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, which can certainly become a good Friday-night table debate topic with friends, over a glass of wine. That is, how important are genes exactly in determining our destiny? Is there such a thing as “pure” genes, or ones that make some people better than others?
If we are to believe scientists, genes have a say in many aspects of our lives — from the way we look and feel, to our overall life attitudes, health and well-being. So what about then when it comes to one of the most essential determinant of many of our life outcomes, such as self-esteem? How much are genes to blame for the under- or over-confidence that some have? Are we merely born with a certain level of self-esteem (called genetic determinism), or is it all dependent on our life events (also called environmentalism)? It appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the answer is somewhat gray-scaled.
The argument of “genes or no-genes,” has long fueled the minds of scientists, researchers and psychologists. While in the past, the schism between nature and nurture seemed irreconcilable, today, the discussion has presumably reached a middle ground. Both aspects are now believed to play an intertwining role in the growth and progress of our characters. That is, the view of one prevailing over the other is now outdated. Or, as the famous Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb wisely put it when asked whether nature or nurture had a greater say in forming our personality: “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:
1. The big questions are now shifted in the direction of understanding not whether certain personality traits are genetic or not, but how much exactly our environment influences our genes and vice versa. Some interesting studies in mice have shown that certain external factors (or stressors) can lead to abnormally high levels of genes in our bodies — which are to blame for anxiety and depression. More frightening, however, is that such downward emotions can later be passed to future generations. And since these feelings are also close allies to low self-esteem, then, at least a part of our confidence must be influenced by nurture (our environment) which, in turn, has the power to alter our genes and behaviors.
2. Nature or genes, though, are still believed to play a significant part in our lives. For instance, another study has discovered that the effect of genetic influences is different for men and women, but it generally decreases as we grow older. Over time, nurture takes over nature in shaping our confidence. In terms of numbers, genes were found to contribute to respectively 62% and 40% of self-esteem levels in 14- and 17-year old boys, while for girls these percentages were 40% and 29%. Yet another study found that the nature effect was 40%, while nurture was responsible for an impressive 60% of our overall confidence as adults.
3. Researchers also tell us that our confidence is not static and changes over our life spans. It increases through adolescence and adulthood until midlife, and then it starts to slightly decrease. Men generally exhibit a more linear growth, whereas women have more variable trajectories and experience frequent ups and downs in their self-worth levels. In addition, while men’s overall self-esteem seems to be influenced predominantly by genetic factors, for women it was a combination of both hereditary and environmental. Other studies in adult twins have uncovered that unique environmental influences (how and where we grow up, parental care, quality of education) do cause differences in self-esteem regardless of gender.
More importantly, however, the above details may also help us explain why some people are seemingly born as “natural” high esteemers, while others must strive to develop it: it depends on our heritage but mostly — on our individual circumstances.
But the great news here, of course, is that if, indeed, up to 60% of our self-esteem is non-genetic, we are granted a valuable opportunity — the power to affect the levels of our own confidence by pinpointing and uprooting the damaging influencers (of course, it’s not easy but not impossible either), such as past unfavorable events, perceived appearances’ flaws, family’s and friends’ opinions and our own fears. And if researchers are right and we can change up to 60% of our fate — in terms of probabilities, these are pretty damn good odds at success.
4. Furthermore, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the so-called “born-with” (often widely regarded as “unfounded”) self-esteem can get a person only so far, if they don’t have the proper knowledge/ qualifications/ achievements to back it up when necessary. The formula for success, wise men tell us repeatedly, is a combination of both intelligence and belief in our own abilities. One 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 necessity 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. Science reveals that — with the right motivation and ambition — 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 the Divergent books: “Genes are not everything. People, even genetically damaged people, make choices. That’s what matters.”