Ep 196: Do Genetics Determine Teens’ Behavior?

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For centuries, parents have been locked in a nature vs. nurture debate, trying to uncover the forces behind our teens’ development. Some parents believe nature has majority control over who teens become, and that things like personality, mental health issues and risk of addiction are passed down through the gene pool. Others think that these factors are mainly influenced by socialization, parental behavior and cultural influence–meaning the way we treat our kids shapes who they become.

When teens are exhibiting behavior we’re not exactly proud of, it can be tempting to blame biological factors. We let ourselves off the hook, claiming that there’s nothing we could have done to stop their substance use or aggression anyway. But constantly attributing kids’ behavior to nature can be inaccurate and even harmful! It stops us from critically examining the way we've influenced our teens, and even perpetuates certain sexist or racist agendas by declaring “natural” differences as the foundation for discrimination.

To understand the nuances of this ongoing nature vs. nurture debate, we’re talking to Jesse Prinz, author of Beyond Human Nature: How Culture and Experience can Shape the Human Mind. Jesse is a Distinguished Professor of philosophy and Director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He’s been conducting research on the mind for over twenty years, and has authored multiple books and over a hundred articles on topics like consciousness and emotion.

In our interview, Jesse and I are discussing how using nature as the default explanation for kids’ development can lead to harmful discrimination. We’re also discussing how affluence plays a role in who teens become, and debating whether parents or peers have a biggest influence on teen behavior.

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