Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: "Behave" by Robert M. Sapolsky

For anyone who wants to understand all of the huge number of factors that influence human behavior, as well as counter overly pat, simple, or downright mythological explanations for it, I cannot recommend a book more highly than this one. Every page – and there are almost 700 of them - is just packed with enlightening information on the role of almost everything you can think of. 

These factors include genes, gene regulation, epigenetics, neurotransmitters, hormones, brain structures, neural networks, unconscious cuing and sensory triggers, stress responses and protective factors, neural plasticity, peers and social acceptance, attachment figures, brain development in childhood and adolescence, socioeconomic and hierarchical status, collectivist vs. individualistic cultures, gender, reactions to “them” vs. “us,” heritibility  vs. inheritance of traits, gene/environmental interactions,  population density, evolution (individual, kin, and group selection), reciprocal and pathological altruism, obedience vs. resistance, cooperation vs. competition, and empathy. And a whole lot more.

Can one book really be that encyclopedic?? Yes! I have no idea how he accomplished writing this. 

If you do not understand some of the scientific concepts that are under discussion, he conveniently includes three appendices in the book to help explain them. Not that the main body of the book is dry and overly technical. It is laced throughout with witty jokes, stories, and ironic observations that kept me thoroughly entertained.

Does he leave anything out? Well, yes, he does not seem to know about the effects of rapid cultural change on families which may create shared intrapsychic conflicts leading to parents giving mixed messages to their children which then trigger and reinforce their repetitive self destructive behavior. But I haven’t yet seen anyone else write about that besides me – at least not in the way I have conceptualized the process - so I wouldn’t expect that. He also doesn’t discuss the effects of chaos theory on the amazingly multi-factorial “causes” of behavior he goes into - a minor quibble.

Sapolsky shoots down behavioral and neuroscientific myths believed by health care professionals, some scientists, and the lay public alike (what mirror neurons actually do, for example) with the abandon of someone armed with an Uzi facing off against people armed with swords. Amazing.

Some of his important points: 

1.       Brains and cultures co-evolve.

2.       We haven’t evolved to be selfish or altruistic, but to behave in particular ways in particular settings. Context is everything.

3.       Genes are not about inevitabilities, but about potentials and vulnerabilities, and they do not determine any behavior on their own.

4.       Evolution has been most consequential when altering regulation of genes, not the genes themselves.

5.       Saying a biological system works well is not a value judgment – it can function equally well for those who do something wonderful or in those who do something horrific.

6.       Nothing seems to cause anything - everything just modulates something else within a specific environmental context. And changing one thing often changes ten other things as a byproduct.

7.       Any causative factor within any specified population of individuals within any specific environmental context has an average effect on behavior that may or may not apply to any given individual. There are always exceptions.

What an accomplishment.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book and I am putting it at the top of my queue.

    I wanted to comment here to thank you for your writing. I've read probably a hundred of your blogs by now, and found it very helpful. In college I self-diagnosed as BPD and have spent a good deal of the past decade attempting to understand the root causes of and fix my emotional dysregulation issues. I am much better than where I used to be, but still a work in progress.

    Your blog is the top source I've been able to read quality information about how to understand the intergenerational patterns at work in my own family.

    I also had a question for you. I find the perspective on this blog to be insightful and unique so I am curious as to your personal answer.

    What is the root cause of these big gaps people have when it comes to understanding their own behavior?

    I see that in many other blogs and forums where people discuss their disordered family members, people seem to have a huge lack of insight into their own behavior and effects on other people.

    For example, a mother blogging about her struggles with her parent's NPD and her daughter's NPD, but showing almost no insight that she is exactly the same as them, and with her daughter, had a huge role to play in shaping that behavior.

    I guess I'm asking is there some sort of biological mechanism for denial, or something you've learned that explains why people rationalize away their own behavior to the point that the reactions of the people around them seem inexplicable?

    I've started to conceive of empathy as less of a personality trait and more like a tool - some people are very good with it, and other people never take it out of the box, and it gets rusty. I am wondering your take on what the main difference between those groups are - why does one person overcome hurt they've been caused to see the hurt they cause, while another person seems to be unable to step outside themselves?

    Thanks again for your fascinating blog. I'm sorry most of the comments on your blog are negative by the way. I used to read them because you replied but then stopped because of the fact that it seems like (as much of the internet) people just use the comments to vent whatever rage they're feeling that day. I hope you know there are likely many more readers who are benefiting from your work; we probably just don't comment as often.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Thank you for your kind words and for your question. There are a lot of factors that go into denial, but usually the main one has to do with the specific dysfunctional role someone is playing within their family and the fact that, in order to play it, they have to act as if they don't know things they do. This is also called willful blindness, and in the context of family dysfunction it is IMO due to the Actor's Paradox (