Without a doubt, one of the oldest debates in psychology is the nature versus nurture debate. It is applicable to anything: our intelligence, our mental well-being and our interests, for example. However, it is also widely considered in relation to our personality.
Is our personality developed over time, or are we born with it?
Personality really is a complicated topic. If you’ve been following along with my posts, you’ll remember that I talked, in quite a lot of detail, about the debate as to whether we have personality traits or personality types. Or, whether our personality is state based or trait based.
Well, there is another compelling, yet unresolved, argument to talk about too. And this one is one that is applicable to the whole of psychology, not just to personality. In fact, most of us psychologist are bored of hearing about it… Yep, it’s the nature/nurture debate.
This debate seeks to decide how our personalities develop. On one side of the debate, it is argued that our genetics solely influence who we are: from our physical appearance to our personality characteristics.
The other side of the debate, the ‘nurture’ side, argues deeply that our experiences in life, such as how our parents raise us, our culture or who we interact with, shape our personality.
This debate is so confusing as different branches within psychology take different approaches. For example, biological psychologists tend to (as the name suggests) focus on our biology. Most biological theories question how our genetic make up impacts the way we behave. Whereas, behaviorism, for example, focuses on the impact that the environment we find ourselves in has on our behavior.
In order to give you a deeper understanding of one of the most prevalent debates surrounding personality, I have summarized the main points of the two debates. Enjoy!
The nature debate of personality
As humans, we are all born with almost identical genes: my DNA is about 99.9% the same as your DNA. Thats what makes us humans. Our distinct genetic makeup gives us the distinct abilities and characteristics that separate us from all other species.
These characteristics and abilities are known as instincts, which are complex inborn patterns of behaviors that help ensure survival and reproduction. Different animals have different instincts. For example, rabbits instinctually burrow deep into the ground. A bird will instinctually incubate their eggs to protect them. And us humans instinctually seek interaction and to understand others. These instincts are what we know from when we are born, and the nature side of the debate argued that our personality is the same.
Some very famous philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, suggested that certain things are inborn and that these behavior occur naturally, regardless or environmental influences. Nativists take the position that all of our behaviors and characteristics (including our personality) are the result of inheritance, much the same as how our eye color or hair color is inherited/determined from the day we were born (apart from now, that we can dye it).
The nurture debate of personality
There is no denying that the environment we find ourselves in plays a crucial role in our life. Some people are rich, some people are poor. Some people grew up in loving family homes, some people grew up in foster care. Others have four sisters, while others have no siblings at all. Some people have it easy, while others don’t.
According to the nurture debate, these circumstances we find ourselves in shape the entirety of our personality. It’s called the ‘tabula rasa’, a theory that suggests that the human mind begins as a blank slate and that EVERYTHING that we are/all of our knowledge is determined by our experience. John B Watson, a famous behaviorist, proposed that humans can be trained to come anything, regardless of our genetics.
Studies have shown that personality is caused by the cultural development and the interactions we have with others and our environment when we are a child. Similarly, evidence from studies that have found that children raised in foster homes were influenced greater by their foster parents child raising, than by their genetics.
What about a combined perspective?
Shock – how do most debates in psychology get resolved? Combine the two to please everyone!
Well actually, despite my sarcasm, combining the nature and nurture debate makes a lot of sense. Our genetics are responsible for a lot, but what we see and experience can also have a lasting impact. Think about it, some of us are born more anxious than others. Some or us appear to be born more outgoing than others. And, those children that were doing back flips on skateboards at the age of 4 are more likely to be the ones jumping out a planes as adults.
However, the things we see and experience throughout our lives can absolutely shape our personality as adults. We might naturally be easygoing/not a worrier. But, if we experience a traumatic event, we might become less easy going and more fearful. Similarly, being raise in a positive and happy environment might make us more confident or more likely to be open to experiences
So, there you have it – a concise version of the nature nurture debate. It is a debate that was tricky to summarize in a way that didn’t waffle on for ages.
Let me know what your opinion is – do you think you behave more based on your genetics or your experiences?