Overview of influences on our personality:
What makes us how we are

last revision: April, 2017

Still in process!


In this first part of this chapter we'll have a look at what influences our character. We'll not go into the fine detail of actual influences — some of that will come in the chapters on self-development, education and therapy — but we will have a look at the main categories under which these actual influences can be ordered. We'll look at these categories from the outside inwards.

influences in the social and physical domains

In Europe, the 18th century saw a lively public debate on two related questions. The first was whether man was basically, innately good and could only be spoiled by later influences, or innately evil and in need of the civilizing influence of society to become at least partially good. Rousseau supported the former view and formulated it rather elegantly as "men are wicked, yes, but man is good". The various Christian religious authorities of the time strongly supported the latter; Calvin and his followers going furthest in the direction of "original sin", the idea that man is born full of sin. The second question was whether the qualities of a man are there from birth, or inscribed later as on a blank slate or tabula rasa. Both questions are of obvious public interest as the answers lead to very different ideas on upbringing, education and various other social and political issues. To name just a couple: when people are intrinsically sinful, a strict regime of coaching and moral education is crucial; if they are basically good, education should allow children maximum freedom to develop under their own inner guidance. If differences in intelligence are socially determined, first class universal education should be a top priority to improve basic social justice.

The discussion was initially known as nature vs nurture, but over time the nature pole got identified with the narrower concept of genetics. In the first half of the 20th century, a stress on genetics came to be equated with racism, and the two most influential behaviourist psychologists of the time, Skinner in the USA and Pavlov in the USSR were convinced any child could be conditioned into any kind of citizen. Though this seriously overstated what "conditioning" could achieve, there are numerous studies supporting the power of influences from the surrounding. We'll refer to these in the section on education. On the other side, there are studies with identical twins (and other siblings) who show stunning similarities in spite of having been brought up in entirely different families, which seems to support the opposite view that an amazingly wide variety of human traits and propensities are gentically determined. Over time more subtle in-between positions won ground and it is now commonly accepted that it is not a matter of either-or: genetics can set a baseline, or determine a certain range of possibilities, but it is nurture that determines which of those potentials will become manifest.

Fig. 1.3.1. Influences on individual development
— according to mainstream American psychology —

The genetic and environmental physical and social influences are all that mainstream modern science knows about and so that is what this first diagram deals with. The only exception is that we have included the "subconscious". As we have seen in chapter 10, "The Self and the structure of the personality", the subconscious does not belong to the outer being but to the inner being. We have included it here as Freud discovered one dark corner of it, which he called the "unconscious". There is some more info on the subconscious and how it relates to Freud's unconscious in part 4 of Appendix 1.2.1.


influences in the subtle realm of the inner being

Fig. 1.3.2. Influences in the subtle realm of the inner being
— according to most Indian traditions —



the Self as presence and refuge

Fig. 1.3.3. The Self as presence and refuge
— according to most Indian traditions —



the Self as influence

Fig. 1.3.4. The Self as influence
— according to integral Indian psychology —



the Self in control

Fig. 1.3.5. The Self in control
— according to integral Indian psychology —


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