How We Become What We Are

New studies suggest that some aspects of human personality are inborn and resistant to change. Ironically, this makes the role of environment all the more important in shaping individual lives

AN offspring of Cry Havoc and One Tough Cookie, Slick Willy is the second bull terrier fortunate enough to belong to David Lykken, a psychologist interested in temperament. Temperament, which is reflected in a creature's manner of behavior, is personality's biological, enduring, and heritable aspect. It greatly contributes to but does not entirely explain personality, much as innate intelligence contributes to but cannot entirely explain ability. Willy's temperament originated when the English bulldog was deliberately crossed with the white English terrier, almost 200 years ago. The nature of the resulting fearless, tenacious fighting machine requires a different sort of nurture than that of dogs bred for complaisance. When Willy can't resist chomping through a plastic jug with his powerful jaws or taking a few extra laps before responding to a summons, Lykken mostly just grumbles, reserving sterner measures for more serious infractions. Harsh treatment would render the feisty animal vicious; permissiveness or neglect would produce an uncontrollable bully. Willy's good behavior depends on an appreciation of his innate disposition and a judicious balance of carrot and stick.

In a postindustrial culture that holds up a workaholic Mr. Nice Guy as its temperamental ideal, the heroic spirit defined by Alexander the Great has fallen from grace. Time and technology have shrunk the number of acceptable outlets for the daring, aggressive nature that swung the sword and mapped the unknown, until it has come to be associated primarily with criminals. This saddens but doesn't surprise Lykken, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota; his work, some of it conducted with subjects behind bars, convinces him that "the psychopath and the hero are twigs of the same branch."

The history of another bull-terrier owner, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the legendary nineteenth-century explorer, spy, scholar, and soldier, brings Lykken's observation to life. By the age of nine, the boy who would be the first white man in many parts of Africa and Asia, and who would translate the Kama Sutra, was, according to his biographer Edward Rice, "virtually a hard-core delinquent," more or less ignored by his parents and known for fighting, shooting at tombstones and church windows, lewdness—and enduring toothache. A prodigy who spoke twenty-nine languages, Burton preferred the army to Oxford. His temperament is summed up by his rationale for visiting the forbidden Muslim city of Harar: no European had successfully entered the city, so visiting it was "therefore a point of honor with me." Had he been born in the gutter rather than in a milieu that provided suitable channels for his aggressiveness, "Ruffian Dick" might have followed his proclivities to the gallows rather than to knighthood. The superficially odd similarity between guys in white hats and guys in black ones, vividly portrayed in Clint Eastwood's recent film Unforgiven, illustrates Freud's observation that although a particular instinct always has the same aim, it may have different objects. What worries Lykken is not the inclination to prevail but how it is directed.

As America reels from a wave of lawlessness, research on the temperamental underpinnings of violence has become increasingly controversial. Because black men compose only six percent of the general population but about half of the imprisoned one, the issue particularly concerns the black community, which is understandably suspicious of biological explanations for behavior. In 1992 a firestorm of protest caused Frederick Goodwin, a psychiatrist and the director of the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, and the world's authority on manic depression, to resign his job and return to his previous position as director of the National Institute of Mental Health after he drew a parallel between inner-city violence and primate studies showing that young males in the wild were more violent and more sexually active when they had to compete for scarce resources. Black political leaders and others also successfully lobbied the National Institutes of Health to withhold money for a conference, to be held that year at the University of Maryland, on possible genetic components of violent behavior.

From the archives:

"Growing Up Scared" (June 1990)
Spurred on by family instability, violent crime now touches millions of young lives. The control of crime in the streets, in the schools, and in the home ought to be the pre-eminent "children's issue." By Karl Zinsmeister

Despite the apprehension that research on violence could stigmatize individuals or groups, what it actually shows is that, particularly where natures like Slick Willy's and Richard Burton's are concerned, nurture is the best predictor of good or bad behavior. The demise of the nineteenth-century bourgeois conscience makes no difference to some types of people, but it makes a big one to others. Mostly because of a large increase in illegitimacy since 1970, Lykken says, "across the land, but mainly in the inner cities, thousands of children aren't being brought up by, but only domiciled with, parents who are indifferent, incompetent, or unsocialized themselves." He continues, "We're running a crime factory that turns out little sociopaths." One reason why this white academic chooses to speak out on a socially sensitive issue becomes clear when he gestures toward photographs of two particularly robust babies displayed in his office. "My grandsons are going to be big African-American males, so they're going to face a high risk of attracting violence themselves and of frightening other people. Because of them, and the fact that crime is threatening to destroy all the great improvements in race relations that have come about in my lifetime, I get kind of steamed up about this problem." He concedes that "there's not a prayer in the world" that the solution he favors—the licensing of people for biological parenthood according to the same criteria that are used for adoption—will be tested in the near future: "My purpose in making an extravagant suggestion is to start a discussion. The problem is so real, and nobody is talking about the solution."


AS personal rights and freedoms have expanded during this century, there has been less and less talk about temperament. Throughout most of history, however, people have been regarded less as unique individuals than as variations on a few basic human types. In the fifth century B.C. Hippocrates described four temperaments, which he considered to be linked to various predominant bodily fluids, or humors: the sanguine temperament is optimistic and energetic, the melancholic is moody and withdrawn, the choleric is irritable and impulsive, and the phlegmatic is calm and slow. However quaint this theory may seem, Hippocrates anticipated modern linkages of biochemistry with behavior and astutely described types of people as familiar today as they were in antiquity.

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