Nature vs Nurture in Personality

A lot of the biggest questions in psychology come down to picking one of two choices. Are the mind and body separate entities, or two parts of one whole? Do we make decisions with our own free will, or are all of our decisions determined by fate or other factors? Can we reduce human behavior down to parts, or must we look at human behavior from a holistic standpoint? 

One of these questions can be applied to many parts of human behavior: nature vs. nurture? 

In this video, I’m going to break down how this debate applies to our individual personalities. Does our personality come from our genetic makeup? Or is personality “learned?” Let’s explore both sides of the argument, and where psychologists sit now. 

nature vs nurture example

Nativist Viewpoint

Think of this debate as a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is the nativist viewpoint. Psychologists and people who hold this viewpoint believe that personality can be explained by a person’s nature, or genetic makeup. 

Everyone has unique genes that contribute to a person’s eye color, face shape, skin tone, and even their ability to pick up certain skills. Nativists argue that there are unique genes that also contribute to an individual’s personality. And while there isn’t a “pleasant to talk to” gene or “sporty” gene, psychologists have pointed to hormones and other genetic factors that can influence personality. 

Depression and substance abuse often comes up in these debates. Some scientists believe that they can point to a gene that is apparent in people with depression. The link between serotonin and depression may also suggest that depression can be “passed down.” Studies have shown that addiction, or an “addictive personality,” could be hereditary. 

You might have personal experience that backs up, or goes totally against, this argument. Remember, this is just one side of the spectrum. 

If you want to learn more about nativism, it’s best to hear from some psychologists that truly believe in their theory. Some psychologists with a nativist viewpoint include Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker.  

Empiricist Viewpoint

On the other side of the spectrum is empiricists. Empiricism is the idea that “nurture” handles all aspects of someone’s personality. This idea has been around since the 17th century. John Locke, also known as the “Father of Liberalism,” was the first person to discuss the idea. He believed that every person is born as a “blank slate,” or “tabula rasa.” Parents, teachers, media, and culture influence how a child’s personality is formed and developed throughout their life. 

Some more modern psychologists with an empiricist viewpoint include modern behaviorists. The idea that a person can be “conditioned” into a behavior or personality is a pure form of empiricism that has carried on into newer schools of psychology. 

Albert Bandura is one of the most well-known psychologists who contributed to an empiricist viewpoint. His most famous experiment, The Bobo Doll Experiment, showed that children were more likely to display aggressive behavior if they observed an adult displaying aggressive behavior. 

How Does This Play Into Modern Society?

You might be wondering, “why does this matter?” Why does it matter if our personality traits come from genes or if they come from nature? 

To demonstrate this, I want to discuss the idea of conversion therapy and sexual orientation.

Psychologists have long debated whether sexual orientation, or rather, homosexuality, is due to nature or nurture. Some have theorized that homosexuality can be traced to genetic factors. Others, like Sigmund Freud, believed that humans were innately bisexual and were “conditioned” through learned behaviors to be straight or gay. 

Using these ideas on each end of the spectrum, psychologists began to develop different types of “therapy” to “cure” homosexuality. In the 1920s, some believed that homosexuality could be traced back to a man’s testicles, and experiments involving castration took place. Later, it was believed homosexuality was a product of someone’s upbringing or “nurture.” In order to “treat” homosexuality, “conversion therapy” was developed. Conversion therapy is still used today in all 50 states. (Twenty states have banned conversion therapy when used on minors.) 

Experiments with castration didn’t work. Psychologists have failed to find a “gay gene.” Does conversion therapy work? Can you condition someone into being heterosexual? Do empiricists win this round? 

Well, not exactly. There are situations in which people claim that they are “cured” of homosexuality. But scientific studies that the effects of conversion therapy do nothing to change a person’s sexuality. These studies also show that a person is more likely to become depressed or consider suicide after experiencing conversion therapy. 

Nature vs. nurture isn’t just a fun debate. It has a serious impact on the way that we address people who display certain behaviors or personality traits. Isolating or “treating” certain traits that are considered unfavorable may lead to “therapies,” medications, or other processes that may or may not work. The cause that we attribute to behavior, decision-making, and personality traits has a profound impact on the way that we raise children, treat people who are experiencing mental illnesses like depression, or teach others about why we are all different or the same. 

Which One Is Right? Well…

As with many topics in psychology, it’s rare and not always encouraged to take an extremist viewpoint. Simple questions can easily poke holes in both a naturist’s and an empiricist’s argument. Nowadays, rather than asking if nature or nurture influences someone’s personality, psychologists ask “how much” of each is involved? 

Psychologists are still doing research on questions that have been asked for decades. While the results may show that a gene contributes to a particular trait or that conditioning may enforce a behavior, none of these studies may show once and for all whether nature or nurture is more dominant in influencing our personalities. The best thing that anyone can do in a debate like this is find as many studies as you can, question their validity, and look with an objective eye at how they contribute to this debate.

How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2020, March). Nature vs Nurture in Personality. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/nature-vs-nurture-personality/.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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