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The nature vs.

nurture debate is the scientific, cultural, and philosophical debate about whether
human culture, behavior, and personality are caused primarily by nature or nurture. Nature is often
defined in this debate as genetic or hormone-based behaviors, while nurture is most commonly defined
as environment and experience.

History of the Nature vs. Nurture Debate

The nature vs. nurture debate is an ongoing one. The modern debate often centers around the effect
genes have on human personalities as opposed to the influences that early environment and
development might have. As cultural mores have changed, so have popular understandings of this
debate. In the 1960s, for example, psychologists—and pop culture in general—were heavily influenced
by the theories of behaviorism. This theory led to the widespread belief that human personality is
primarily influenced by experience and training. It was during this time that researcher John
Money attempted to demonstrate that gender was a product of early conditioning by raising a boy,
whose circumcision was botched, as a girl. His experiment seemed successful in the beginning but
ultimately was a failure.

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In recent years, the nature side of the debate has gained more attention, with headlines trumpeting
newly discovered genes for virtually every behavior. Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are two
branches of science that attempt to demonstrate the evolutionary roots of human behavior. Books
authored by scientists in these fields are extremely popular. However, critics still emphasize the
important role of early childhood environment, development, and cultural influences, and many have
argued that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are deterministic pseudosciences.

How Nature Affects Mental Health

While nature, or genetics, has been proven to be an important factor in the development of some
mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and major depression, the development of
mental illness is not entirely genetic.Nature, or genetics, has been proven to be an important factor in
the development of some mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and
major depression: Bipolar, for example, is four to six times more likely to develop when there is a family
history of the condition. However, although the importance of genetic factors cannot be denied, the
development of mental illness is not entirely genetic. Take identical twins, for example: They share
genes, yet if one twin develops schizophrenia, the other twin only has a 50% chance of also developing
the condition. This shows that nature, while it plays an important part, is not the only contributing

Another area where researchers may place more emphasis on nature than on nurture is that
of addictions. Studies show that alcohol addiction, for example, can recur in families and that certain
genes may have an influence over the way alcohol tastes and the way it affects the body.

How Nurture Affects Mental Health

Certain genetic factors may create a predisposition for a particular illness, but the probability that a
person develops that illness depends in part on environment (nurture). When a genetic variant indicates
the possibility of development of a mental illness, this information can be used to direct positive
(nurturing) behavior in such a way that the condition may not develop or may develop with less severity.

James Fallon, a neuroscientist who discovered that he had the brain of a psychopath, has stated that he
believes growing up in a nurturing and loving environment helped him to become a successful adult and
may have been effective at preventing him from fully developing traits of psychopathy. Similarly, the
basis for addiction is not thought to be entirely genetic by most researchers. Environmental aspects,
such as the habits of parents, friends, or a partner, might also be significant factors contributing to the
development of an addiction. A genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction may be far more significant if
one is routinely exposed to binge drinking or other forms of alcohol abuse and comes to view this as
normal alcohol use.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool recently found that while a family history of mental health
conditions was the second strongest predictor of mental illness, the strongest predictor was in fact life
events and experiences, such as childhood bullying, abuse, or other trauma, supporting the idea of
nurture’s significant role in the development of mental health issues.

Twin Studies

Several studies done on twins separated shortly after birth reveal that genetics do play a significant role
in the development of certain personality characteristics, sexual orientation, and religiosity. The bond
between identical twins was also suggested to be genetic by these studies, as 80% of identical twins
reported that they felt closer to their twin than they did to their closest friends, despite having just met
their twin. One study also suggested that genetics play a significant role in the development
of personality: Environment had little effect on personality when twins were raised together, though it
did have an effect when they were raised apart.

Nature x Nurture

Many scientists eschew the debate by emphasizing “nature x nurture.” In this schema, nature and
nurture are inseparable. Some genes, for example, cannot be activated without certain environmental
inputs. The development of vision is a prime example of this. People cannot develop normal sight
without exposure to visual stimuli. Similarly, some environmental inputs may be undermined by some
genes. For example, some lifelong smokers may never experience smoking-related illnesses, and this
may be due at least in part to their genes. Environmental toxins may alter the expression of some genes,
and genes for many behaviors presumed to have a genetic basis have not been discovered.
Developmental systems theory, among other theories, presents an alternative to this debate that does
not require scientists to advocate either for nature or nurture.
Nature and Nurture Debate

The Argument Continues

Your physical features can be identified as identical to that of your parents, like your eyes from your
father, and the hair color from your mother. However, your personality and talents may have come
not from your father or mother. The environment where you grew up may have a lasting effect or
influence on that way you talk, behave and respond to the things around you.

One of the oldest arguments in the history of psychology is the Nature vs Nurture debate. Each of these
sides have good points that it's really hard to decide whether a person's development is predisposed in
his DNA, or a majority of it is influenced by this life experiences and his environment. As of now, we
know that both nature and nurture play important roles in human development, but we have not known
yet whether we are developed majorly because of nature or due to nurture.

Nature vs Nurture in Psychology

by Saul McLeod published 2007

This 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 preprogrammed 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 result 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 learnt 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

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 behaviour, and it cannot be said that a particular behaviour 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 the ways in which 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 behaviour 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.


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.

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

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.

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

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 Versus 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.

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

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 Versus 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-


Chomsky, N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press; 1965.

Davies, K. Nature vs. nurture revisited. NOVA. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/nature-versus-nurture-revisited.html. 2001.

Galton, F. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London: Macmillan; 1883.

Watson, J. B. Behaviorism. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers; 1930.