The nature of human choice

Have you ever noticed that human nature is only used to explain undesirable behavior?

Human nature is tossed around as the explanation for nearly every example of deplorable, indecent, disrespectful, irresponsible behavior imaginable from bullying to sexual harassment to racism to violence. Whenever people are caught participating in highly questionable, even illegal activity, the typical reaction is, “Oh well, that’s just the way people are. It’s human nature.”

Why don’t we apply the human nature explanation when people are observed performing unselfish, compassionate, humane acts? When someone risks his life to save others or provides a service without accepting payment or shares information without expecting credit, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh yeah, well that’s human nature.” Why isn’t human nature suggested as the reason for admirable behavior?

Now, I’m not an expert on human nature, but it seems to me that if something can be attributed to human nature then, by definition, we would all be participating in whatever behavior or activity is in question. We would be powerless to do otherwise, because it would be “our nature.”

Like the squirrels in my backyard that spend every day collecting food, stuffing their cheeks, rushing back and forth to their nests. They don’t stop to check the weather or what the other squirrels are doing. They are driven by their nature to store as much food as possible. All of them.

I find attributing only undesirable behavior to human nature to be curious since, as human beings, we are clearly capable of desirable as well as undesirable actions. Therefore, I am inclined to believe that human nature is not the explanation for either. Rather, it seems to me that it is human nature to have choice.

Everything we do, from the instant we open our eyes when we awake, until the instant we close them in sleep, is a choice. Granted, many of the choices we make are so routine that we are not even aware of them, but they are choices nevertheless.

For every choice we make, there are consequences. To choose one option means to not choose the others. Therein lies the rub. Taking responsibility for our choices, especially when the consequences end up being detrimental to us or those we love, can be extremely difficult.

Now let me make it perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that everything that happens to us is by choice. Certainly things happen that are beyond our control; however, a great deal of what happens to us is due to the choices we have made. And for everything that happens to us, we do have the freedom to choose how to deal with it.

Unfortunately, our choices are not always what we’d like. Sometimes we are faced with deciding between equally distasteful choices. But that is the nature of having choice. With choice come consequences. With the freedom to make choices comes the responsibility for their consequences.

When we play the “human nature” card, we put a stop to any conversation about the possibility for change. We are ignoring all of the examples of people who do not participate in the behavior in question. We are denying the existence of choice and personal responsibility. And like it or not, there is always a choice.

The process by which we make choices is significantly influenced by observation and experience. Factors such as age, maturity level, and intellectual capacity also play a role. The older we get, the more complicated our choices become, and the more profound the consequences. Mistakes are inevitable. But no matter how reasonable our explanations seem, they do not excuse us from responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Dumbledore wisely told Harry Potter, “It is our choices, far more than our abilities, that show what we truly are.”

Our children depend on us to model and teach how to make good choices. They need us to:

Know our choices. Familiarize ourselves with all the choices we make. Find opportunities to identify the available choices and the process for choosing between them. Verbalize our reasoning. When relevant, consider how our decision might impact other people. Avoid saying, “I didn’t have a choice.”

Limit choices. No one has unlimited choices. Provide our children with reasonable, limited, age-appropriate choices. Consider their preferences and interests. Too many choices can be overstimulating and overwhelming for young children. Limiting choices does not thwart creativity. Remember Steve Jobs always wore the same outfit.

Connect choices to consequences. Identify consequences in books and movies. Discuss how undesirable consequences might have been avoided if characters had made different choices. Help children explore the consequences of their choices. Recognize when they make good choices. Make the consequences for poor choices related and reasonable. Remember, the goal is to teach, not punish.

Admitting that we have made a poor choice is never easy, but perhaps a more effective use of time and energy would be to make amends rather than excuses. Better yet, resolve to make better choices! Choose to make this a happy new year!

Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman is a resident of Lexington, Kentucky. She has degrees in child development, family studies, and marriage and family therapy and has worked as a family therapist and parent educator. To contact her, please e-mail parent4lif[email protected]

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