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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Why We Behave As We Do

A key principle governing the natural world is that animals adapt to thrive in particular habitats; what we call an animal’s character is essentially a set of traits that gives it maximal opportunity to flourish in specific circumstances. The owl is – for example – furtive and nocturnal to help it succeed in crowded habitats with heavy pressures on food supplies. Stick insects are docile and skilled at disappearing into a background of twigs and branches to help them avoid the attention of rodents and spiders. And African wild dogs are collaborative and respectful of hierarchies to lend them the very best chances of cornering impalas and springboks.

Evening landscape with owls
Samuel Lucas, Evening Landscape with Owls, 1853

We humans are – in the end, beneath a layer of civilisation – not so different. We too adapt our characters to suit our specific habitats, though what we mean by habitats are not corners of the jungle or grassland but rather our families of birth. Just like many animals, we arrive defenceless into highly distinctive circumstances to which we must adjust in order to thrive.

In certain families, it will in short order become obvious – to the highly attuned psyche of a child – that success here requires that one keep a very low profile and never challenge the reigning figures of authority. In other habitats, the child will learn that it must constantly entertain everyone in order to be noticed while in others still, a child might surmise it needs to act up and get into certain forms of trouble to lay claim to a scarce supply of attention.

This thesis can be helpful – and opens up avenues of compassion – when we encounter people whose behaviour is especially puzzling or maddening. Why does a certain person keep telling lies? Why does another person find it so hard to be emotionally warm? We may need to look for answers in the adaptive strategies required by the habitats of their birth: evasions from the truth might be vital when there is someone furious and intolerant in the house; just as emotional reserve may be a highly intelligent adaptive move when there is a care-giver who is emotionally erratic or absent.

What makes life notoriously difficult for we humans, as for many animals, is that our habitats do not stand still. As the places we dwell in alter, so the traits that we originally developed to cope with them risk becoming either redundant or problematic.

It might, for example, have made great sense to hone a shouty, aggressive manner in an early habitat populated by burly competitive siblings, but this manner may, in the context of an adult relationship or an office environment, give rise to severe malfunction and upset. Similarly, it may once have made total sense to develop a hypervigilant outlook – with constant panic, lightning responses to threats and round the clock alarm – when the habitat of birth contained an abusive and unboundaried parent. But what once guaranteed safety may now destroy any chances of the peaceful and settled adult existence one craves and deserves.

The history of animal species is filled with melancholy examples of failures to adapt to new circumstances. To be a light speckled moth was wholly strategic before the Industrial Revolution – and a ticket to evolutionary disaster thereafter. It was once brilliant for a German Shepherd to try to bite most things that came its way – and a route to ostracism and extinction once it had to dwell in tightly-packed cities filled with young children. 

We may ourselves – without realising it – be behaving in ways that only ever really assisted us in the very specific habitat of our birth. Our closed characters, our deceitfulness, our manic joy or round-the-clock fear may be legacies of habitats we left behind decades ago. Our angry father or manipulative mother, our jealous siblings or moralistic caregiver are no longer here – while the traits we needed to cope with them endure and continuously marr our relationships and our careers. It may be time to say farewell to much in our characters that was only ever a clever and creative strategy for survival in a narrow world that no longer exists.

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