When people persistently misbehave and claim that they have uncontrollable impulses, are driven by their natures, or that they can't help themselves, they are implying that they can't change because their behavior is genetically rooted.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, September 15, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Was Serena's Outburst Genetic?

No, it isn't, but people seem to be hinting that it is.

Serena Williams has changed her position and apologized for her outlandish display of anger and aggression at the U.S. Tennis Open. In doing so, she has identified her problem as her fiery nature and intense competitiveness, which makes her lose track of herself and her actions - a loss-of-control model of bad behavior.

John McEnroe, too, often seemed to be totally out of his head during his outbursts. Perhaps these individuals suffer from a genetic inheritance that causes them to have uncontrollable rages.

If you read PT Blogs, and especially Peter Kramer, you're probably convinced depression is inherited, and addiction too. So you might be surprised that the evidence is greater, and more geneticists believe, that impulsivity/anti-social personality is genetically based. Moreover, there is a much longer and stronger tradition of thinking that these things (and criminality) are inherited.

For example, people might be surprised to learn that the dominant theory for the inheritance of alcoholism, presented by Robert Cloninger and his associates at Washington University (St. Louis), is that alcoholism is steeped in the inheritance of antisocial personality disorder, which predisposes men to become alcoholics.

I don't believe these things (as I wrote in My Genes Made Me Do It for Psychology Today). But why has our culture switched from a belief in the heritability of conduct disorders to acceptance of inheritance of mood disorders? Because the former are politically incorrect; the latter are socially acceptable. That is, we don't like to say that people are in prison because of an inherited disposition - it seems to excuse criminal behavior.

Worse, since more minorities per capita are in prison, theories of the heritability of impulsiveness, antisocial personality, and sociopathy suggest that minorities inherit criminality. This was once the most popular American and European theory about the cause of crime.

Let me be clear here - I disbelieve such simplified models of the relationship among behavior, genetics, and inheritance. I don't think a gene turns a person into a criminal. Even if they inherit impulsiveness, people can skateboard and skydive to express this disposition. Even if people are relatively insensitive to the feelings of others (which supposedly underlies antisocial personality disorder), they can still learn and adhere to moral standards.

And I am also saying that what our society accepts as being genetically based is determined as much by cultural attitudes and politics as by scientific evidence.

Which leads us to the suggestion that John McEnroe and Serena Williams inherited their tendency towards bad behavior. We accept inheritance of depression and of addiction because these are maladies that we can be sympathetic towards - we feel it is unfortunate that people suffer with these problems.

But we aren't likely to tolerate people screaming and striking out at and hurting others as being due to some genetic legacy.

Let's turn to common sense evidence here. In the comments on my first blog about Serena's verbal assault on a line judge, I - and commenter Russell Friedman - discussed Bjorn Borg, Jack Nicklaus, and Roger Federer. All of these men had difficulty behaving themselves when they entered organized sports; all outgrew these behaviors in line with parental restrictions as they matured. So if they did inherit impulsive or antisocial tendencies (which I don't believe), they are proof that such tendencies are readily overcome.

Are Serena Williams and John McEnroe claiming they can't help themselves because of such inherited personality traits? They don't clearly state that they are, but sometimes they lean in that direction to excuse themselves. Watch out, leaning in that direction, you can fall in an abyss.