Textbook Chapter 2: Culture and Nature
Story of Brenda/David- see pages 26-27. These stories are important because they suggest
limits to the power of socialization. In the 1970s and 1980s, psychologists accepted that the
differences between men and women were due to parental care and upbringing. The
problems that erupted later with Brenda suggested that the differences between male and
female are partly innate. Social psychology is aimed at exploring how people think, feel, and
act. The ultimate explanations for human behaviour lie in nature and culture, and there
have been many long, bitter debates over which of those is more important.
Nature and Social Behaviour
Explaining the Psyche
One approach to understanding how people think, feel and act is to try and
understand what the human psyche is designed for
o Psyche: broader term for mind, encompassing emotions, desires,
perceptions, and all psychological processes
We want to understand the psyche, and to do that we need to understand what it
was designed for (eg: you would not understand a can opener if you didn’t
understand what its purpose was). To understand what it was designed for, we turn
to nature and culture (since these are the things that have made the psyche the way
o Most explanations for human behaviour ultimately lead back to two basic
things: nature and culture. The nature explanations say that people are born
a certain way; their genes, hormones, brain structure, and other processes
dictate how they will choose and act. In contrast, the culture explanations
focus on what people learn from their parents, from society, and from their
o The most common resolution to nature/culture debates tend to favour
nature, since it is indispensible (without nature you have nothing).
Frans de Waal said that because without nature you have nothing,
this is not a fair fight. Therefore he proposed that the arguments
should be waged between whether a particular behaviour is the
direct result of nature of stems from a combination of nature and
culture. His view basically is that nature comes first, and culture
builds on what nature has furnished.
This book, however, favours the view that nature and culture have
shaped each other (specifically, nature has prepared human beings
specifically for culture). That is, the characteristics that set humans
apart from other animals (including language, a flexible self that can
hold multiple roles, and an advanced ability to understand each
other’s mental states) are mainly there to enable people to create
and sustain culture.
This interaction between nature and culture is the key to
understanding how people think, act, and feel.
Nature is the physical world around us, including its laws and processes; it includes
the entire world that would be there even if humans did not exist.
Those who use nature to explain human behaviour invoke the sorts of processes
that natural scientists have shown. Above all, the advocates of nature in psychology
turn to evolutionary theory to understand behaviour patterns.
Evolution, and doing what’s natural
Over the past two decades, social scientists have been looking at the theory of
evolution in order to help explain social behaviour. The theory of evolution focuses
on how change occurs in nature.
Humans are animals; we have many of the same wants, needs and problems as
animals. An important feature of most living things is the drive to prolong life.
Another is reproduction (since we are not immortal, reproduction allows species to
continue). Another common trait of living things is change; people change during
their lives, and, more importantly, change occurs between generations. Nature
produces change that is random (eg: genes from mother and father). As a result,
some random changes will disappear and others will endure.
o The process of natural selection decides which traits will disappear and
which will continue.
Natural selection operates on the basis of two criteria: survival and reproduction
(also the two ways of prolonging life). The biological success of any trait is
measured in terms of how common it is (due to natural selection). Traits such as
having a weird sense of humor, etc, will not necessarily be passed down unless they
translate into better survival or better reproduction.
o Survival: living longer. Survival depends in part on the circumstances in
your environment (eg: fish often have light coloured bellies and dark
coloured tops; this is for survival in the water).
Gradually, biologists have shifted their emphasis from survival to reproduction as
the single most important factor in natural selection. Survival is important mainly as
a means to achieve reproduction.
o Reproduction: producing babies. Reproductive success consists of creating
many offspring who will in turn create many offspring (ie: nature judges you
by how many grandchildren you have).
Mutation: a new gene or combination of genes.
o Example: if a women developed a mutation to live to 150 instead of 75, this
probably would not be a trait that survived because this has nothing to do
with reproduction. However, if the mutation meant that the woman had
double the amount of babies she would have normally had, but still died at
75, this trait would probably survive.
Most of the recent work on evolutionary theory has focused on gender differences.
For example, evolution would select men to want more sexual partners than
women; women can only have one pregnancy per year no matter what, and men can
have multiple pregnancies with many women. Also, a woman’s child would be most
likely to survive to adulthood if raised by two parents. Therefore men were selected
to want multiple partners and women were selected to want long term relationships
with one partner.
The causal processes that cause evolution depend entirely on random changes to
physical entities, such as genes; therefore meaning has nothing to do with these
changes, they are completely random.
o Molecules, chemicals, electrical impulses, and other physical mechanisms
produce the results. Behaviour changes because the physical makeup of the
newborn individual is different. This is very different to how culture works.
Psychologists study humans and animals, but never things like trees. Psychologists
do not find things like trees interesting because they don’t have much in the way of
thoughts, feelings, or behaviour, because they don’t need these things to survive and
reproduce. On the other hand, psychologists are starting to get interested in
animals, who also live as loners. They need to interact with the world in a way that it
more complicated than it is for trees.
o Many animals are not loners; they have discovered (or nature discovered for
them) that by living and working together, they could interact with the
world much more effectively. For example, there is more food in the same
place for animals that work together than for animals who work alone (ie:
more or larger prey). On top of this, they can alert each other to danger,
work together to get more food (cover more area) and even tend to the hurt.
Lastly, mating and reproduction are easier if the animals live closer together.
Basically, being social provides benefits. This is the biological starting point of social
psychology; being social improves survival and reproduction.
The downside to being social is that it is more difficult to achieve than solitary life.
In order to be social, you must have a lot going on inside (which is what
psychologists like to study). Social animals must have something inside themselves
that makes them recognize each other and want to be together. They must have
something that prompts them to work together, such as automatic impulses to copy
what the others are doing. They must evolve ways to resolve conflicts that occur in
social groups. They need something akin to self control to enable them to adjust to
o Basically, animals need complex, powerful brains.
The Social Brain