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Nature vs. Nurture Debate: What Really Matters in Psychology

Is your life and personality shaped by your genes or environment? This is the big question of the nature vs. nurture debate, science has the answer.

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Are you simply a product of your environment, or do your genes have the final say? This is the ultimate question of the nature vs. nurture debate. Take a deep dive into the origins of the debate, and learn how epigenetics has upended the argument once and for all.

What is Nature vs. Nurture?

Nature vs. nurture can be defined as the difference between the genetics that people inherit (nature) vs. the environmental influences that accumulate over a lifetime (nurture). For years, many people have believed that nature rules supreme and reject the idea that environment or parenting has a large role in shaping people. 

The big question in the debate is this––how much of a person’s personality is a result of genes, and how much is related to environment and experiences? People have been arguing about this for years for political, personal, and social reasons. 

So, what’s the answer…are we shaped by nature or nurture? The answer is both, and it depends on which traits. Read on for the science of nature or nurture below.

Examples of Nature vs. Nurture

Let’s look at some examples to see how nature and nurture impact a person’s development. 

Examples of Nature Impacting Human Development:

  • Genetically predisposed to be tall.
  • Inherited red hair and blue eyes from the maternal side of the family.
  • ADHD, when it appears together with conduct disorder, is attributed to genes1
  • Genes contribute to genetic disorders such as Edwards syndrome, Patau syndrome, and Warkany syndrome.
  • Anxiety and depression occurring together1 are considered to be connected to a genetic predisposition.

Examples of Nurture Impacting Human Development:

  • The mother experienced high amounts of prenatal stress2,2017%3B%20Takegata%20et%20al.%2C, contributing to a fearful personality in the child, who is likely to express positive emotions. 
  • Lack of healthy attachment to the caregiver impacts relationships with others throughout life.
  • Growing up malnourished3 can stunt height and contribute to obesity.
  • A supportive community environment4 contributed to feelings of confidence and the ability to succeed.
  • Growing up during political instability causes heightened aggression and revenge-seeking5,disorders%2C%20fear%20and%20panic%2C%20poor later in life. 

How Has Nature vs. Nurture Changed Over Time? 

Nature vs. nurture has changed in many ways, perhaps the most significant change being the understanding of nurture. Early developmentalists saw nurture as the care given to the child by their parents (usually with an emphasis on the mother). Today scientists continue to discover that nurture includes many environmental influences––from prenatal to end-of-life. 

While the nature vs. nurture debate was once hotly disputed, most human developmentalists agree that both nature and nurture have a hand in shaping individuals. 

What you should know: The study of epigenetics6 has changed the nature vs. nurture debate landscape. Genes are not static but are impacted by nurture (environment), making it possible to change and override gene expression. 

We’ll get to even more examples below, but let’s look at a couple of scenarios of how nurture can impact genes.

Scenario 1: You are genetically predisposed to obesity, but your mom had excellent dietary health during pregnancy; this impacts your epigenome7, reducing the risk for obesity and increasing your lifespan. 

Scenario 2: In early childhood, you have several negative experiences that deeply impact you. These experiences have the ability to override your natural gene expression8 and “increase the risk not only for poor physical and mental health outcomes but also for impairments in future learning capacity and behavior.”

Everything from social interactions to diet to air quality can impact how genes interact and are expressed. 

“Contrary to popular belief, the genes inherited from one’s parents do not set a child’s future development in stone.” ––Harvard Center on the Developing Child

The question, as we’ll see, isn’t nature or nurture, but rather nature and nurture. 

What Does Nature vs. Nurture Have to Do With Psychology, Sociology, and Genetics?

The nature vs. nurture debate has both been influenced by and has influenced psychology, sociology, and genetics. 

  • Psychology is largely concerned with the mind and behavior of the individual.
  • Sociology is concerned with the collective experiences and behavior of society.
  • Genetics studies how genes and traits are passed down through families. 

Ultimately, all three are concerned with studying how and why people behave the way they do. But this isn’t just about behavior; nature vs. nurture has been extensively studied in relation to the body. Scientists want to know how genes and the environment impact everything from low back pain9 to obesity10

Let’s dive deeper so you can decide for yourself how much nature or nurture may have had a hand in shaping your own personality. 

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Who Came Up With Nature vs. Nurture?

Sir Francis Galton is credited with first coining the nature vs. nurture phrase. To better understand the beginning of the nature vs. nurture debate, we have to go back to the 1800s to look at why Galton came up with “nature vs. nurture” in the first place. Hold on because it’s not pretty.

Galton was a particularly unlikable anthropologist who gave us fingerprinting (great!) and invented eugenics (why was he knighted?). 

He sought to defend his beliefs with science and set out to prove that nature, not nurture, determined the intelligence and “excellence” of a person11 His cousin, Darwin, gave his stamp of approval on the “capital account”12 given by Galton in his book, Hereditary Genius13

In the book, Galton used the nature over nurture argument to propose and legitimize the ultimate elimination of criminals, “worthless” individuals, and “inferior” races (including Africans, Australians, Jews, working-class women in London, etc.) by controlling who could procreate and who couldn’t.  

While it’s unfortunate Galton had such a negative impact on science, it provides important context. Understanding where the debate originated helps us understand the ethical implications of how an unbalanced view of nature has been used to justify ongoing injustice both in policymaking and the treatment of individuals. 

Even though the argument for nature had a sordid start, let’s not throw it out completely! There is a lot we can learn about  ourselves, as both nature and nurture have a hand in shaping who we are. 

How Nature and Nurture Impact Human Development & Personality

Most developmentalists believe each person is unique and responds to a situation or experience based on many factors. As you try to understand the impact of nature and nurture on yourself or others, please remember while human development is a refined science, people are not computers. People can, and often do, defy the expectations of science, either becoming more or less resilient in the face of challenges. 

How Nature Impacts Personality

Now remember, nature involves the genetics that impact a person’s development and personality. Studies have found a person’s genes impact 30-60% of personality14 If this sounds like a broad range, it is! But, we must consider all the variables that interact with a person’s genes. 

  • A number of studies15 have found a connection between genetics and emotional well-being. 
  • While personality seems to be heritable, to some extent, researchers are still trying to understand the actual “genetic basis of personality16”

What this really means: Researchers would like to attribute personality traits like neuroticism or extroversion to a specific gene in your body, but, at the end of the day, they can’t. Studies have linked genetics with certain behavior and traits, but studies are often difficult to replicate16 and may have gaps in the research. Nature clearly impacts a person, but science isn’t as hard and fast as some might think. 

How Nurture Impacts Personality

Remember the variables we mentioned that impact nature? Those variables are largely introduced by nurture. Here are some examples of how nurture can impact personality. 

  • Maternal stress during pregnancy17 has been found to increase the child’s stress. This, in turn, impacts the temperament of the child18
  • A study in Germany19 found that military training decreased agreeableness in personalities, and this change persisted even after a person left the military and re-entered the workforce.  
  • Social expectations create the most profound personality changes20 in the young and the elderly. 
  • Food insecurity harmfully impacts mental health21, causing everything from anxiety to maternal depression. Interestingly, food insecurity also increases the risk of obesity3

As you can see, nurture isn’t just how much a mother holds and comforts her baby! This is a limited view of nurture when in reality, there are so many external factors involved. The psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner identified six key ecological systems that profoundly impact a person. All of these systems are an element of nurture. 

  • Microsystem: Immediate social relationships, including family and peers.  
  • Exosystem: Local institutions such as school, churches, temples, mosques, etc.
  • Macrosystem: The larger setting that a person inhabits, such as culture, economics, and politics, creates a sense of shared beliefs and expectations of behavior. 
  • Mesosystem: How other systems are interconnected.
  • Chronosystem: The historical context that a person lives in, including values, events, technologies, and birth cohort (e.g., Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z).
  • Bioecological: The internal biology of a person. 

The ecological systems don’t just impact a person during childhood development. Psychology recognizes that people change through all phases of life! Personality is not set in stone22 As a person ages and lives in various environments, this impacts how the person experiences the world around them. 

“In the real world, there is no nature vs. nurture argument, only an infinitely complex and moment-by-moment interaction between genetic and environmental effects”–– Gabor Maté, Physician and Author

Can You Change Your Genes? 

At the end of the day, your genes (nature) are directly impacted by your environment (nurture). This means you have the power to change your genes! 

If that doesn’t make sense and you’re still wondering which is more important––nature or nurture, the delightful world of epigenetics has the answers. Let’s start with this beautifully explained infographic from Harvard6

An infographic from Harvard University talking about Epigenetics which relates back to the nature vs. nurture topic.

Image: Harvard Center on the Developing Child

Essentially, epigenetics put to rest the old question of whether nature or nurture is more important in shaping identity and personality. Because of how epigenetics work in your body, nature, and nurture have a symbiotic relationship––one impacting the other and creating an ebb and flow in personality. 

You can change your genes by changing your behavior and your environment. 

Pro Tip: Studies have found you can begin to modify your epigenetic patterns23 when you…

  • Adjust your diet
  • Add in physical exercise
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Remove tobacco
  • Limit exposure to environmental pollutants
  • Learn to manage stress
  • Avoid working night shifts 
  • Have supportive, safe relationships

How Nature and Nurture Impacted Your Own Development

As you think about how nature and nurture have impacted you, we encourage you to reflect on your experiences both in the past and the present. Think about the experiences of your parents. What was it like for your mom when she was pregnant with you, the environment you grew up in, and where you find yourself today? 

Your life is an intricate story woven with tiny threads of your experiences, the experiences of your environment and community, and the experiences of your ancestors. The past had a hand in shaping the person you are today, but you have the amazing ability to change the direction of who you will become. 

The Highlights:

  • Inherited genes may impact things like height, personality, and health.
  • Experiences and environment impact how genes are activated and released. This is epigenetics and impacts everything from what triggers you to how you respond in social situations. 
  • Safe relationships and supportive environments can positively impact the epigenome. 
  • As much as possible, choose to be in positive environments. Surrounding yourself with beauty, clean air, nature, and healthy relationships builds your capacity for change. 

As you identify the areas of your life that you’d like to improve or change, emotional intelligence is an excellent place to start. This is a skill that will help you connect with yourself and others. Check out our article on 10 Emotional Intelligence Traits to Master for Self-Growth.

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