Nature, Nurture? No Excuse!

I was chatting to a friend recently, suggesting she didn’t seem to get upset by much (too wise and too mature); she suggested it was part of her West Country Heritage. Interesting point – but by the same token, I’ve heard people with red hair claim that their bad temper wasn’t anything they could control… “It’s in my gene’s; I’m a redhead”.

Film poster for Blonde and Blonder

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That struck me as no more sensible than the idea that blondes are dim.

And that in turn raised for me the old, old question of “nature vs nurture”. Now, I should add that with a PhD from a department of Geography and over 24 years research in universities, I’m pretty much committed to the idea that there’s an effect of space, but that doesn’t in itself exclude either of the options.

Now, I’m not saying there’s not a genetic issue here – you only have to look at the physical variation of humanity on a global scale to see how much people can vary physically and I’m sure there’s the possibility of psychological variations as well…

But what I am saying, is that there are two other things to consider as well.

Firstly, it’s very difficult to differentiate genetic character tendencies from culturally orientated character tendencies. (Don’t forget, we’re only taking tendencies here anyway!) Secondly, and for me more important at the moment is that people can often use a ‘condition’ or a ‘diagnosis’ as an excuse for not fighting the problem…

“My dad was a bully, so I’m bound to be.”

“All the women in our family are gobby.”

Sigh. Even if that’s true, it’s no excuse for not at least trying to not be a bully, not be gobby, not be whatever.

Medical diagnosis seem to be used the same way: “I’ve got social anxiety disorder”, meaning that the person involved didn’t feel the need to engage in the usual social order and had the ideal get-out to play. After all, we can’t make them be nice to people because they’re being rude, they’re just ill.


But to be honest, if you look at the definitions of many such ‘disorders’ they’re just labels to describe the symptoms… That’s a diagnosis in one sense, sure, but it’s not the same as saying that someone is hot, shivery and miserable because they’ve got a bacterial infection. With a cold we know the cause and we know what to do to help the person fight it.

Saying “I’ve got XYZ syndrome” is about as helpful as my GP, to whom I’d taken my daughter with a rash around the mouth saying “Ah yes… she’s got peri-oral dermatitis”… in other words, a rash around the mouth!

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  1. Hmm – I’m not so sure about wise and mature – older, yes 🙂

    You remind me of one diagnosis for a hip pain I have – one GP suggested it was bursitis – looked it up and it is basically pain in the hip! Perhaps the labels have been created in order for people to feel a bit better about their symptoms? Or for the wider population to have more tolerance and for us then to accept all the many differences between our human conditions.

    And as for nature and nurture – well I should be a gibbering wreck for want of nurture, however it is my strong nature that has prevailed, thank goodness. 

    Good post, Simon – thank you 

  2. It’s years since I conducted research with a redhead. It was between wives number two and three. When she was sweet she was very sweet, but when her emotions turned on a sixpence . . . need I type more?

    One swallow does not a summer make. Ah but what a summer that was 😉

    Nature vs Nurture is an old controversy, and amongst researchers it’s still important. Even genetic scientists today know that many characteristics are not governed by genes, just as sociologists accept that all individual behaviour cannot be predicted from social contexts.

    It remains important in research, however, because it is necessary to produce ‘clean’ data, which precludes the influence of the opposite pole in any finding. It’s mot easy.

    In the case of addiction there’s a pretty extensive body of research that suggests that it’s a combination of genetics and social triggers that create the deadly cocktail.

    In the days when I was invited into the homes of gangsters, thieves, abusers, and other people most would regard as riffraff, when employed as a social worker in violent areas of London and Manchester I never heard anyone claim: “My dad was a bully, so I’m bound to be.”

    Nor when dealing with angry young women offenders, sexually abused teenagers, or pregnant teens, was I told: “All the women in our family are gobby.”

    Instead the attitude was one of pride, and defiance. Bullies were bullies because they wished to be, and saw their prowess as an achievement. Girls were “gobby”, not simply “‘cos Mum was gobby”, but because, “that’s one thing she taught me well, and I can be more gobby than her, so there!”

    Unfortunately, many highly intelligent, otherwise talented people, do suffer with a social phobia. It’s a painful fear that cripples their ability to engage in groups.

    It is not an excuse to be rude. It is a sickness because in such contexts a person thinks at any moment they may vomit. The soles of the feet sweat coldly, the hands are clammy. Oh no, someone is approaching, they ask a question. My answer seems distant, was that my voice? Why did I use that word? My response seemed clumsy? What must the others think?

    Knowing I suffer with a social anxiety disorder isn’t helpful. As you write, for some, it simply makes the problem seem insurmountable and a diagnosis provides some limited ‘comfort’.

    Medical diagnosis are not simply ‘labels’ used to describe symptoms. They are a means by which symptoms may be categorised so that appropriate treatments and palliatives may be prescribed for different kinds of illness.

    We live in the times when pharmacology dominates and the average G.P. consultation lasts just eight minutes.

    Psychotherapy is somewhat different in its approach. Consultations are longer. A range of skills are deployed. These vary in their subtlety. Someone who is logical and direct and demands prescriptive treatment will probably benefit from such an approach by their therapist.

    On the other hand someone whose thoughts are labyrinthine will need to be led gently down the garden path using a mixture of confusion and paradox until they are able to engage with the Minotaur. If you watch the film ‘The King’s Speech’ you’ll get the picture.

    Family therapists today tend to adopt a non-expert stance. This doesn’t mean they no as little of psychiatry as a car-mechanic, grocer, or executive coach, but rather that they engage with people as equals who seem to ask naive questions.

    Faced with a person who claims to suffer with ‘Social Anxiety Disorder’, such a therapist may ask such questions as: ‘When does your Social Anxiety Disorder affect you most?’ ‘Where does your Social Anxiety Disorder affect you most?’ May I call your Social Anxiety Disorder SAD, because Social Anxiety Disorder is such a mouthful?’ By changing the name the therapist has started to take control of the label. ‘Was there ever a time when you expected SAD to kick in but instead you achieved when you expected to feel sick and tongue twisted?’ ‘If SAD were a person and your spouse were to name her, or him, what expression would they use?’ At this stage the therapist will use the name offered, which may be an expletive’.

    But this is just illustration, it’s not a prescription for people suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder, or any other DSMIV category.

    My worry about your article, as it stands, is that you’ve done a Clarkson. Just as he is content to state that suicidal people are ‘selfish’ and leave it there, so you are seem to imply that people suffering with mental anguish are ill-mannered and making excuses.

    Those who have spent hours in rooms with such people appreciate that how ever uncongenial they may be, whatever feelings of anger or frustration they invoke in their therapist and others, real suffering is occurring that unaided they will be unable to defuse.

    • Hi Stephen – you’re right in some of your observations, certainly; I plead guilty to doing a Clarkson (though you may want to check the facts of what he did, as opposed to what was reported).

      Sorry if what I wrote was annoying from your perspective. Without going into details, I’ll match experiences over a pint at some point! 🙂   I didn’t mean to say that *all* such labels were merely labels, though I can see it may read like that. I was suggesting that *some* were and that *some* people used them as an excuse for not taking personal responsibility.

      Personally, I’m not sure that your experience of bullies being bullies out of choice is more worrying or less worrying than my suggestion! 🙂

  3. “Firstly, it’s very difficult to differentiate genetic character tendencies from culturally orientated character tendencies. ”

    Don’t start me off. My blood pressure rises when I hear people generalise about sex and gender differences.

    But, then, I watched an issue of the Bread Programme (as a home baker) and the women in the Community Bakery group were all that is worst in womanhood, *ahem* people…