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
A never-ending conflict between scientists who study natural theories and those who stick to the ideas shared by nurture is an interesting topic for an essay discussion. Nature vs nurture debate essay reflects the positions of both sides. The goal of the student is to explain why both theories matter and the 2 groups of scientists play an important role in studying our evolution & development.
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Nature vs Nurture Essay: Defining the Problem
Academic writing requires narrow topics. That is why a student should start with narrowing down the possible topics for the nature vs nurture essay. A nature may refer to the environment around people, but in case of this type of homework assignment, the teachers mean another definition of the word. We can say the same about the second word.
While nature is the inherent character of an individual of a specific object, the nurture is the combination of the environmental factors that impact the behavior and qualities expressed by the living creature. Sum up these definitions to get what a nature vs nurture essay is. It is a special academic writing assignment, which is focused on observing the existing debate between the 2 factors when it comes to human development and influences. It reminds of writing a cause-&-effect paper.
Many students wonder which things they should cover in such papers. Focus on:
- Learning & development
- Love & affection
- Gender studies
- Food supply
- Mental health
- Family history of various types of addictions and abuse (alcohol, smoking, drugs, etc.)
Pick just ONE topic from the preferred category if the teacher did not assign it. Where can a student grab his ideas for the nurture vs nature essay?
Nature vs Nurture Debate Essay: Extra Tip
Before deciding on the particular topic to discuss in nature vs nurture debate essay, collect the most relevant ideas with the help of primary research tools. Go to the college library or search online. The best sources are those that are no older than 5 years. If a student mentions a universal truth, dogma, which needs no proof, he/she may leave such sentence without any evidence. You will need to cite different facts, statistics, figures, etc.
During the research process, a student may kill two birds with the same stone: find a cool paper idea and write down the citations and references to use later. Come up with an attractive title. Next, observe various theories under the loop meaning listing their main points, authors’ arguments, background, and more.
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Nature versus Nurture Essay: Some Great Examples
This expert nature versus nurture essay may help students on the way to a perfect paper.
“Is evolution & development the result of genetics or love, mentorship, and the way a person grows? In observing Table 4(1) in the class textbook regarding the basic development theories based on 6 development themes, it is possible to conclude that the majority of scientists think that all factors influence the development of an average kid (Child Development: A Thematic Approach (3 rd. ed. ) (Bukato, Daehler, 1998, p. 29)...”
In nature vs nurture argument essay, the author should take a single position in this conflict and insist on its truth with the help of various arguments.
“The scientists have conducted several research projects. They picked twins separated immediately after the birth to discover the role of genetics in the formation of particular personality traits, love preferences, and religious outlook, which appeared to be tremendous. 80 percent of the examined twins reported the feeling of being close to their twin. They felt a twin better than any of the close friends of partners without having any idea the person is their twin by blood. Another research proved an important role of the genetics in the development of personal traits: Environment almost did not affect the qualities when twins were growing together, but it showed another result after separating the two children.
The scientists neglected to involve the impacts of additional familial factors such as close friends, classmates, and educators in the studies on the cognitive skills of twins. By knowing these important factors were ignored, the study may have proven that the environment does indeed affect the cognitive development. Without an offered study, the scientists ended up with the claim that the biggest impact on the cognitive development of a human being is associated primarily with the genetics.”
Bonus Nature vs Nurture Argument Essay Sample
One more nature vs nature essay describes the strong correlation between two.
“Nature and nurture are inseparable in case of x scenario. It was proved that certain genes could not be enabled without specific environmental interactions, and the progress of human vision is one of the best examples. An average human being cannot have a normal, healthy vision without exposure to visual stimuli. Another example is a part of life-long smokers. These people may never face any of the diseases provoked by this bad habit, and that is just a consequence of the certain genes. The same genes may be the cause of the addiction to develop.”
In this nature vs nurture debate essay, an author may focus on exploring the developmental systems theory that presents an alternative to the conflict. Combine science with the flow of imagination to get the best result with nature vs nurture argument essay.
The problem has been conferred upon by philosophers in the past, and the conflict lasts today – it is a chance to take part in the debate! Think whether it is heredity or environment that shape our character. Come up with the examples from a real life based on your upbringing; if necessary, as parents & other family members what were the things like in your case. Many generations have discussed this conflict – decide where to get information from!
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