Science + Technology

What motivates human behavior? UCLA psychology professor Shelley Taylor offers surprising insights into human nature

In a new book, Taylor argues that nurturing others and caring for their needs are as wired into our genes as our aggressive and competitive nature


Who best exemplifies the basic essence of human nature: greedy executives engaged in corporate fraud; Mike Tyson, the aggressive boxer; or the courageous, compassionate Americans who risked their lives to save strangers on Sept. 11?

If you chose only the personifications of greed and aggression, you are neglecting a vital part of our nature, according to Shelley E. Taylor, UCLA psychology professor. In a new book, Taylor argues that nurturing others and caring for their needs are as wired into our genes as our aggressive and competitive nature.

“The tending instinct is every bit as tenacious as our more aggressive, selfish side,” Taylor argues in “The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing Is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live” (Henry Holt). “Tending to others is as natural, as biologically based, as searching for food or sleeping.”

An internationally renowned scientist in the field of stress and health, Taylor conducted 25 years of research and analyzed more than 1,000 research studies before writing this book.

“I originally assumed that biology largely determines behavior,” Taylor said, “and so it was a tantalizing surprise to see how clearly social relationships forge our underlying biology, even at the level of gene expression. Chief among these social forces are the ways in which people take care of one another and tend to one another’s needs. An early warm and nurturant relationship, such as mothers often enjoy with their children, is as vital to development as calcium is to bones.

“The benefits that tending provides to children, especially those with genetic risks, are substantial. Children who are well tended in early childhood grow up with better social and emotional ways of meeting the world. Even in adult relationships, we tend to each other’s needs in ways that sustain long and healthy lives.”

Life, business and relations between the sexes are often depicted as battlefields — “dog eat dog” — where the successful outmaneuver and overpower the weak. Taylor, whose research is federally funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health, finds this metaphor to be a half-truth, at best.

“Tending is instinctive, and affects our biology at every stage of life,” she said. “We have neuro-circuitries for tending as surely as we have biological circuitry for obtaining food and reproducing ourselves. How people fare in times of stress — from how calm they are to their likelihood of becoming ill — depends on the quality of the tending they receive.”

What role does our genetic makeup play in determining our behavior?

“The genome is like an architect’s first plan, a rough projection of how a person may turnout,” Taylor argues. “This plan is revised during the course of the building process. The kitchen is rotated 90 degrees, the living room is extended a few feet. Later, the owner adds a bathroom, perhaps even a second story. This is what happens when genes meet the environment in which they find expression, and tending is a large part of this environment.

“From life in the womb to the surprisingly resilient brain of old age, the social environment molds and shapes the expression of our genetic heritage until the genetic contribution is sometimes barely evident. A mother’s tending can completely eliminate the potential effects of a gene; a risk for a disease can fail to materialize with nurturing, and a genetic propensity may lead to one outcome for one person and the opposite for another, based on the tending they received.

“Who we are — our character, even our physical health — depends on the people who tend to us and how well we get along with them — our mothers, fathers, friends and lovers.”

Early tending has an extraordinary impact on children, Taylor documents. Showing an example of the devastating effects on children who received little love or tending, Taylor cites the hundreds of thousands of Romanian orphans housed together in desperate conditions at the end of the Ceausescu regime in 1990. With few workers to care for large numbers of children, relief workers were shocked to find “room after room of children who rocked back and forth, hit their heads against the walls, and grimaced oddly, giving no sign they had registered that anyone new was present,” she writes. “Others simply stared at the strangers with big, sad eyes.

“Their emotions were stunted. They took little joy in their surroundings, and were not bothered by reprimands or criticisms. They just didn’t care. They weren’t tortured or raped. They just weren’t loved, held, hugged or taught to feel emotions or how to recognize them in others.

“The first few years of life are critical for building these emotional responses to life. If a child fails to get warm, responsive contact with another person during those years, the disadvantages may never be fully overcome.”

As the Soviet bloc crumbled, Eastern Europe’s newly free countries experienced an abrupt decline in the marriage rate, a staggering increase in divorce, a steep decline in the birth rate, dramatic increases in heart disease and fatal accidents, and a plummeting life expectancy. People who were expected to live into their 70s were dying in their 40s and 50s instead. The threat to life expectancy hit young and middle-aged men especially hard, particularly those who were single. In 1994 a Russian man’s life expectancy had decreased to just 57 (from 64 five years earlier). Men in the former East Germany suffered a 40 percent increase in their death rate.

“Women fared better than men because they had informalties in place that helped them negotiate the new social and economic order,” Taylor writes. “Using well-honed networking skills, they were able to acquire food and other goods to maintain their now reduced standard of living. Women and children died, too, but in far fewer numbers, sustained through the transition by the social bonds they had created and nurtured. When a society’s tending system breaks down, illness and death can follow, sometimes in astonishingly short order. Men, in particular, are vulnerable.”

Among older workers in the United States, those with little social support die earlier, Taylor said. How well workers are treated by their immediate supervisor makes a large difference in their physical and mental health, especially for men, Taylor writes. This “tending,” or lack of it, by your supervisor, affects your risk for coronary heart disease or a heart attack, as well as depression and anxiety.

Nurturing contact with parents in early childhood, combined with social support during times of stress, good friends (especially female friends), and a strong, loving relationship (especially with a wife) “all protect against the psychological and health problems that stress otherwise promotes,” she writes.

People with social support have “younger” stress systems and better protection against major chronic diseases, Taylor writes. Strong ties with family and close friends protect against health ailments, while social isolation increases the risk for all causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, strokes and accidents.

“More than 100 scientific studies show that people who have social support and who are connected to their families, their colleagues at work, their communities, their churches and their friends all prosper biologically,” Taylor said.

Women often get much of their social support from other women, and women’s friendships are vital to their mental health, she writes. Throughout life, women seek more close friends than men do, and create larger social networks for themselves.

Women’s networks become especially important in stressful times, meeting a variety of needs, including raising children, protecting against violence and coping with stress.

Even among animals, she writes, females enjoy the comfort of one another’s company. In a study of Norway rats, for example, females housed together in groups of five lived 40 percent longer than rats that were housed alone. Among prairie voles (a small rodent), males react to stressful conditions by seeking contact with their female mates, while females turn not to their mates, but to other female “friends.” Female bonobos (monkeys) form intense, long-lasting bonds with other females, much more so than males.

From vervet monkeys to humans, mothers often treat their young the way they were treated in childhood. In monkeys, mothers who were mistreated or deprived in infancy do not mother their own offspring as well as nurtured monkeys do, Taylor writes. Men and women who were abused as children are likely to become abusive parents themselves, she writes, and children who do not receive much physical attention or warmth are at risk for a wide range of serious physical and mental health problems.

Taylor’s own research over many years shows that turning to one’s social group for safety and support is a common way for people to cope with stress. “The fact that one can see a similar pattern in animals suggests that turning to others may have quite old biological origins,” she writes.

Across cultures, girls typically receive training in tending from an early age, Taylor writes, beginning with playing with dolls and caring for younger siblings, baby-sitting for others’ children, and later caring for their own children, a sick husband and elderly parents.

With the enormous popularity of cell phones, Taylor noted, we now carry our social support network with us wherever we go. Friendships are vital, she said, and “social ties are the cheapest medicine we have.”

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