On the Complexity of Human Nature*

Topics addressed in this post are disorganized thoughts that came to my mind during the discussions in class.

One thing I can say about the human nature for sure is that it is not easy to understand nor to predict. Besides its components like dreams, subconscious, and hypnotic states that are unusual by their nature, the unreliableness of our most vivid memories, formation of affects and thoughts, development of personality traits are among the things that leave me in absolute awe.

One thing I can say about the human nature for sure is that it is not easy to understand nor to predict.

Especially after the development of psychoanalysis we became more aware of the existence -and the effect- of what we call the subconscious. Since, even the nature of consciousness is hard to explain -one of the rare things philosophers of mind, scientists, and cognitive psychologists all agree upon-, our subconscious will probably remain a mystery until the day we die. There are, though, various ways in which we're able to examine the subconscious, such as hypnosis, psychoanalysis, dream interpretation, and signs like behaviors and attitudes. Among which I find to be very interesting are the defense mechanisms, that were first classified by Freud.

Studies keep showing that humans are not actually born as a tabula rasa, but in fact inherit many things. There have been studies that show that our parents', even ancestors' traumas can be inherited. Many of the psychological disorders are inherited to an extent. A person whose grandmother has witnessed a traumatic event, for instance, may carry the traces of the event himself, even though he does not know about the story.

Cliché but True: We Are (Probably) Not Who We Think We Are

Among the few things I concluded about the human nature is that first of all, it is very sophisticated, hard to define and to resolve the ways its mind functions. And as a kind, it rarely changes across ages. This sentence may be misunderstood. It is not to say that we do not develop at all and remain the same as the humankind from the beginning of ages. No. Firstly, we cannot disregard our evolutionary history. Secondly, humans, especially those who have the intention to, do change. We do change individually. I'd argue that human life is supposed to be about development (change in the positive direction). And we do improve along our lifespan. The more new things we learn and the more diverse our experiences are, the more we improve our brain plasticity. The more we are presented to new people and ideas, our horizon widens. Things like that. But collectively we are not any better, or any worse. Each period has its own challenges and advantages. But our essence does not change. Our environment and conditions may be different, but the way we deal with things barely change. Just as each person has his own strengths and weaknesses, different times come with their own challenges and advantages.

Besides, there are cross-cultural differences. What we find attractive, the ways we solve problems, or the ways we think do differ. In communities where food is not easy to find, for example, chubby women are usually seen more attractive; and in societies of abundance thinner women are found to be attractive. In some tribal communities female breasts may not be considered sexually appealing whereas, many other communities do consider them appealing. 

In his book where he examines the different ways Westerns and Easterners think, Nisbett argues that for Westerners, it's important to learn about formal reasoning to be able to solve problems; and to manage this, categorization of objects, cause-and-effect relationships hold importance. Contrarily, East Asians see objects in the wider context they belong. World is a more complex place for East Asians than it is for Westerners and is consisted of knotty webs of relationships. Formal reasoning (logic) doesn't play a major role in their lives as it does in Westerners', because they have a more contextual understanding of the world. Even what's meant by self and identity can change. The traces of these difference can be found in the structures of languages used. I will discuss this topic in another post with further details. I wanted to mention this since it is mind opening to notice even a few of these differences.

on Prejudice

In his book American Islamophobia, Khaled Beydoun examines the roots of Islamophobia, focusing on the situation in the United States. He highlights that although a modern term, Islamophobia is nothing but a new form of hate. And he proposes three different dimensions to it: private, structural, and dialectical Islamophobia. Although his focus is the States, his arguments can be used to interpret similar topics.

Here, I would like to talk a little about prejudice from a cognitive psychological viewpoint and highlight what makes it interesting about the human nature.

There have been numerous studies to examine implicit associations of prejudice. I would like to mention some here. In the virtual prejudice experiment conducted by Ron Dotsch and Daniel Wigboldus examined how prejudiced implicit associations affect physiological and automatic unintentional behavioral responses. The results showed that students of Dutch descent kept more distance from Moroccans than from the Dutch and showed higher skin conductance (a method to measure stress). And the statements the participants gave (measurement of explicit prejudice) was in contradiction with the implicit prejudice test. This shows that even without intent we may develop attitudes and behaviors.

In a study conducted in Turkey, where 60% of women wear the headscarf, results show that there is prejudice against women wearing the headscarf even from these women themselves. They are less likely to be employed. Of course this can be understood when we look at Turkey's history about the headscarf. Similar studies to this have been conducted to test the prejudice against African-Americans with children (the Doll Test), or women's mathematical abilities, or driving skills. All can be interpreted in the similar way. Our pre-existing beliefs (prejudice) form our attitudes, then our behaviors, then our reality. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The reason why I mentioned these studies, and the daily discussions we have among ourselves, is to point out the importance of keeping in mind that it is normal, possible, logical, understandable that one has prejudice, favors his in-group and prefers to keep distance from members of outer groups. This, is not to justify the intentional acts and injustices done against the outer (or minority) members; but an explanation to be open to face ourselves, so that we can accept that you and me and him and her may be intolerant of other people, may actually hold racist attitudes.

One other thing to point out, is there are stages as to solve our negative implicit associations. First, one should be aware of and accept his (implicit) prejudices; second, he should identify it as a problem; third, he must have the will and power to overcome this; and last is to actually take action. I believe the first two stages are the most important, since once they're achieved the rest usually follows itself.

on Taking Offense

Here I would like to shortly examine the psychology of taking offense. Offense is defined as a feeling ''that is triggered by a blow to a person's honor because it contradicts a person's self-concept and identity'' (Poggi & D'Errico). I would prefer to interpret this as a self-defense mechanism in the light of two other psychological terms: cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias.

Self-serving bias is a common type of cognitive bias that has been extensively studied in social psychology and explains the tendency to attribute positive things about one's self to himself and negatives to external factors in order to maintain self-image. This brings us to the second term: cognitive dissonance, that's defined as the mental discomfort we feel when our behaviors or attitudes are in conflict with our beliefs. To reduce this mental discomfort we usually alter one of the attitudes to restore balance.

I believe it would make sense to interpret an unreasonable offensiveness and reaction to a statement as a defense mechanism as to protect one's self-image. The more intensely offended one is, the more insecure he is about whatever he is offended by. The more self-confident one is about his attitudes and beliefs, the more resistant one is to the statements that challenge their self-concept. And the more insecure one is, the more likely he is to be offended by whatever topic he is sensitive to. It requires self-confidence and maturity for one to accept the possibility that he might, for example, be a sexist or a racist.

To conclude, we are so sophisticated that we are probably not who we think (or know) we are. We can think and believe that racism is bad, yet, as a Dutch we might feel more stressed around Moroccans. We can think that discriminating people for their religious choices is horrible, yet, might not want to employ a woman because of her hijab, or want to show special attention for a bearded man at the airport. It is important to keep an open mind about ourselves -about who we may or may not be - and to react calmly. It requires effort, will, and (intellectual) insight for one to understand, read, and decode himself, and one must be courageous to face things that are unknown to him about himself. Because maturity and personal development begins once we manage to overcome ourselves.


Beydoun, Khaled. (2018). American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.

Dotsch, R., & Wigboldus, D. H.J. (2008). 'Virtual prejudice'. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 44, pp. 1194-1198.

Nisbett, Richard. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - and why.

Poggi, I., & D'Errico, F. (2017). 'Feeling offended: A blow to our image and our social relationships'. Front Psychol, Vol. 8, p. 2221.