Blending in with the crowd, taking on approaches of local culture, learning when to speak or keep mum, mastering new software or for that matter, an iPhone. Aren’t these examples of routine adaptability? Don’t we generally consider it an asset?
To read Adam Alter’s Times column, “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are,” our chameleon-like tendencies are more potent than we give them credit for, extending to environments and their influence on responsible behaviors.
Mr. Alter cites research suggesting we might all be closet litterbugs – more likely to disrespect environments where that’s the norm, and better behaved otherwise, certainly if we think we’re being watched.
To some degree at least, the belief that we cannot change may be wrong – at least when it comes to modifying behavior.
I find it ironic that we have little problem with toddlers and technology. So why do we encourage technological adaptability, and neglect to focus on evolution of other sorts, whatever the age?
An Adaptability Index
As parents, it’s obvious to most of us that children internalize what they see at home. That isn’t the entire story of course – who we become is far more complex.
We also tend to think that adaptability lessens as we age. But are we truly more teachable, more pliable, when our brains are younger? What about the vast numbers of us starting over – in second lives or third – in new marriages, new careers, new cities, new countries? Aren’t we a society that is obsessed with the notion of reinventing? Wouldn’t this suggest adaptability? Isn’t it a variation on survival of the fittest, in other words – evolve or die?
Assessing my own ability (willingness?) to start over, I wonder if my ease at moving abroad (at 20 or 25) was due to greater adaptability or the influence of less literal and metaphorical baggage. Then again, are some of us by nature adaptable in extremis?
If there were an “Adaptability Index,” would some score higher than others regardless of stage in life? Should we dub this the Adaptability Quotient, so we might tally up an individual’s IQ, EQ, and AQ into a tidy predictive performance package?
Location, Location, Location
There’s nothing new in the position that we’re shaped by our environment. Our preoccupation with ridding ourselves of clutter and brightening our interiors is ample indication of that fact.
But in the larger (and more profound) sense, we’re well aware that the accident of birth – where we’re born and raised – is a significant determinant of our opportunities, and arguably the single most important determinant.
Who will dispute that raised in a rural setting, your appreciation of nature may come more readily than growing up in an urban environment? Who will deny that the odds for a healthy, decent life aren’t higher when born in a nation with good schools and access to quality healthcare? Or if born into privilege, as opposed to poverty?
Can’t we also turn to familial habits and recognize the ways in which both beliefs and behaviors are shaped by surroundings? Might this mean we’re less likely to respect ourselves if we’re stuck in disrespectful relationships, in damaging work environments, or more ambiguous circumstances? If, as Mr. Alter writes, we’re more adaptive than we realize, is there hope for changing bad behaviors – even if practiced over half our lifetimes?
A dip into Psychology Today’s definition of environmental psychology reveals:
Environmental psychology explores how physical spaces influence the way we feel, think, and interact with the world and vice versa… in an effort to better understand how both natural and built environments influence human behavior.
Theoretically, from a foundation of environmental psychology, we can design or improve our schools, medical facilities, work settings, and urban landscapes. The idealist in me would add, with a goal that includes lower stress, greater efficiency, more enjoyment, or an approach that is more respectful of human needs in the ways we live, work, and play.
As Mr. Alter writes:
… It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.
But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.
Adaptability to Our Advantage
To the extent that Mr. Alter suggests we’re works-in-process and malleable, I agree.
I grew up in New England; I have a preference for federal architecture. I was raised around art and books; I would be hard-pressed to divest myself of their pleasures. I was the child of a mother who was often angry; I spent years running from confrontation, eventually learning how to argue effectively and without getting personal.
We absorb, we follow, and we also choose. We are blended by-products of experiential and environmental influences, but much more and we know it – including the exercise of the ways in which we’re adaptable.
So how do we apply this knowledge to improving the quality of our everyday lives – beyond mastering the latest gadgets or adjusting to the peculiarities of an online world? Where do we begin when it comes to essentials – our neighborhoods and our schools, not to mention family dynamics?
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