The confidence power play: nature vs. nurture

I am a fan of the “Divergent” series. Not only because it is a good action-romance-mystery story but also because it raises an intriguing question—one that can certainly become a good Friday-night table topic over a glass of wine.

That is—how important exactly are genes in determining our destiny? Is there such a thing as “pure” genes—the kind that make some people better than others?

Of course, it’s well-known that genes have a say in many aspects of our lives — from the way we look, feel, act and react, to our overall life attitudes, health and well-being. So, by extension, we can expect that genes will be ingrained into our self-esteem too.

But how much are they to blame for the under- or over-confidence that some of us have? Are we merely born with a certain level of self-worth (what scientists call genetic determinism), or is it all dependent on our life events (also known as environmentalism)?

It appears—as it is with most sciency topics—that the answer is somewhat grey-scaled.

The argument of “genes or no-genes,” has long fueled the minds of researchers and psychologists. But while in the past, the rift between nature and nurture seemed irreconcilable, today, the discussion has somewhat reached a middle ground. Both aspects are now believed to play an intertwining role in the growth and evolution of our characters.

That is, as science tells us, the view of one prevailing over the other is now outdated. The famous Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb cleverly expressed this when asked the nature or nurture question: “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?

A further look down the rabbit hole gives us some new revelations about the origins of our self-worth feelings:

    • The big questions have now shifted away from whether certain personality traits are genetic or not, and toward figuring out how much exactly our specific environments influence our genes and vice versa.

Some rather interesting studies in mice have discovered that in some, environmental stressors can lead to abnormally high levels of the genes responsible for anxiety and depression. What’s more—these negative emotions can later be passed onto future generations.

So, let’s follow the thread there. Stressful experiences can make us (if we let them) feel blue and anxious. No surprise there. These negative emotions subsequently can become imbedded in the genes of our future generations. But these feelings are also close allies to low self-esteem.

And this is the important part—it also means that our environment, or more specifically—the way we handle it (nurture) can influence our self-opinions. These, in turn, can be passed down to our kin.

Or simply put, nurture can influence nature by changing our genes—and this holds true in terms of our confidence as well.

        • For most part, though, nature or genes are not under the complete mercy of nurture. Far from it. They have a “mind of their own” which often decides for us important outcomes—how and why we act, react, think, see the world, or feel the way we do.

But the good news here is that genes don’t reign over everything in our lives. In fact, as we grow older, hereditary dominances start to decrease.

That is—over time, nurture takes over nature, including in shaping our self-worth. In terms of numbers, per one longitudinal study on twins, genes contributed 62% to the levels of self-esteem in 14-year old boys and 40% in 17-year olds, while for girls these percentages were 40% and 29%.

Later on in life, it gets even better. Another study discovered that the nature effect was 40%, but nurture was responsible for an impressive 60% of our overall confidence.

        • Research robustly backs up another revelation too. Self-esteem is not static and evolves over time (as we supposedly grow wiser perhaps). Quite unsurprisingly, too, men’s self-esteem tends to move in an upward linear progression, while women have more variable trajectories and experience frequent ups and downs in their self-worth levels.
        • Despite this seemingly unfavorable predicament for women, we are not completely at a disadvantage when it comes to confidence. Men may be more stable in their self-opinions, but their genes influence these views to a much greater degree. For women, it tends to be a blend of nature and nurture that shapes our sense of worth.

And this is exciting—because this gives us so much more room to make improvements and to mold our characters (and self-opinions) the way we want them to be.

        • Regardless of gender, however, our unique environments and histories (how and where we grow up, parental care, quality of education) do have a profound say in shaping our levels of confidence.

This also explains why some people are seemingly born as “natural” high esteemers, while others struggle to develop that highly desirable sense of self-worth: it depends on our heritage, but more so — on our individual circumstances.

While this may sound discouraging at first thought—since many parts of these circumstances, especially while growing up—are outside of our control.

But there is a silver lining here too. Because if, indeed, up to 60% of our self-esteem is not inherited, we are granted a valuable opportunity now as adults. Each of us has the power to affect the levels of our own confidence by identifying and uprooting the damaging influencers, be it past misfortunes, perceived appearances’ flaws, bullying, dysfunctional families, or our own fears.

And if researchers are right in their numbers, a 60% shot at influencing our own fate sounds like a worthy pursuit.

        • Furthermore, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the so-called “born-with” self-assurance may often be unfounded and not based on anything sustainable—as on one’s strengths, accomplishments, victories, or character growth. Hence, “born-with” confidence can get a person only so far in life, if they don’t have the proper knowledge/ qualifications/ achievements/ personality to back it up when necessary.

Because as scientists and motivational gurus alike tell us repeatedly, success is largely dependent on how much we believe in ourselves, but not only. It’s knowledge, competence, and a desire to better ourselves that complete the recipe.

One part without the other is like having a two- vs three-dimensional vision — you can probably still get by, but you will never be able to see things in their completeness.

In other words, developing confidence is certainly a valuable trait to build, but by itself it is not enough — having meaningful goals, aspirations and smarts, unequivocally, also matters greatly.

In the end, while both nature and nurture are, indeed, major protagonists in our self-esteem story, we do have a voice in our desired outcomes too. And science also supports notion —that with the right motivation and know-how, we can win over nature and can create our own nurturing environment where our self-esteem can flourish.

Or, to put it in the words of a character from the Divergent books: “Genes are not everything. People, even genetically damaged people, make choices. That’s what matters.”


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