THE BLOG
08/01/2012 11:28 am ET | Updated Oct 01, 2012

How Important Is Culture in Shaping Our Behavior?

Technically, culture is always "in the news," and not just in the arts and entertainment section of our newspapers. It is like unacknowledged water to a fish, or the oxygen we breathe. Yet recently culture has been an explicit topic of debate. After Mitt Romney took flak for saying that the power of culture was responsible for the different living standards of Israelis and Palestinians and some tried to understand how pop culture might have influenced Aurora, Colorado, shooter James Holmes, it is worthwhile to examine the ways that culture does and does not influence our behavior.

Romney's invocation of culture as a means of explaining how one group of people succeeds and another doesn't may be misleading because Israel's culture has been through fits and starts and is still hammering out a coherent identity. As David Brook's has written, and though it might seem strange to an outsider, Israel was not always considered to have such a modern culture. "The odd thing is that Israel has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora were strongest," Brooks writes. "Instead of research and commerce, Israelis were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics." Only recently have Israeli research and intellectual exchange blossomed to become hallmarks of that society, Brooks writes.

Many have attempted to describe the great intellectual achievements of the Jews, both in diaspora and those that have returned to Israel. In his book The Brain and its Self, The Jewish Hungarian neurochemist Joseph Knoll writes that struggling to survive in the ghettos of Europe and perforce acquiring neurochemical drives allowed the Jewish people to transmit superior brain development to the next generation. "In retrospect we may say that to survive Jews were always required to better exploit the physiological endowments of their brains," he writes.

So in this important way, culture does matter quite a bit to how we behave and how we think. Knoll's assessment is in line with what influential psychologist and neuroscientist Merlin Donald has written on culture's influence on our brain functioning -- and even our brain structure. Merlin holds that language has the biggest impact on brain structure but that culture influences brain functioning to a great extent. In his book A Mind So Rare, he writes:

"The social environment includes many factors that impinge on development, from bonding and competitive stress to the social facilitation of learning. These can affect brain functioning in many ways, but usually they have no direct influence on functional brain architecture. However, symbolizing cultures own a direct path into our brains and affect the way major parts of the executive brain become wired up during development. This is the key idea behind the notion of deep enculturation... This process entails setting up the very complex hierarchies of cognitive demons (automatic programs) that ultimately establish the possibility of new forms of thought. Culture effectively wires up functional subsystems in the brain that would not otherwise exist."

This is not to say that culture is responsible for everything we do and think. Indeed, the very formation of the culture that helped the diaspora Jews succeed was a result of circumstance, rather horrific circumstance. And sometimes glomming onto the idea of culture's potency can have disastrous results. The now discredited broken windows theory held that a culture of crime can quickly take root if citizens are not bonded together to keep up their neighborhoods and remain serious about punishing minor crimes. The theory resulted in an uptick in intense community policing, but was not actually responsible for the drop in crime rates of the late 1990s. It did result in the incarceration of many African Americans for petty crimes.

Using culture as the lens to explain success and failure also obscures more widespread (and harder to control) socioeconomic and biological factors. To truly understand culture's role in shaping us, we must understand that culture is not just the inert repository of ideas and customs we all live with, but that it too is shaped by various factors. As President Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, fending off claims that black culture is to blame for African Americans' plight, "In other words, African Americans understand that culture matters but that culture is shaped by circumstance. We know that many in the inner city are trapped by their own self-destructive behavior but that those behavior are not innate." It is naive to believe, as the now discredited New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer did, that culture creates a person. Culture shapes us, but many events mold culture and we shape these just as much.

To blame our culture for the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, would be wrongheaded and many in the media have pointed this out for reasons beyond psychological self-defense. Even if culture is a primary factor in our lives, and that largely depends on the person's receptivity to culture, it would be nearly impossible to create a culture ahead of time that is conducive to producing better behavior and healthier thoughts. This is because much of culture depends on our biological and evolutionary hardware, which is in flux. And our evolutionary heritage is largely one of aggression and violence, despite our pains to sublimate these influences through cultural activities like art and religion. Thus, if we are to blame anything for a tragic mass shooting, it must be our vestigial aggression.

Interestingly, some scientists believe that culture may be adaptive and thus help our brains function better to help us reproduce more successfully. This would cast culture in relief as something that is both important for our survival and also subject to the whims of those harder to control and much bigger forces in life. At the least, it absolves filmmakers who explore issues of violence and responsibility, like those that made the most recent Batman installment. More broadly, it could account in part for how some cultures help their members achieve.

Yet we shouldn't get too hung up on pitting cultures against each other, as Romney did in Israel. In his Lyrical and Critical Essays, Albert Camus writes, "Men express themselves in harmony with their land. And superiority, as far as culture is concerned, lies in this harmony and nothing else. There are no higher or lower cultures. There are cultures that are more or less true." The goal should be to emulate the truest, noblest aspects of every culture and try to learn about each culture's people. The benefits to brain development or reproduction would surely be just as great in exploring others' ways of life as immersing oneself in a single nation's or group's traditions, however beneficial that one culture may be.