Brooklyn College – Master of Arts in Liberal Studies

Core Seminar 2

Psychological Perspectives on Human Nature

Instructor: Miriam Shelton


Human nature and how it is expressed in the activity of life is the substance of psychology. However, within the field of psychology, there are many different approaches to studying and conceptualizing human nature. Since psychology is a social science, its statements are rooted in research, which limits what it can say about human nature.


In this course we will explore several basic approaches to the study of what is particularly “human,” and what we mean by “nature” in the expression “human nature.” Some of the dominant approaches we will follow include psychoanalytic, developmental, social and cultural. Though these sub-disciplines are often at odds with each other, we will not attempt to oppose or reconcile them. Instead, our aim is to understand what dimensions of human nature each of these perspectives reveals. Since my own background is in developmental psychology, I will organize the class in a developmental sequence.


Questions we will be addressing include, Where does human nature come from? What is universal and what is particular about our nature? What forces shape, and what events and processes allow change in nature, and which do not?


More narrow questions will include, What gives flexibility (or freedom) to a life? Where do responsibilities arise and how are they taken up? Related to these is the question of evil, or stated another way, Which is more characteristic of human nature--to help or to hurt other people? Given the historical moment in which this class meets, when rumors of terrorism and mass destruction seem to be on the increase, these questions may have practical and political implications, as some of the readings will argue.


Class format:


In the first class, each student will sign up to present and help discuss 1-2 articles from the readings. These discussions will occupy the first third of each class period, followed by my own integrating remarks on the readings and guidelines for thinking about people, their behavior and assessments of nature. The final portion of each class period will involve a practical application or reflection of the theoretical material.



In addition, each student will turn in a 1-2 page reflection paper on the readings for that day.





Readings and class schedule:

Readings will be available in the MALS office on a CD-R by September 25. IF you encounter any difficulty finding them, please call or e-mail me.


October 4. Nature- Nurture

What is the origin of human nature? Does it come with us when we are born, or is it given to us, claimed, or constructed during a lifetime? The readings reflect three perspectives (out of many): human nature evolved and is imprinted genetically; nature is the result of early life experiences; human nature is the product of cultural belonging and social process.


  1. Wade, N. (September 16, 2003) Play fair, your life may depend on it, New York Times, Science.
  2. Nelson, C. (1999) Neural plasticity and human development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8, 42-45.
  3. Rogoff, B.&  Morelli, G (1989) Perspectives on children’s development from cultural psychology. American Psychologist, 44, 343-348.
  4.  Helms, J. E.; Jernigan, M., & Mascher, J. (2005). The Meaning of Race in Psychology and How to Change It: A Methodological Perspective. American Psychologist, 60 ,27-36.
  5. Maslow, A. (1970). Hope, skepticism, and man’s higher nature, In: Religions, values, and peak experiences. New York: Viking Penguin Books, pp. 36-39.


Oct 11. Development

Does human nature change over time? In this unit we discuss human development. What is it that changes? Are the changes within an individual person or collective changes in a cultural group? How does change happen? The readings address development in emotional regulation, psychosocial skills, decision-making and cognitive processes.


  1. Winnicott, D.W. (1954) The depressive position in normal human development. Collected papers, 262-277.   ]
  2. Davidson and Youniss (1980) Which comes first, morality or identity? In: W.Kuritnes & J. Geweirtz, eds. Handbook  of moral behavior and development, vol 1: Theory. Hillsadale, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum, pp. 109-112, 118-120.
  3. Stratton Sloan, T (1992) Understanding major life decisions: a life history approach. New ideas in psychology 10, 65-77.



Oct 16. Focus on adolescent changes

  1. Kuhn, D & Udell, W. (2001). The path to wisdom. Educational psychologist, 36, 261-264. 
  2. Way, N. (1995) “Can’t you see the courage, the strength that I have?” Psychology of women quarterly, 19, 107-128.





Oct. 18. Patterns and Repetitions

What do patterns indicate in a human life or in a society? Should we think of these as repetition compulsions as Freud suggested, or as schemas, in Piaget’s language, or as efforts to repair wounds from the past? Are there differences in patterns of evil and patterns of good?


  1. Schickler, D. (2002) Jacob’s bath. In: Kissing in Manhattan. New York: Delta.
  2. Rosbrow-Reich, S. (1988). Identity and growth : A psychoanalytic study of divorce. Psychoanalytic review, 75, 419-441.
  3. Freud, S. (1964), Remembering, repeating and working-through, The standard Edition of the Complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 12. London: The Hogarth Press.



Oct 23.  Impact of Loss and mourning

  1. Butler, J. (2004) “Violence, Mourning, Politics” in Precarious life: The powers of mourning and violence. New York: Verso.
  2. Freud, S. (1964) Mourning and Melancholia, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume 14. London: The Hogarth Press.



Oct 25. Social Evil

  1. Osherow, N. (1981) “Making sense of the nonsensical: An analysis of Jonestown,” in: E. Aronson, ed. Readings about the social animal. New York: Worth.



Oct 30. Creativity

Some psychological theories suggest that we create ourselves in the minutiae of decisions of what to do every minute of the day. Most of us do not think of these activities as creativity, but many of us do worry about our creativity at work, relationships and art, because creativity is highly valued in our society. Readings for these classes address what it means to us to improvise our lives, and what the creative impulse involves and means.


  1. Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. (and other excerpts) in: Playing & reality. New York: Tavistock.
  2. Lorde, A. (1984) Why poetry is not a luxury. in: Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Norton.


Nov. 1.  Improvisations


  1. Holland. D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., Cain, C. (1998). The woman who climbed up the house, in: Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  2. Matthews, G. (1996). Ikigai in creation and religion. In: What makes life worth living: How Japanese and Americans make sense of their worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Nov 6.  Aging and Wisdom

What is the aim of our human living? Who and what do we hope to be when we age? Where and how does wisdom arise? Is wisdom something to aspire to, or is it as valid to travel, play bridge, and gossip at 88 as it was at 18? The readings today reflect various perspectives on what it means to be human and elderly.


  1. Langer, E.J. (2000). Mindfulness research and the future, Journal of Social Issues, 56, 129-139.
  2. Settlage, C. (1996) Transcending old age: Creativity, development and psychoanalysis in the life of a centenarian. International journal of psychoanalysis, 77, 549-564.
  3. Lichtman, R. (1981) Notes on Accumulation, Time and Aging. Psychology & social theory, 1, 69-76.