The nature versus nurture debate is one of the oldest philosophical issues within psychology. So what exactly is it all about?
- Nature refers to all of the genes and hereditary factors that influence who we are—from our physical appearance to our personality characteristics.
- Nurture refers to all the environmental variables that impact who we are, including our early childhood experiences, how we were raised, our social relationships, and our surrounding culture.
Even today, different branches of psychology often take a one versus the other approach. For example, biological psychology tends to stress the importance of genetics and biological influences. Behaviorism, on the other hand, focuses on the impact that the environment has on behavior.
In the past, debates over the relative contributions of nature versus nurture often took a very one-sided approach, with one side arguing that nature played the most important role and the other side suggesting that it was nurture that was the most significant. Today, most experts recognize that both factors play a critical role. Not only that, they also realize that nature and nurture interact in important ways all throughout life.
A Closer Look at the Nature vs. Nurture Debate
Do genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on your behavior? Do inherited traits or life experiences play a greater role in shaping your personality?
The nature versus nurture debate is one of the oldest issues in psychology. The debate centers on the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to human development.
Some philosophers such as Plato and Descartes suggested that certain things are inborn, or that they occur naturally regardless of environmental influences.
Nativists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics are the results of inheritance.
Advocates of this point of view believe that all of our characteristics and behaviors are the result of evolution. Genetic traits handed down from parents influence the individual differences that make each person unique.
Other well-known thinkers such as John Locke believed in what is known as tabula rasa, which suggests that the mind begins as a blank slate. According to this notion, everything that we are and all of our knowledge is determined by our experience.
Empiricists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics result from learning. Behaviorism is a good example of a theory rooted in empiricism. The behaviorists believe that all actions and behaviors are the results of conditioning. Theorists such as John B. Watson believed that people could be trained to do and become anything, regardless of their genetic background.
Examples of Nature vs. Nurture
For example, when a person achieves tremendous academic success, did they do so because they are genetically predisposed to be successful or is it a result of an enriched environment? If a man abuses his wife and kids, is it because he was born with violent tendencies or is it something he learned by observing his own parent's behavior?
A few examples of biologically determined characteristics (nature) include certain genetic diseases, eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other things like life expectancy and height have a strong biological component, but they are also influenced by environmental factors and lifestyle.
An example of a nativist theory within psychology is Chomsky's concept of a language acquisition device (or LAD). According to this theory, all children are born with an instinctive mental capacity that allows them to both learn and produce language.
Some characteristics are tied to environmental influences. How a person behaves can be linked to influences such as parenting styles and learned experiences.
For example, a child might learn through observation and reinforcement to say 'please' and 'thank you.' Another child might learn to behave aggressively by observing older children engage in violent behavior on the playground.
One example of an empiricist theory within psychology is Albert Bandura's social learning theory. According to the theory, people learn by observing the behavior of others. In his famous Bobo doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that children could learn aggressive behaviors simply by observing another person acting aggressively.
Even today, research in psychology often tends to emphasize one influence over the other. In biopsychology, for example, researchers conduct studies exploring how neurotransmitters influence behavior, which emphasizes the nature side of the debate. In social psychology, researchers might conduct studies looking at how things such as peer pressure and social media influence behaviors, stressing the importance of nurture.
How Nature and Nurture Interact
What researchers do know is that the interaction between heredity and environment is often the most important factor of all. Kevin Davies of PBS's Nova described one fascinating example of this phenomenon.
Perfect pitch is the ability to detect the pitch of a musical tone without any reference. Researchers have found that this ability tends to run in families and believe that it might be tied to a single gene. However, they've also discovered that possessing the gene alone is not enough to develop this ability. Instead, musical training during early childhood is necessary to allow this inherited ability to manifest itself.
Height is another example of a trait that is influenced by nature and nurture interaction. A child might come from a family where everyone is tall, and he may have inherited these genes for height. However, if he grows up in a deprived environment where he does not receive proper nourishment, he might never attain the height he might have had he grown up in a healthier environment.
Contemporary Views of Nature vs. Nurture
Throughout the history of psychology, however, this debate has continued to stir up controversy. Eugenics, for example, was a movement heavily influenced by the nativist approach. Psychologist Francis Galton, a cousin of the naturalist Charles Darwin, coined both the terms nature versus nurture and eugenics and believed that intelligence was the result of genetics. Galton believed that intelligent individuals should be encouraged to marry and have many children, while less intelligent individuals should be discouraged from reproducing.
Today, the majority of experts believe that both nature and nurture influence behavior and development. However, the issue still rages on in many areas such as in the debate on the origins of homosexuality and influences on intelligence. While few people take the extreme nativist or radical empiricist approach, researchers and experts still debate the degree to which biology and environment influence behavior.
Increasingly, people are beginning to realize that asking how much heredity or environment influence a particular trait is not the right approach. The reality is that there is not a simple way to disentangle the multitude of forces that exist. These influences include genetic factors that interact with one another, environmental factors that interact such as social experiences and overall culture, as well as how both hereditary and environmental influences intermingle. Instead, many researchers today are interested in seeing how genes modulate environmental influences and vice versa.
Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1961;63, 575-582.
Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press; 1965.
Galton, F. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Macmillan; 1883.
Watson, J. B. Behaviorism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers; 1930.
Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology
by Saul McLeod updated 2015
The nature vs. nurture debate within psychology is concerned with the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either inherited (i.e., genetic) or acquired (i.e., learned) characteristics.
Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception, e.g., the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.
The nature-nurture debate is concerned with the relative contribution that both influences make to human behavior.
Nature Nurture Debate in Psychology
It has long been known that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance. Color of eyes, straight or curly hair, pigmentation of the skin and certain diseases (such as Huntingdon’s chorea) are all a function of the genes we inherit. Other physical characteristics, if not determined, appear to be at least strongly influenced by the genetic make-up of our biological parents.
Height, weight, hair loss (in men), life expectancy and vulnerability to specific illnesses (e.g., breast cancer in women) are positively correlated between genetically related individuals. These facts have led many to speculate as to whether psychological characteristics such as behavioral tendencies, personality attributes, and mental abilities are also “wired in” before we are even born.
Those who adopt an extreme hereditary position are known as nativists. Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code. In general, the earlier a particular ability appears, the more likely it is to be under the influence of genetic factors.
Characteristics and differences that are not observable at birth, but which emerge later in life, are regarded as the product of maturation. That is to say, we all have an inner “biological clock” which switches on (or off) types of behavior in a pre-programmed way.
The classic example of the way this affects our physical development are the bodily changes that occur in early adolescence at puberty. However, nativists also argue that maturation governs the emergence of attachment in infancy, language acquisition and even cognitive development as a whole.
At the other end of the spectrum are the environmentalists also known as empiricists (not to be confused with the other empirical / scientific approach). Their basic assumption is that at birth the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) and that this is gradually “filled” as a result of experience (e.g., behaviorism).
From this point of view, psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the results of learning. It is how you are brought up (nurture) that governs the psychologically significant aspects of child development and the concept of maturation applies only to the biological.
For example, when an infant forms an attachment it is responding to the love and attention it has received, language comes from imitating the speech of others, and cognitive development depends on the degree of stimulation in the environment and, more broadly, on the civilization within which the child is reared.
Examples of an extreme nature positions in psychology include Bowlby's (1969) theory of attachment, which views the bond between mother and child as being an innate process that ensures survival. Likewise, Chomsky (1965) proposed language is gained through the use of an innate language acquisition device. Another example of nature is Freud's theory of aggression as being an innate drive (called Thanatos).
In contrast Bandura's (1977) social learning theory states that aggression is a learned from the environment through observation and imitation. This is seen in his famous Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961). Also, Skinner (1957) believed that language is learnt from other people via behavior shaping techniques.
In practice, hardly anyone today accepts either of the extreme positions. There are simply too many “facts” on both sides of the argument which are inconsistent with an “all or nothing” view. So instead of asking whether child development is down to nature or nurture the question has been reformulated as “How much?” That is to say, given that heredity and environment both influence the person we become, which is the more important?
This question was first framed by Francis Galton in the late 19th century. Galton (himself a relative of Charles Darwin) was convinced that intellectual ability was largely inherited and that the tendency for “genius” to run in families was the outcome of a natural superiority.
This view has cropped up time and again in the history of psychology and has stimulated much of the research into intelligence testing (particularly on separated twins and adopted children). A modern proponent is the American psychologist Arthur Jenson. Finding that the average I.Q. scores of black Americans were significantly lower than whites he went on to argue that genetic factors were mainly responsible even going so far as to suggest that intelligence is 80% inherited.
The storm of controversy that developed around Jenson’s claims was not mainly due to logical and empirical weaknesses in his argument. It was more to do with the social and political implications that are often drawn from research that claims to demonstrate natural inequalities between social groups.
Galton himself in 1883 suggested that human society could be improved by “better breeding.” In the 1920’s the American Eugenics Society campaigned for the sterilization of men and women in psychiatric hospitals. Today in Britain many believe that the immigration policies are designed to discriminate against Black and Asian ethnic groups. However the most chilling of all implications drawn from this view of the natural superiority of one race over another took place in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
For many environmentalists there is a barely disguised right-wing agenda behind the work of the behavioral geneticists. In their view, part of the difference in the I.Q. scores of different ethnic groups are due to inbuilt biases in the methods of testing. More fundamentally, they believe that differences in intellectual ability are a product of social inequalities in access to material resources and opportunities. To put it simply children brought up in the ghetto tend to score lower on tests because they are denied the same life chances as more privileged members of society.
Now we can see why the nature-nurture debate has become such a hotly contested issue. What begins as an attempt to understand the causes of behavioral differences often develops into a politically motivated dispute about distributive justice and power in society. What’s more, this doesn’t only apply to the debate over I.Q. It is equally relevant to the psychology of sex and gender, where the question of how much of the (alleged) differences in male and female behavior is due to biology and how much to culture is just as controversial.
However, in recent years there has been a growing realization that the question of “how much” behavior is due to heredity and “how much” to the environment may itself be the wrong question. Take intelligence as an example. Like almost all types of human behavior, it is a complex, many-sided phenomenon which reveals itself (or not!) in a great variety of ways. The “how much” question assumes that the variables can all be expressed numerically and that the issue can be resolved in a quantitative manner. The reality is that nature and culture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways.
It is widely accepted now that heredity and the environment do not act independently. Both nature and nurture are essential for any behavior, and it cannot be said that a particular behavior is genetic and another is environmental. It is impossible to separate the two influences as well as illogical as nature and nurture do not operate in a separate way but interact in a complex manner.
Instead of defending extreme nativist or nurturist views, most psychological researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact. For example, in psychopathology, this means that both a genetic predisposition and an appropriate environmental trigger are required for a mental disorder to develop. Therefore, it makes more sense to say that the difference between two people’s behavior is mostly due to hereditary factors or mostly due to environmental factors.
This realization is especially important given the recent advances in genetics. The Human Genome Project, for example, has stimulated enormous interest in tracing types of behavior to particular strands of DNA located on specific chromosomes. Newspaper reports announce that scientists are on the verge of discovering (or have already discovered) the gene for criminality, for alcoholism or the “gay gene.”
If these advances are not to be abused, then there will need to be a more general understanding of the fact that biology interacts with both the cultural context and the personal choices that people make about how they want to live their lives. There is no neat and simple way of unraveling these qualitatively different and reciprocal influences on human behavior.
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Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. MIT Press.
Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty and its development. London: J.M. Dent & Co.
Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2015). Nature vs nurture in psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html