Joshua Prager is a hemiplegic journalist. On a recent TED Talk in which he shares the story behind his accident, he revives a century-old discussion: how can we separate nature from nurture (the dancer from the dance)? And why does it matter?
Susan Cain is a former lawyer and she advocates for a better integration of introvert’s talents in our extraverted-biased society. In her work she separates and nuances another similar discussion, one that has antagonized psychologists for the past 50 years: Do personality traits exist? How can we separate the effects of the environment from our temperaments? Is there even a true self or are we just a sum of social masks we choose to wear ?
This animated debate launched by Freud and Jung gains momentum as the science of psychology evolves and as we peak into the neuron firings inside the human brain or the nucleobases that compound our genes. Underneath it all rests the unsettling question: How much free will do we really have?
“I don’t like to put people into boxes”
This is not an uncommon reaction to personality tests. In fact, what we mean when we say this is “I don’t like to be put in a box”.
We all prefer to believe in complete free will. We prefer to believe in our ability to master with the same ease as the next man any competence we set our minds to. The problem is that compelling evidence suggests just the opposite: our very personal inborn temperaments, genes, physiology, neuron wiring and current state affect our behaviours and ability to acquire new skills more than we wish to admit.
In order to respond to this complexity, we increase our efforts in studying human behaviours. We aim at discovering the perfect split between personality and environmental effects for each possible act. Just like salt is 23/58 Sodium and 35/58 Chlorine, it should also be the case for our tendency for introspection, caring or aggression, right? This knowledge would give us more insight where our efforts would yield better results. It would be the victory of pragmatism and performance!
The truth is, each one of us is neither a snow flake that is completely unpredictable nor a soulless collection of reactions to genes and external stimuli. All in all, both these extremist views are a diversion from encountering and tending to our true selves.
If any given personality test can indeed oversimplify the richness within us, combining several ones provides us with a rather insightful understanding of how we are in a large variety of situations. More important than that, it allows us to discover the other through different lens, to understand that we don’t see the same events the same way and understand the advantages and limitations of each of our life goggles.
The answer to the oversimplification of any psychometric approach is not abstinence but diversified exposure.
Intergenerational and intercultural seminars stimulate similar discussions.
“How can we simplify every individual behaviour to a birth period or to a national origin?” The answer is clearly “we can’t!” However, this does not mean that we should throw the baby with the bath water.
Serious studies on both fields provide us with a deeper understanding of cultural perspectives. The “dance” part of a person’s experience is a thug of war of several sociological and psychological influences: socio-economic conditions, family upbringing, culture of origin, environment, generation, amongst others. Generational approach is just another face of this large diamond of influences. Sometimes the light shines through that face, sometimes through another.
Another question I hear often is “Will Gen Y become like the previous generations as they age?” Again, the answer depends on another question: “In which aspect?”
Your experience (and reaction to life) is influenced by the moment in History in which you were born and grew up. Local and global events, especially during our formative years (that last up to 19 or 25 years-old), strongly affect our perception of the world: how we view and experience work, how we set priorities, how we communicate to each other and how we integrate technology to our lives. These are called generational factors.
On the other hand, since the dawn of mankind, the developmental order of the individual from infancy to maturity has been extremely constant and richly documented. Teenagers today rebel against their parents and still will do so in the years to come (the only thing that might change is the duration of each developmental stage as we live longer or the manner in which they do so). These are called age factors.
The challenge of a generational expert is to understand which behaviours are affected by generational factors, which are affected by age factors and which are affected by a mix of both. With time, generational factors tend to remain imprinted as deep-seated values, whereas age factors evolve.
The goal of diversity trainings should not be to predict future behaviour, “put people into boxes” or create dissent. The goal is to open us up to other ways of making meaning of ourselves and the world around. It gets us out of our heads and offers us the opportunity to experience other ways of thinking, feeling and expressing ourselves.
It is because we study separately the technique of the dancer and the rhythm of the dance that we’re able to marvel at the whole, without worrying so much as which gets the credit.
What are your views on intergenerational or intercultural trainings?