Behavior Genetics

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 154–167 | Cite as

Nurturing Our Better Nature: A Proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living

  • Eugenia I. GorlinEmail author
  • Reinier Schuur
Original Research


As we account for the genetic and environmental influences on morally-relevant character traits like intellectual honesty, industriousness, and self-control, do we risk becoming ever less accountable to ourselves? Behavioral genetic research suggests that about half the variance in such character traits is likely attributable to heredity, and a small fraction to the shared family environment. The remaining 40–60% is explained by neither genes nor family upbringing. This raises the question: how active a role can individuals play in shaping their own character? What, if anything, can and should one do to take responsibility for the kind of person one becomes? This paper sketches a novel theoretical proposal for addressing these questions, by drawing on several previously disparate lines of research within behavior genetics, philosophy, and experimental psychology. Our core proposal concerns the metacognitive capacity to engage in active, reality-based cognition, as opposed to passive, stimulus-driven processing or an active pretense at cognition (i.e., self-deception). We review arguments and evidence indicating that human beings both can and should exercise this capacity, which we have termed “cognitive integrity.” We argue that doing so can in a certain sense “set us free” of our genetic and environmental influences—not by rendering them irrelevant, but by giving us the awareness and motivation to manage them more responsibly. This perspective has important implications for guiding the development of psychosocial interventions, and for informing how we direct ourselves more generally, both as individuals and as a society.


Moral development Heritability Free will Cognitive control Metacognition Moral identity 



This research was funded by the Templeton Foundation via a Genetics and Human Agency junior investigator award to Dr. Gorlin. We also wish to thank associate editor Dr. Peter Zachar and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback, and Dr. Eric Turkheimer for heading the Genetics and Human Agency initiative. We are also grateful to Drs. Colin DeYoung and Jonathan Livengood for their helpful comments on a conference presentation that preceded this manuscript, and to Drs. Benjamin Bayer, Matthew Bateman, Boris Hanin, and others who have lent their insights and general moral support to this project.


This study was funded by the Templeton Foundation (via a Genetics and Human Agency junior investigator award).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Authors Gorlin and Schuur both declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed consent

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ferkauf Graduate School of PsychologyYeshiva UniversityBronxUSA
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of BirminghamBirminghamUK

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