How Explaining Human Behavior Has Changed Over Time



“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” — William Shakespeare

You are the product of your thoughts, and your environment.

You are not simply the products of your environment.

You are more than that.

You are the product of your thoughts, your expectations, and you choices.

While reading Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, by Martin Seligman, I thought it was great to see how the explanation of human behavior has morphed over time.

We Can Change the Way We Think

Early pop psychology said it’s our environment that determines who we are.

In the earlier days of psychology, popular opinion was that people are the product of their environment.  Eventually, psychologists figured out that habits of thinking can be changed and that individuals can choose the way they think.

I didn’t realize how many competing schools of thought there were. 

I also like the fact that eventually it was possible to connect all the dots and agree that people can choose their behavior. 

I think the most important point that gets reinforced here is that while your environment is a strong influence, at the end of the day, you still have the power of choice.  

As one of my favorite martial arts instructors used to say, “don’t let other people push your buttons.” 

He was a true master of responding over reacting.

People are "Pushed" and "Pulled"

Popular opinion was that people were pushed or pulled into their behavior.

Via Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life:

“The prevailing explanation of human action was that people were ‘pushed’ by their internal drives or ‘pulled’ by external events. 

Though the details of the pushing and pulling depended on the particular theory you happened to hold, in outline all the fashionable theories agreed to this proposition. 

The Freudians held that unresolved childhood drove adult behavior.  The followers of B.F. Skinner held that behavior was repeated only when reinforced externally.  The ethnologists held that behavior resulted from fixed action patterns determined by our genes, and the behaviorist followers of Clark Hull held that we were goaded into action by the need to reduce drivers and satisfy biological needs.”

Self-Direction Over Outside Forces

According to Seligman, 4 different lines of thought converged around self-direction over outside forces for explaining human action:

  1. Noam Chomsky argued against B.F. Skinner that language is generative, and that language and human action are not the result of strengthening past verbal habits.
  2. Jean Piaget convinced the industry that you could study the unfolding mind of an individual child,
  3. Cognitive psychology argued that you could model and measure the workings of the human mind
  4. Behavioral psychologists found that drives and needs weren’t enough to explain animal and human behavior, and they added thoughts to help explain complex behavior.

The result? 

According to Seligman, "the dominant theories in psychology shifted focus in the late 1960’s from the power of the environment to individual expectation, preference, choice, decision, control and helplessness."

Your thoughts separate you from the pack.

You can choose.

Photo by Only Sequel.


  1. It’s interesting to watch the balances being set between genetic tendencies, physical chemistry and personal choice. While all play a roll I really like the emphasis on personal control and choice because that feeling of responsibility can so help you change your life towards a desired outcome.

  2. The research of Maria Montessori is in my opinion, the best indication of how children really grow and learn, how language is acquired through the Absorbent Mind and how nerve paths are forged. She proved how environment is so critical, especially during the very tender planes of ages 0 to 3 and 3 to 6.

    She was so ahead of her time, and continues to be. I highly,highly recommend Montessori education.

  3. In many ways these seem to parallel the age old philosophical problems of free will.

    To what extent do people choose their actions and to what extent are they products of their environment? I don’t think we can say it is 100% one way or another. Instead, we are interdependent on a variety of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

    I think a more interesting shift in psychology, which is also related to Seligman, is the change from studying the mentally ill to the mentally gifted. Instead of saying, “How can we limit our suffering?” we are asking, “How can we instill habits of complete and utter success, joy and happiness?” Thus psychology is broadening its implications not only to maintaining mental health, but also to how can we be good achievers?

  4. @ Alik

    The thoughtful, self-directed solopreneur.

    @ beijingphoto


    @ Fred

    I agree. Michael Michalko, a former Disney imagineer, wrote a killer post for me on Choice.

    I think the key to choice is first expanding awareness. Then it’s practicing the power of the pause. Then it’s distinguishing between emotional input and intellectual process. I think with those raw mechanics in place, it’s a skill you improve over time (and Drucker has many insights on how to improve judgment. I can’t help but to think of judgment as a key skill in life.)

    @ Jannie

    Very interesting. I want to compare her work with learnings from Marcus Buckingham. I also want to check out Martin Seligman’s other book, that might be related – What You Can Change and What You Can’t.

    @ Steven

    Good points, and related to shifts, I’m a fan of the strengths movement. Instead of asking what’s wrong with things, it’s about asking what’s right with things. That’s the heart of positive psychology. Find the patterns and practices that work and amplify those.

    I’m still a fan of finding the flaws too, but if we only know anti-patterns, we limit ourselves. Focusing on strengths is how we go from good to great.

  5. Hi JD

    There are so many schools of thought when it comes to psychology. They probably all apply in one way or another. There are enough books out there and, crumbs, I’ve read quite a few of them.

    Guess it comes down to the whole “nature/nurture” debate.

    I think we are a “product” of both i.e. our environment (upbringing) and our genetics. Doesn’t mean we can’t change things though. Just that sometimes the genetics bit takes some work.

    Now there are also the alternative therapies that connect the mind and body and I think there is a great deal of power in this approach.


  6. Push, pull. Interesting. Good think I didn’t read the environment beliefs as I would have felt a lot more helpless in my 20s. 🙂

    I find that regardless of what caused you to be the way you are, you own it now. The digging to find out where it came from can help with awareness and finding out how to shift it, but past that point I’m not sure that it matters really (even though my ego really wants it to matter). Environment, both internal and external, past and present is about locating the push, pull influencers and finding the steering wheel so you can decide on the changes.

    I often think about the people who have lost their long term memories. Especially interesting are the ones who have some memories from adulthood but lost them only in the past 10 years. They don’t feel lost usually, but rather are more in the moment.

    I say, if I lost my memory would this still be a problem for me? When I come up with “no”, I understand that it’s just a set of thoughts I need to shift. When “yes”, I can see there is some sort of environmental issue still pushing or pulling me and creating that pattern.

    For example, issues with my parents are long gone in my case so feeling lonely in high school doesn’t have to effect me now when I sit alone at a lunch table.But if I’m having trouble with running over people and not being heard, that might still be an issue if I lost my memory if it’s environment based.

    Brings me back to you post on creating lasting change in an organization from the influencer training. This applies in some ways to yourself as well where you are the “organization” being changed by internal and external influences.

  7. @ Juliet

    I like taking the best of the best … sort of like a mixed-martial arts approach. Bruce Lee influenced me early on to not get hung up on a school of thought, and instead focus on what works, test things for yourself, and of course, “absorb what is useful” 🙂

  8. @ Rob

    “You own it now” cuts right to the chase and empowers you to make the most of what you’ve got.

    I like your examples of an environmental issue pushing or pulling you.

  9. Hi JD .. I guess you’re referring to the last 80 years or so? I often wonder what makes the entrepreneurs entrepreneurs .. quite often businesses have been created by people who’ve left school at 16, with no qualifications and dyslexia (I know they’re bright)..

    That defiant spirit of a child – to turn themselves into something quite extraordinary is quite amazing – where the dot connection comes in I’ve no idea! So many start very early (voluntarily or not) .. and that work ethic is there and ripe for development, they’ve been accustomed to failing .. so pick up the sticks and start again. They have that never die attitude .. keep going and the desire to learn and grow ..

    Interesting topic – thanks JD .. & I’m looking forward to your post on fast reading .. Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  10. taking care of environment is one’s behaviour that comes from the disire born inside heart as someone sees enviroment in an atractive way.
    for example when i was young, i used to plant flowers and trees at home but i had never seen dad or mam doing it and till now it’s my behaviour i love green must start from the beginning and that is why you get the power to push or pull others

Comments are closed.