Is Human Behavior Elective or Pre-determined?

Recent news of violence by policemen re-sparked the discussions of the appropriateness of authority figures’ conduct. The courts will ultimately determine these questions on a case-by-case basis. Is there an overriding perspective that can best guide us in understanding these incidents that can lead to principles of greater civility and even kindness?

In some criminal cases the defense resorts to explaining an accused offender’s behavior by biological or physiological influences. In “The Moral Animal, Why We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology” Robert Wright states “Scientists link crime to low serotonin, Molecular biologists try to isolate genes that incline the brain towards mental illness and drugs interfere with our judgment. People are getting the sense from news in genetics, molecular biology, pharmacology, neurology and endocrinology – that we are all machines, pushed and pulled by forces that we can’t discern.” The author balances this perspective by Darwinism, which asks the individual to assess the “Why” he is acting that way rather than blaming others. Darwin also lamented, “Determinism is eroding blame and threatening society’s moral fiber.”

The idea that any individual is propelled exclusively by physiological cues discredits the intellectual and moral judgment that all beings, especially trained individuals, possess even in times of heightened emotional stress.

Not only is the individual in a state of fear and acute psychological distress when he/she encounters an officer but the police officer is as well. When we face a potentially confrontational situation, we become fearful and our sharp cognitive functions are significantly reduced as we transition to a “fight or flight” response. Both parties do not have the option of fleeing and thus have to intentionally brace themselves to keep their wits, action protocol and sensibilities intact. The fact that simple communication orders are not immediately heeded is not necessarily a sign of resistance but of fear and being overwhelmed. For the police officer a delay in compliance may only heighten some fears and possibly his/her aggression.

Though it is not a novel suggestion, the kinder the police officer is, and many are, the less frightened and more compliant the approached individual may become and the easier their exchanges can safely be made. A softer tone, a friendly demeanor and a non-accusatory attitude are probably the current ongoing police training policies and their efficacy is well documented. Those officers who practice these ways spare themselves a greater struggle with individuals and may reduce both parties’ “fight or flight” emotional reactivity.

Human Behavior is both pre-determined and elective:

  • Both physiological and psychological factors impact human behavior.
  • Excusing individual responsibility because of biological /physiological function must be fully weighed.
  • Encounters between authority figures and the public evoke uncertainty, insecurity, fear and emotional distress for both parties.
  • A “Fight or Flight” response is a healthy survival mechanism for self-preservation that also reduces one’s immediate cognitive and emotional efficacy.
  • Kindness and a non-accusatory approach by police facilitate a better outcome for law enforcement and the public.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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