New parents tend to pull out all the stops to raise their children in a nurturing environment, painting nursery walls in subdued hues, praising their child’s first steps and words, and reading a favorite storybook as their child drifts off to sleep. Chances are that there’s a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” open on someone’s nightstand right now. However, even the most meticulously laid plans often do little to alter the course of nature, and parents may find their newborn’s behavior influenced more by biology than their well-meaning care.
The nature versus nurture debate has endured for thousands of years, since Ancient Greeks pondered the origins of personality. Who are we? Are we products of our genome (nature) or environment (nurture)? These questions strike at the very heart of psychology, and to answer them, we’ll be taking a closer look at these diametrically opposed ideas.
English philosopher John Locke compared the mind at birth to a tabula rasa, or blank slate, upon which our experiences imbue reason and knowledge. This is “nurture,” the idea that a child’s environment determines whom they turn out to be.
A report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) affirms that informed parents are more likely to have positive interactions with their children in ways that support healthy development. By showing warmth, being responsive, and promoting other evidence-based practices, parents can improve outcomes relating to their child’s emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social skills. Conversely, children can experience devastating, long-term changes as a result of neglect and abuse, ranging from the development of antisocial behaviors to the stunting of their growing minds.
A person’s environment is most impactful during their early years, when their brain has yet to fully develop and their experiences are shaped entirely by their home life. There’s no doubt that nature plays a critical role in deciding the trajectory of our lives. The question is, how much of our behavior is inherited?
When people talk about heredity, they almost exclusively refer to their physical traits. They might say, “I have my mother’s eyes” or “my father’s nose,” but the characteristics we inherit from our parents are more than skin deep.
The determinants of your most prominent traits are found in your chromosomes, with each of your parents contributing half of their chromosomes to the 23 pairs found in your cells. Chromosomes are composed of segments of DNA called genes. Think of genes as blueprints, carrying instructions that determine your every biological trait, including the color of your hair, eyes, and skin. Moreover, your personality, intelligence, and mental health can also be attributed, at least in part, to your genetic makeup.
Two of a Kind
Scientists have taken a novel approach to testing the effects of heredity on personality: studying twins. Identical twins share the same genes, whereas fraternal twins share half of their genes, like other siblings. By contrasting the traits of identical and fraternal twins, scientists have been able to separate the influences of nature and nurture on human behavior. In a meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits, researchers looked at over 50 years of twin studies, compiling evidence from over 2,000 publications reporting on a combined 17,804 traits and 14,558,903 twins. They found that the heritability of human traits, including temperament and personality functions, is about 50%. To put it simply, half of our unique personalities can be attributed to heredity, or nature.
Ending the Debate
Has the revelation that genetics accounts for half of our mental and physical traits—and that both sides hold equal sway over our personalities—put an end to the nature versus nurture debate? Not quite. This debate has proven more nuanced than previously thought, particularly with the revelation that genetically driven behaviors shape our environments in the same way our environments shape us. For example, parents responding negatively to their child’s antisocial behaviors may end up reinforcing those same behaviors. Complicating matters further are epigenetic changes that switch genes on and off. Traumatic experiences, in particular, can be passed on from one generation to the next. Complex factors like these continue to stoke the flames of this age-old debate.
More than opposing ideas, nature and nurture describe entwined influences that alter and build upon one another. While some argue that nature carries more weight because our genes, as opposed to our experiences, are set in stone, this is exactly why nurture is such an important concept. The family, society, and culture we’re born into are random, but not all environmental factors are beyond influence, and something as simple as reading bedtime stories to a child could make a world of difference in who they grow up to be.
Discover Who You Are
Professionals in the field of psychology define themselves by their work, whether they’re conducting research or administering care. This is a rewarding, albeit challenging, career path ideal for anyone interested in bringing fulfillment to their life and the lives of others. Nature versus nurture aside, you decide the course of your professional journey. And if you choose to become a psychologist, The University of Texas Permian Basin can help.
UT Permian Basin offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program that provides the foundational psychology knowledge you need to set yourself up for success in graduate school and beyond. Through our program, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of empirical research, mental disorders, and the application of psychological principles in the real world. Virtual courses help ensure that you can participate when it’s convenient for you, and although our program is entirely online and asynchronous, you’ll receive the same distinguished degree as on-campus graduates. From its well-rounded curriculum to its experienced professors, our program offers everything you need to excel in a diverse range of psychology roles.
Ready to pursue your passion for psychology? Apply to our online BA in psychology program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to become the psychology professional you were born to be.