitive Science, awarded by the Society for Philosophy and Psychology. He also received the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teacher, one of UNC’s top teaching awards, in  2007.

He resides in New York City, New York.