People—Why They Act the Way They Do
Is it their genes? Their environment? Freedom of choice? or Do we really know?
“IT’S my genes!” one person says in defense of his wrongdoing. It is true that heredity, or the genes, influence people’s conduct. The Bible concurs in this: “Through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.”—Rom. 5:12.
“It’s my environment!” another wrongdoer pleads. That too is a factor. “He that is walking with wise persons,” the Bible says, “will become wise, but he that is having dealings with the stupid ones will fare badly.” Also, “Do not be misled. Bad associations spoil useful habits.”—Prov. 13:20; 1 Cor. 15:33.
Both inherited traits and environmental influences are powerful factors in shaping the individual. Nevertheless, responsibility for his actions cannot be shifted to genes or environment. Why not? Because people are free moral agents. Hence, “each of us will render an account for himself to God.” Man was not made a robot, but he has a will of his own, and bears responsibility for its use.—Rom. 14:12.
Man has capacities for gaining knowledge and wisdom, for love, and a sense of justice. He has the power to do purposeful work, to give meaning to his life. But in fallen man these potentials are not developed to the full, nor are they properly balanced one with the other. Consequently, his needs are not met and he acts imperfectly—like the car the designed needs of which are unfulfilled.
Just as a small pebble in our shoe or a speck of dust in our eye gets our attention, so it is the bad that people do that makes the headlines. The rest of the body may be fine, and people may be doing much good, but it is the disturbance that gets the attention. So it is with the failures in view that the question is asked, Why do people act the way they do? What makes them tick?
The failures may be small. A need may be unfulfilled, a wish denied, a purpose frustrated, and in a bad mood the person snaps at others. Many times it is more serious. Discrimination may deny a person acceptance or recognition or work; frustration sets in; hostility then escalates into anger and erupts in violence. Greed for money or possessions drives many to run roughshod over others. “Me firsters,” obsessed by their own desires, rob or rape or kill to satisfy their lusts. Ambitious men and organizations and nations launch inquisitions and wars, commit horrendous atrocities, ruin the earth with poisonous chemicals and spread famine and pestilence and death to millions.
Why? They are no longer in God’s likeness, no longer guided by his attributes. The gulf that separates men from animals narrows and, in extreme cases, makes men like “unreasoning brute beasts which are born to be caught and killed.” (2 Pet. 2:12, Phillips) They pervert the divine attributes. Knowledge is used evilly to increase power that corrupts and destroys. Wisdom deteriorates into worldly folly. Justice becomes harsh, cruel. Love turns inward upon self. Qualities with great potential for good are distorted to empower men to commit evils far greater than any of those possible by “unreasoning brute beasts.”
People are surrounded by violence—in cities, in books, plays and movies, in their streets, in their living rooms. Television floods minds from infancy on with mayhem and murder. One study estimates that by age 14 the average American child has been exposed to 11,000 television murders. A Congressional subcommittee investigated violence in the schools and came up with this statement of historic import: “More children were killed in the schools, often in gun fights with other pupils, between 1970 and 1973, than soldiers in combat in Vietnam.”
Evolutionary scientists assure us that all of this is natural. Aggression is innate, they say, handed down to us by animal ancestors. Not true, other scientists contend. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu writes as follows:
“There are many societies that, far from engaging in aggressive behavior, are remarkably nonviolent and cooperative. Examples are the Tasaday of Mindanao, the Todas of southern India, the Tahitians, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Ifaluk of the Pacific, the Yamis of the Western Pacific, the Lapps, the Arapesh and the Fore of New Guinea. . . .
“When anthropologists study such nonaggressive societies, we observe that it is principally through their child-rearing practices that they produce cooperative, nonviolent personalities. Great affection is lavished on children. From infancy on, small children are scarcely ever out of bodily contact with someone who is either cuddling or carrying them. . . .
“Aggression and nonaggression are each learned ways of behavior. Every society provides models for its preferred forms of behavior—models that are continually reinforcing the behavior of the individual. America sets before the child the most aggressive kinds of models, and then we wonder why we have such high rates of violent crime.”
Dr. John Lind urges a return to the rocking of babies and the singing of lullabies to them, because this “hastens the development of the brain.” The magazine Psychology Today, December 1979, said that “during formative periods of brain growth, certain kinds of sensory deprivation—such as a lack of touching and rocking by the mother—result in incomplete or damaged development of the neuronal systems that control affection.” “Since the same systems influence brain centers associated with violence,” the article continued, “the deprived infant may have difficulty controlling violent impulses as an adult.”
Dr. Richard Restak in his book The Brain: the Last Frontier (1979) makes these points: Experiments have “provided conclusive evidence that the limbic [marginal] system is the area of the brain most concerned with emotion,” and to destroy or stimulate this area changes behavior. Electrical stimulation can cause either joy or rage. “The immature brain is dependent on sensory stimulation for normal growth,” and “when an infant is rocked or cuddled, impulses are directed to the cerebellum that stimulate its development.” This is important, for the cerebellum controls movement and if it is deprived of these pleasurable impulses sufficient nerve synapses do not form, and development is abnormal. The result may be an impulsive, uncontrolled, violent personality.
The above two paragraphs show that not only genes and environments and models of behavior that society puts before us affect the way we act, but also the treatment we receive as helpless babies affects our brain development, our emotional states and resultant actions.
But still another factor is at work—one whose existence many people will not even acknowledge. The Wall Street Journal, however, does. In an editorial October 28, 1977, on “The Terrorist Impulse,” it wonders about the mindless rage and violence. The tendency is to blame society, but the editorial wonders about “deep and irrational impulses” in man for whom “evil has its own appeal.” Its concluding sentence: “You are less close to the truth if you blame society than you are if you blame Satan.”
The Bible calls Satan “the god of this system of things,” identifies “wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places” as the real enemies, and declares woe for the earth “because the Devil has come down to you, having great anger, knowing he has a short period of time.” (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 6:12; Rev. 12:12) Satan was at the root of the trouble in Eden when he tempted Eve into abandoning God’s ‘image and likeness.’ He is still a mighty force today in causing people to act in mindless, raging violence.
Many known factors explain why people act the way they do. Genetics, environment, freedom of choice, unfulfilled needs—all of these influence conduct. Brain development during infancy plays an important role. However, man’s understanding of the brain is in its infancy. It is frequently called the most mysterious thing in our mysterious universe. Then there is also the Satanic influence.
So do we really know why people act the way they do? We know some details; many details we do not know. But we do know the basic reason: None of us perfectly reflect ‘the image and likeness of God.’
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More children killed in school violence between 1970 and 1973 than soldiers in combat in Vietnam
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Television floods minds from infancy with mayhem and murder
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Cuddling, lullabies help the brain grow