Nature vs Nurture (the difference)

Nature, in this article, will refer to genetic or hormone-based behaviors, traits, and inclinations, whereas nurture is most often referred to as environmental factors such as settings, culture and knowledge.

What is Nature & Nurture?

The nature versus nurture concept refers to the idea that human behaviors are either a product of their genetics [i.e. in their nature] or are a learned behavior [i.e. nurture].

Nature is what is referred to by scientists as the way that we’re pre-wired. Scientists view this as how our genetics manifest themselves in our behaviors, along with other biological factors.

Nurture, on the other hand, is what researchers view as behaviors that are picked up from being in a certain environment.

This can include, but not be limited to, the ways in which you were raised at home, the way that you were taught in school and the people that you often spend time with outside of work and/or school.

The debate on nature vs. nurture has ultimately reached the conclusion that both nature and nurture have an equally important but different influence on the way that human beings behave.

Our temperament, psychological features, and responses to stressors all exist as they are because of nature and nurture. 

Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)

Scientists have known for a long time that physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance.

For example, the color of your eyes, whether your hair is straight or curly, the color of your skin, your susceptibility to specific diseases [such as Huntington’s disease] are all determined by our genetics.

These facts also bring curiosity around the idea that our psychological attributes, temperament and mental strengths and weaknesses might also be wired in to our beings before we’re even born.

Individuals who adopt extreme hereditary positions are often referred to as nativisits. 

Nativists believe that the characteristics of the human species are a product of our evolutionary journey.

Every human on this earth arrived here as a result of centuries of evolutionary biology, and nativists believe that this process is exactly what has brought us to behave as we do today.

Generally speaking, the sooner a trait appears in our behavior [i.e. in early childhood], it’s highly likely that that particular trait was hereditary.

Estimates of genetic influence are often referred to as heritability. 

Characteristics and traits that don’t seem to be discernible at birth, but that emerge later in life, are considered to be a product of our maturity.

In addition, we tend to associate our biological clock as a force that can turn on or off specific behaviors in a highly objective manner.

Extreme nativists in the scientific community believe that language is learned through using an innately constructed language acquisition device.

Another example of a nativist would be Freud and his theory of aggression.

Another classic example of this in practice is that our physical development comes about by bodily changes that occur during puberty throughout early adolescence.

However, nativists believe that maturation governs how we become attached to our parents as children, how we learn a variety of vocabulary words and how we undergo cognitive development throughout our lives. 

Empiricism (Extreme Nurture Position)

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the environmentalists – also known as empiricists (not to be confused with the opposite empirical/scientific approach).

Empiricists believe that at birth, the human mind is considered a tabula rasa (blank slate), which can gradually be filled with experiences, interactions and conversations throughout life (e.g. behaviorism).

At this point in time, they believe that psychological characteristics and behavioral variations that emerge throughout childhood are the result of learning and developing.

Yet how you’re spoken to that governs the psychological aspects of a young person’s development.

The concept of maturation is thought to apply only to biological characteristics in an empiricist’s eyes, not the psychological. 

A few notable figures in the scientific community were also empiricists.

For example, Albert Bandura’s social learning theory states that aggression is learned from the surroundings through observation and imitation.

This can be seen in his famous Bobo doll experiment, where children were observed while playing with toys to see how aggressive behaviors developed over time.

Another famous figure, B.F. Skinner believed that language is learned from people by behavior shaping techniques.

Sigmund Freud also explicitly that events in our childhood have a substantial influence on our adult lives, shaping our temperament.

In his work, he believed that parenting is of primary importance to a child’s development and that the family serves as the most important feature of nurture.

This concept was a typical theme throughout twentieth-century psychology (which often contained a lot of environmentalist’s theories). 

Nature and Nurture in Application

When applied in today’s world, no one solely accepts the position of nativism or empiricism.

There are several facts in the scientific community that point to the relationship between the two concepts.

Taking an all or nothing stance on the nature-nurture concept would disregard a lot of important work that has been done to better understand this idea.

Instead of asking if psychological traits develop through nature or nurture, researchers have reframed this question to ask “how much of this trait has been shaped by nature or nurture?” 

This question was first framed by Francis Galton during the late nineteenth century.

Galton (a relative of Charles Darwin) was convinced that intellectual ability was for the most part heritable, which was the tendency for “genius” to run in families.

Galton believed that the predisposition toward being a “genius” was simply a sign of natural superiority.

This concept has resurfaced throughout the past several decades and has played a pivotal role in testing intelligence levels among other people.

Behavioral genetics 

Researchers within the field of behavioral genetics studies variation in behavior because it is affected by genes that are inherited and passed down from ancestors to offspring.

Some researchers have found that “We have currently found that deoxyribonucleic acid variations are the most prevalent source of psychological variations within adults and children in the United States. Environmental effects are vital, however, what we’ve learned in recent years is that they’re largely random, disorganized and without reason, which suggests that they’re not as important.”

Behavioral genetics has enabled science to quantify the relative contribution of nature and nurture to relevant and specific psychological traits.

A method to try to do this can be to review relatives who share a similar gene (nature) and natural/environmental surroundings (nurture).

Adoption acts as a natural experiment that permits researchers to try to understand how nature vs. nurture unfolds.

Empirical studies have also systematically shown that adopted kids are more like their biological ancestors as opposed to their adopted family.

Another way to discover aspects of behavioral genetics is to observe the behaviors among twins who are identical vs. fraternal.

Similar to studies done examining adopted children, studies examining twins show that psychological traits may vary but are more alike in people who share a larger amount of the same genetic material. 

Polygenic Inheritance

Instead of looking at the presence or absence of single genes as being the decisive factor that accounts for psychological traits, behavioral genetics show that multiple genes-in fact, thousands of them-all combine to contribute to specific behaviors.

Thus, psychological traits follow a model of inheritance and are not determined by a single gene.

Depression is a good example of a trait that is likely influenced by a combination of around one thousand genes.

This would mean that an individual with a smaller amount of the genes would have a lower probability of experiencing depression than someone with a higher concentration of those genes. 

The Nature of Nurture

Nurture assumes that correlations between environmental factors and psychological outcomes are caused by a person’s environment.

As an example, the amount of time that parents spend with their kids teaching them new skills and how quickly those children learn those new skills are closely connected.

Additionally, environmental stressors could have a significant impact on someone’s propensity to develop depression, as opposed to exclusively genetic factors.

It’s also thought that people choose, build and change their own environments based on their genetic predisposition to exist in certain environments.

This heavily implies that what was thought to be an environmental influence could in fact be a genetic influence.

For example, children who are skilled readers are more likely to enjoy reading as opposed to those who have trouble reading.

This might have resulted from encouragement from parents or guardians encouraging their children to read at a very young age. 

Interaction Effects

There has also been a developing idea that the question of “how much” when it comes to behavior and environment could not really be the best question to ask.

Like many facets of human behavior, examining its development has proven extremely complicated over the last several centuries.

The “how much” question assumes that psychological traits will all be expressed in a way that will allow it to be analyzed quantitatively.

Yet not all aspects of human behavior can be analyzed in a quantitative manner.

Nature and nurture need to be examined in a more qualitative way, even if there are biological factors at play in their relationship. 

Instead of harboring extreme nativist or nurturist views, most psychological researchers are currently fascinated by investigation on how nature and nurture change.

As an example, in psychopathology, a theory implies that each genetic predisposition is associated with an acceptable environmental trigger.

Yet it’s important to note that the distinction between two individuals and how they behave is a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

This realization is important given the latest advances in genetics, such as widespread genetic testing.

Human genome testing, and at home DNA kits like 23 and Me, have grown widely popular in tracing forms of human behavior to specific strands of DNA on specific chromosomes.

In short, there is no right or wrong way to determine how much nature and nurture is involved in shaping a human being’s characteristics.

What’s important is that we recognize that the relationship between these two exists and will continue to change as we conduct more research. 

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about nature vs nurture:

How will nature and nurture influence human behavior?

Nature is what we expect of in terms of wiring and rewiring and is influenced by genetically inherited traits and other biological factors.

On the other hand, nurture is looked at as the influence of external factors on experiences, exposures, learning patterns and life as a whole.

Which one is more important: nature or nurture?

In the past, debates over the relative contributions of nature versus nurture typically took a one-sided approach, with one side believing that the most important role in human behavior is played by nature whereas the other side believes that nurture is far more important in human behavior and genetics. 

Interested in learning more? Check out these books on nature vs. nurture:


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