The role of nature in one’s behavior

Nature versus Nurture

The debate between nature and nurture is among the oldest psychology philosophies in the history of humanity. Nature involves genetic elements that influence a person’s appearance and personality characteristics. Nurture, on the other hand, is involved with the environmental aspects or experiences that affect the personality of an individual. It is concerned with childhood experiences, social relationships, cultures, beliefs, and even religions.  Up to date, different psychological branches typically take one approach versus the other. For instance, behaviorisms focuses on the environmental influences on a person’s behaviors. In contrast, biological psychology focuses on the role of genetics and biological elements in determining the behavior of an individual. Traditionally, the debate regarding the contributions of nature versus nurture primarily focused on either side, with one arguing that nature plays the most significant role in determining a person’s behavior and the other arguing that nurture plays a more substantial role. However, today, most psychologists recognize that both nature and nurture play an essential role in determining who a person becomes. They also acknowledge that these two concepts interact in significant ways throughout a person’s life. This paper examines the contributions of environmental factors and genetic inheritance in determining the behavior or personality of an individual.


It is scientifically proven that specific characteristics of a person are determined by biological or genetic inheritance. Features such as hair color, eye color, skin color, and even certain diseases such as sickle-cell anemia are as a result of the genes inherited by a person from their parents. These findings have resulted in many people speculating whether psychological factors such as personality attributes, mental capabilities, and behavioral tendencies are also wired in people even before they are born. Individuals who believe that psychological characteristics are solely inherited are referred to as nativists (Honeycutt, 2019). Their primary argument is that the process of evolution determines human characteristics in totality. They also believe that individual differences and uniqueness are as a result of their unique biological or genetic codes.

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Generally, nativists believe that the earlier a specific attribute or characteristic develops or appears, the more likely it is to be influenced by biological or genetic factors.

An earlier psychologist who took an extremely nature approach is Noam Chomsky. Chomsky argued that language is acquired through the use of innate language acquisition devices. Sigmund Freud also believed that aggression is driven by an inherent force called Thanatos (Honeycutt, 2019). Nativists allude that characteristics or personalities that cannot be observed at birth but appear later on in life are catalyzed by maturation. It means that every person has an inner biological clock that turns on or off different types of behavior in a pre-programmed manner.

An example of the way that these pre-programmed elements affect the human body is the changes that occur during adolescence. Some boys may develop beards as early as sixteen years, while others may start developing them at 21 years. The same way, behaviors of different people may surface at different times, but they are rooted deep in them genetically. However, nativists claim that maturation controls the emergence of factors such as language acquisition, cognitive development, and even infancy attachments.


On the other end of the debate are the psychologists referred to as the environmentalists/empiricists. These individuals believe that at the period of birth, the mind of a human being is in tabula rasa or a blank state and that it gets gradually filled with events that a person experiences in a lifetime. Empiricists believe that behavioral differences and psychological characteristics that emerge throughout a person’s life are products of learning and acquisition (Turkheimer, 2018). How a person is brought up/nurtured determines the significant psychological elements of how a child develops and that maturation only applies to the physical or biological features. In his social learning theory, Bandura- a renowned psychologist- argues that aggression is a behavioral characteristic that is acquired from the environment in which a person lives through imitation or observation.

Similarly, another famous psychologist called Skinner asserted that individuals learn language from others via behavior shaping mechanisms. Sigmund Freud also articulated that a person’s childhood experiences have a significant impact on how they behave in their adulthood, thus shaping their behaviors and personalities. Freud believed that parenting is of great importance to the development of a child and that the family is an essential feature of the nurture component (Turkheimer, 2018). Empiricists believe that the environment in which a person grows up plays the most significant role in determining their behavior as adults. They think that some behaviors may suffice later on in life or during adolescence because this is the phase where people can express themselves and their feelings.

However, even a small baby will show signs of aggression if they grow up in an environment where people react aggressively or are always violent towards each other. There is little evidence showing a child becoming violent or aggressive when they were brought up in a peaceful environment. If the child becomes violent later on in life, it is because they have also experienced the same form of aggression elsewhere, and not genetically acquired it.

Interaction between Nature and Nurture

Practically, hardly any person today entirely agrees with either of the two extreme positions. No one believes that genetics alone influences behavior, and no one believes that the environment alone influences behavior. This uncertainty is because many scientific facts on both sides are inconsistent with an ‘all or nothing’ perspective. Therefore, instead of asking where personalities are genetically or environmentally influenced, the question has changed to how much these two factors influence personality (Sasaki & Kim, 2017). It means that both genetics and the environment both influence the behavior of a person later on in life, but which one is more important? Francis Galton first asked such a question in the 19th Century.

Galton believed that intellectual abilities were primarily inherited from one’s parents and that the ‘genius’ trait in families was as a result of natural superiority. Galton’s view has come up many times in the history of psychology and has catalyzed much of the research conducted on intelligence testing. For example, a modern psychologist named Arthur Jenson found that the average IQ scores for African Americans were significantly lower than those for whites (Barlow, 2019). He concluded that genetic factors were mostly responsible for this disparity and that intelligence is 80% hereditary.

Jenson’s findings created harsh controversies between nativists and empiricists. For empiricists, the differences in IQ scores between the Blacks and Whites were as a result of preconceived biases in the testing techniques. Secondly, empiricists argued that Black people have always been stereotyped as being less intelligent than their White counterparts. Therefore, when they are put in any test to compete with the whites, these stereotypes become deeply engrained in their minds that result in poor performances (Barlow, 2019). Furthermore, environmentalists argue that the differences in IQ scores are caused by social biases and inequalities in access to opportunities and material resources. For example, children who are raised in lower economic neighborhoods or the ghetto tend to perform poorly in their academics because they do not have access to the same chances and resources as those who hail from privileged backgrounds.

From the above argument, it is clear why the nature versus nurture debate is such a highly contested topic. What started as an initiative to understand the causes of personality differences developed into politically motivated disputes about the unequal and unfair distribution of justice and power in society. However, the reality is that the interaction between nature and nurture is often the most significant factor in influencing how a person behaves later on in life. For example, researcher Kevin Davies described a case of perfect pitch. This is the ability for one to hit an ideal musical note without having any reference. Research shows that this unique ability runs in families and is tied to a single gene. However, studies have also found that possessing the perfect pitch gene alone is not sufficient to develop the ability to hit the note (Sasaki & Kim, 2017). On the contrary, one needs adequate musical training during their childhood years to allow this unique ability to manifest itself effectively.

Height is also another example of how nature and nurture interact.  When a child hails from a family with both tall parents, the child inherits these genes from them. However, if the child grows up in an environment where there is extreme deprivation of nourishment and resources, they may fail to attain the height. Also, a child naturally inherits the language that the parents speak. However, when they change to a different environment, they may adopt a new language that people within those surroundings speak. A person who has grown up in a violent and aggressive home may become violent later on in life, but through counseling and staying in a peaceful environment may help change his mindset and become calm.

Similarly, the environment may change a person’s behavior in the opposite direction. For example, there are cases where children grow up in a household where their parents are complete alcoholics. As a result, the children may not receive proper care or education, and the household may always be chaotic. Such a situation may cause a child to shun alcohol entirely because they would not want to end up like their parents.

Which one is More Important?

One question that is extremely important to the study of nature and nurture is the extent to which either influences personality. If nature were more important, then people’s personalities would form earlier on in their lives, and it would be hard to change them later. If nurture was more important, then people’s experiences are especially important, and they may be able to alter their personalities with ease over time. Studies on twins adopted by different families show a significant resemblance in their characters despite the environment in which they grow up (Montag et al., 2016). It only means that these twins’ personalities are primarily influenced by genes inherited from their parents. In this sense, it can be argued that genetics plays a more significant role in determining a person’s behavior.

On the contrary, through behavioral genetics studies on family studies, adoption studies, and twin studies, experts found that the variability in personality traits are influenced by genetics, non-shared environments, and shared environments. These studies show that a lot of the personality traits are largely inherited, but genetics is not the final determining factor. Studies show that a combination of genetics and the environment in which one grows contributes significantly to who a person becomes later in life (Montag et al., 2016). Although someone may inherit certain traits from the parents, the environment in which they grow may make them develop a different personality and vice versa.


Numerous controversies surround the nature versus nurture topic. Nativists argue that a person’s personality is significantly dependent on the genes inherited from the parents. At the same time, environmentalists believe that the environment in which a person grows determines their character in the future. Although traditional psychologists leaned on either side or the other, modern psychologists have realized the importance of the interaction between nature and nurture in determining personality. Biologists have found that genetics alone cannot influence personality development independent of environmental factors. They assert that both genetic and environmental influences cooperate significantly to build personality traits. For example, in the case of intelligence, a child may have been born by highly intelligent parents, maybe both were professors. Naturally, this child has the intelligence gene, which will enable them to become brilliant in school. However, if the same child, unfortunately, grows up in a poor environment without adequate resources, they may not perform well in their academics. Therefore, for the intelligence gene to manifest itself, the child should be placed in a pleasant environment, with adequate resources and support. The vice versa is also true. A child who is not naturally intelligent may improve in their academics if they are placed in an environment with adequate resources and emotional, physical, and academic support.

To sum up, instead of one solely defending the nativist or environmentalist perspectives, most researchers in psychology today investigate the interaction between nature and nurture. In psychopathology, researchers have found that both biological predisposition and adequate triggers within one’s environment are effective triggers for the development of mental disorders. Therefore, it is more sensible to say that differences in people’s personalities are more due to both genetic and environmental factors.


Barlow, F. K. (2019). Nature vs. Nurture is Nonsense: On the Necessity of an Integrated Genetic, Social, Developmental, and Personality Psychology. Australian Journal of Psychology, 71(1), 68-79.DOI: 10.1111/ajpy.12240

Honeycutt, H. (2019). Nature and Nurture as an Enduring Tension in the History of Psychology. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 7(13), 1-30. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.518

Montag, C., Hahn, E., Reuter, M., Spinath, F. M., Davis, K., &Panksepp, J. (2016). The Role of Nature and Nurture for Individual Differences in Primary Emotional Systems: Evidence from a Twin Study. PLoS One, 11(3), 1-15.DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0151405

Sasaki, J. Y., & Kim, H. S. (2017). Nature, Nurture, and their Interplay: A Review of Cultural Neuroscience. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(1), 4-22.

Turkheimer, E. (2018). The Nature-Nurture Question.General Psychology, FA18, 50.

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