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The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Genetic and Environmental Influences and How They Interact

Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Nature refers to how genetics influence an individual's personality, whereas nurture refers to how their environment (including relationships and experiences) impacts their development. Whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in personality and development is one of the oldest philosophical debates within the field of psychology .

Learn how each is defined, along with why the issue of nature vs. nurture continues to arise. We also share a few examples of when arguments on this topic typically occur, how the two factors interact with each other, and contemporary views that exist in the debate of nature vs. nurture as it stands today.

Nature and Nurture Defined

To better understand the nature vs. nurture argument, it helps to know what each of these terms means.

A few biologically determined characteristics include genetic diseases, eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other characteristics are tied to environmental influences, such as how a person behaves, which can be influenced by parenting styles and learned experiences.

For example, one child might learn through observation and reinforcement to say please and thank you. Another child might learn to behave aggressively by observing older children engage in violent behavior on the playground.

The Debate of Nature vs. Nurture

The nature vs. nurture debate centers on the contributions of genetics and environmental factors to human development. Some philosophers, such as Plato and Descartes, suggested that certain factors are inborn or occur naturally regardless of environmental influences.

Advocates of this point of view believe that all of our characteristics and behaviors are the result of evolution. They contend that genetic traits are handed down from parents to their children and influence the individual differences that make each person unique.

Other well-known thinkers, such as John Locke, believed in what is known as tabula rasa which suggests that the mind begins as a blank slate . According to this notion, everything that we are is determined by our experiences.

Behaviorism is a good example of a theory rooted in this belief as behaviorists feel that all actions and behaviors are the results of conditioning. Theorists such as John B. Watson believed that people could be trained to do and become anything, regardless of their genetic background.

People with extreme views are called nativists and empiricists. Nativists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics are the result of inheritance. Empiricists take the position that all or most behaviors and characteristics result from learning.

Examples of Nature vs. Nurture

One example of when the argument of nature vs. nurture arises is when a person achieves a high level of academic success . Did they do so because they are genetically predisposed to elevated levels of intelligence, or is their success a result of an enriched environment?

The argument of nature vs. nurture can also be made when it comes to why a person behaves in a certain way. If a man abuses his wife and kids, for instance, is it because he was born with violent tendencies, or is violence something he learned by observing others in his life when growing up?

Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology

Throughout the history of psychology , the debate of nature vs. nurture has continued to stir up controversy. Eugenics, for example, was a movement heavily influenced by the nativist approach.

Psychologist Francis Galton coined the terms 'nature versus nurture' and 'eugenics' and believed that intelligence resulted from genetics. Galton also felt that intelligent individuals should be encouraged to marry and have many children, while less intelligent individuals should be discouraged from reproducing.

The value placed on nature vs. nurture can even vary between the different branches of psychology , with some branches taking a more one-sided approach. In biopsychology , for example, researchers conduct studies exploring how neurotransmitters influence behavior, emphasizing the role of nature.

In social psychology , on the other hand, researchers might conduct studies looking at how external factors such as peer pressure and social media influence behaviors, stressing the importance of nurture. Behaviorism is another branch that focuses on the impact of the environment on behavior.

Nature vs. Nurture in Child Development

Some psychological theories of child development place more emphasis on nature and others focus more on nurture. An example of a nativist theory involving child development is Chomsky's concept of a language acquisition device (LAD). According to this theory, all children are born with an instinctive mental capacity that allows them to both learn and produce language.

An example of an empiricist child development theory is Albert Bandura's social learning theory . This theory says that people learn by observing the behavior of others. In his famous Bobo doll experiment , Bandura demonstrated that children could learn aggressive behaviors simply by observing another person acting aggressively.

Nature vs. Nurture in Personality Development

There is also some argument as to whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role in the development of one's personality. The answer to this question varies depending on which personality development theory you use.

According to behavioral theories, our personality is a result of the interactions we have with our environment, while biological theories suggest that personality is largely inherited. Then there are psychodynamic theories of personality that emphasize the impact of both.

Nature vs. Nurture in Mental Illness Development

One could argue that either nature or nurture contributes to mental health development. Some causes of mental illness fall on the nature side of the debate, including changes to or imbalances with chemicals in the brain. Genetics can also contribute to mental illness development, increasing one's risk of a certain disorder or disease.

Mental disorders with some type of genetic component include autism , attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder , major depression , and schizophrenia .

Other explanations for mental illness are environmental. This includes being exposed to environmental toxins, such as drugs or alcohol, while still in utero. Certain life experiences can also influence mental illness development, such as witnessing a traumatic event, leading to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Nature vs. Nurture in Mental Health Therapy

Different types of mental health treatment can also rely more heavily on either nature or nurture in their treatment approach. One of the goals of many types of therapy is to uncover any life experiences that may have contributed to mental illness development (nurture).

However, genetics (nature) can play a role in treatment as well. For instance, research indicates that a person's genetic makeup can impact how their body responds to antidepressants. Taking this into consideration is important for getting that person the help they need.

Interaction Between Nature and Nurture

Which is stronger: nature or nurture? Many researchers consider the interaction between heredity and environment—nature with nurture as opposed to nature versus nurture—to be the most important influencing factor of all.

For example, perfect pitch is the ability to detect the pitch of a musical tone without any reference. Researchers have found that this ability tends to run in families and might be tied to a single gene. However, they've also discovered that possessing the gene is not enough as musical training during early childhood is needed for this inherited ability to manifest itself.

Height is another example of a trait influenced by an interaction between nature and nurture. A child might inherit the genes for height. However, if they grow up in a deprived environment where proper nourishment isn't received, they might never attain the height they could have had if they'd grown up in a healthier environment.

A newer field of study that aims to learn more about the interaction between genes and environment is epigenetics . Epigenetics seeks to explain how environment can impact the way in which genes are expressed.

Some characteristics are biologically determined, such as eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other things, like life expectancy and height, have a strong biological component but are also influenced by environmental factors and lifestyle.

Contemporary Views of Nature vs. Nurture

Most experts recognize that neither nature nor nurture is stronger than the other. Instead, both factors play a critical role in who we are and who we become. Not only that but nature and nurture interact with each other in important ways all throughout our lifespan.

As a result, many in this field are interested in seeing how genes modulate environmental influences and vice versa. At the same time, this debate of nature vs. nurture still rages on in some areas, such as in the origins of homosexuality and influences on intelligence .

While a few people take the extreme nativist or radical empiricist approach, the reality is that there is not a simple way to disentangle the multitude of forces that exist in personality and human development. Instead, these influences include genetic factors, environmental factors, and how each intermingles with the other.

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National Institutes of Health. Common genetic factors found in 5 mental disorders .

Pain O, Hodgson K, Trubetskoy V, et al. Identifying the common genetic basis of antidepressant response . Biol Psychiatry Global Open Sci . 2022;2(2):115-126. doi:10.1016/j.bpsgos.2021.07.008

Moulton C. Perfect pitch reconsidered . Clin Med J . 2014;14(5):517-9 doi:10.7861/clinmedicine.14-5-517

Levitt M. Perceptions of nature, nurture and behaviour . Life Sci Soc Policy . 2013;9:13. doi:10.1186/2195-7819-9-13

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Chomsky N. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax .

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By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.

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What Is Nature vs. Nurture in Psychology?

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

As a retired ultra-endurance triathlete turned medical writer, Chris brings the same passion and commitment to science-based journalism as he did to running, biking, and swimming extraordinary distances. 

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

Michael MacIntyre, MD, is a board-certified general and forensic psychiatrist.

Contemporary Views

Frequently asked questions.

Nature vs. nurture is an age-old debate about whether genetics (nature) plays a bigger role in determining a person's characteristics than lived experience and environmental factors (nurture). The term "nature vs. nature" was coined by English naturalist Charles Darwin's younger half cousin, anthropologist Francis Galton, around 1875.

In psychology, the extreme nature position (nativism) proposes that intelligence and personality traits are inherited and determined only by genetics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the extreme nurture position (empiricism) asserts that the mind is a blank slate at birth; external factors like education and upbringing determine who someone becomes in adulthood and how their mind works. Both of these extreme positions have shortcomings and are antiquated.

This article explores the difference between nature and nurture. It gives nature vs. nurture examples, and explains why outdated views of nativism and empiricism don't jibe with contemporary views. 

Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty Images

In the context of nature vs. nurture, "nature" refers to genetics and heritable factors that are passed down to children from their biological parents.

Genes and hereditary factors determine many aspects of someone’s physical appearance and other individual characteristics, such as a genetically inherited predisposition for certain personality traits. Some studies suggest that about 50% of your personality and temperament is genetically determined.

However, the impact of gene-environment (or nature-nurture) interactions on someone's traits are interwoven, and the heritability of personality isn't always 50%. Trying to measure "nature vs. nurture" scientifically is messy. It's impossible to know precisely where the influence of genes and environment begin or end.

How Are Inherited Traits Measured?

“Heritability”   describes the influence that genes have on human characteristics and traits. It's measured on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0. Very strong heritable traits like someone's eye color are ranked a 1.0.

Traits that have nothing to do with genetics, like speaking with a regional accent, rank a zero. Most human characteristics score between a 0.30 and 0.60 on the heritability scale, which reflects a blend of genetics (nature) and environmental (nurture) factors.

Thousands of years ago, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato believed that "innate knowledge" is present in our minds at birth. Every parent knows that babies are born with innate characteristics. Anecdotally, it may seem like a kid's "Big 5" personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness) were predetermined before birth.

From a "nature" perspective, the fact that every child has innate traits at birth supports Plato's philosophical ideas about innatism. However, personality isn't set in stone. Environmental "nurture" factors can change someone's predominant personality traits over time. For example, being exposed to the chemical lead during childhood may alter personality.

In 2014, a meta-analysis of genetic and environmental influences on personality development across the human life span found that people change with age. Personality traits are relatively stable during early childhood but often change dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood.

It's impossible to know exactly how much "nurture" changes personality as people get older. In 2019, a study of how stable personality traits are from age 16 to 66 found that people's Big 5 traits are both stable and malleable (able to be molded). During the 50-year span from high school to retirement, some traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to increase, while others appear to be set in stone.

Nurture refers to all of the external or environmental factors that affect human development such as how someone is raised, socioeconomic status, early childhood experiences, education, and daily habits.

Although the word "nurture" may conjure up images of babies and young children being cared for by loving parents, environmental factors and life experience have an impact on our psychological and physical well-being across the human life span. In adulthood, "nurturing" oneself by making healthy lifestyle choices can offset certain genetic predispositions.

For example, a May 2022 study found that people with a high genetic risk of developing the brain disorder Alzheimer's disease can lower their odds of developing dementia (a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, and social abilities enough to affect daily life) by adopting these seven healthy habits in midlife: staying active , healthy eating , losing weight , not smoking , reducing blood sugar , controlling cholesterol , and maintaining healthy blood pressure .

Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)

Innatism emphasizes nature's role in shaping our minds and personality traits before birth. Nativism takes this one step further and proposes that all of people's mental and physical characteristics are inherited and predetermined at birth.

In its extreme form, concepts of nativism gave way to the early 20th century's racially-biased eugenics movement. Thankfully, "selective breeding", which is the idea that only certain people should reproduce in order to create chosen characteristics in offspring, and eugenics, arranged breeding, lost momentum during World War II. At that time, the Nazis' ethnic cleansing (killing people based on their ethnic or religious associations) atrocities were exposed.

Empiricism (Extreme Nurture Position)

Philosopher John Locke's tabula rasa theory from 1689 directly opposes the idea that we are born with innate knowledge. "Tabula rasa" means "blank slate" and implies that our minds do not have innate knowledge at birth.

Locke was an empiricist who believed that all the knowledge we gain in life comes from sensory experiences (using their senses to understand the world), education, and day-to-day encounters after being born.

Today, looking at nature vs. nature in black-and-white terms is considered a misguided dichotomy (two-part system). There are so many shades of gray where nature and nurture overlap. It's impossible to tease out how inherited traits and learned behaviors shape someone's unique characteristics or influence how their mind works.

The influences of nature and nurture in psychology are impossible to unravel. For example, imagine someone growing up in a household with an alcoholic parent who has frequent rage attacks. If that child goes on to develop a substance use disorder and has trouble with emotion regulation in adulthood, it's impossible to know precisely how much genetics (nature) or adverse childhood experiences (nurture) affected that individual's personality traits or issues with alcoholism.

Epigenetics Blurs the Line Between Nature and Nurture

"Epigenetics " means "on top of" genetics. It refers to external factors and experiences that turn genes "on" or "off." Epigentic mechanisms alter DNA's physical structure in utero (in the womb) and across the human life span.

Epigenetics blurs the line between nature and nurture because it says that even after birth, our genetic material isn't set in stone; environmental factors can modify genes during one's lifetime. For example, cannabis exposure during critical windows of development can increase someone's risk of neurospsychiatric disease via epigenetic mechanisms.

Nature vs. nurture is a framework used to examine how genetics (nature) and environmental factors (nurture) influence human development and personality traits.

However, nature vs. nurture isn't a black-and-white issue; there are many shades of gray where the influence of nature and nurture overlap. In most cases, nature and nurture combine to make us who we are. 

A Word From Verywell

In a perfect world, every baby would grow up in a loving and nurturing home. Giving infants tons of love and lots of skin-to-skin contact nurtures them in ways that can have lifelong benefits. But even if you weren't nurtured enough growing up, you can start nurturing yourself now.

People change. Who you are isn't set in stone. Making good choices daily can help you take control of your life and your destiny. Adopting healthier habits in your day-to-day life and cultivating a strong sense of connectedness with others can offset the potential harm of certain inherited traits.

Nature and nurture are equally strong. Genetics (nature) account for about half of our human characteristics, whereas external factors (nurture) account for approximately the other half. For example, generalized anxiety disorder is caused by a mix of genes and external factors. It's impossible to disentangle how nature and nurture overlap; they are inextricably intertwined.

In human development, "nature" refers to genetic factors and "nurture" refers to external or environmental factors.

Eye color and skin pigmentation are examples of "nature" because they are present at birth and determined by inherited genes. Language and having a regional accent are learned after birth and occur through "nurture."

Some traits, such as having an aggressive temperament, are a mix of nature and nurture. Regarding nurture's influence, contemporary psychologist Albert Bandura's social learning theory suggests that aggression is learned through observation and imitation.

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The New York Times. " Major Personality Study Finds That Traits Are Mostly Inherited ."

Bouchard, Jr. TJ, Loehlin JC. Genes, Evolution, and Personality .  Behavior Genetics . 2001;31(3):243-273. doi:10.1023/A:1012294324713

Krueger RF, South S, Johnson W, Iacono W. The heritability of personality is not always 50%: gene-environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting: heritability is not always 50% .  Journal of Personality . 2008;76(6):1485-1522. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00529.x

Feldman MW, Ramachandran S. Missing compared to what? Revisiting heritability, genes and culture .  Phil Trans R Soc B . 2018;373(1743):20170064. doi:10.1098/rstb.2017.0064

Winch C. Innatism, concept formation, concept mastery and formal education: innatism, concept formation and formal education .  Journal of Philosophy of Education . 2015;49(4):539-556. doi:10.1111/1467-9752.12121

Briley DA, Tucker-Drob EM. Genetic and environmental continuity in personality development: A meta-analysis .  Psychological Bulletin . 2014;140(5):1303-1331. doi:10.1037/a0037091

Damian RI, Spengler M, Sutu A, Roberts BW. Sixteen going on sixty-six: A longitudinal study of personality stability and change across 50 years .  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology . 2019;117(3):674-695. doi:10.1037/pspp0000210

Tin A, Bressler J, Simino J, et al. Genetic risk, midlife life’s simple 7, and incident dementia in the atherosclerosis risk in communities study .  Neurology . Published online May 25, 2022. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000200520 

National Human Genome Research Institute. Eugenics and Scientific Racism .

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Toraño EG, García MG, Fernández-Morera JL, Niño-García P, Fernández AF. The impact of external factors on the epigenome:  in utero  and over lifetime .  BioMed Research International . 2016;2016:1-17. doi:10.1155/2016/2568635

Smith A, Kaufman F, Sandy MS, Cardenas A. Cannabis exposure during critical windows of development: epigenetic and molecular pathways implicated in neuropsychiatric disease .  Curr Envir Health Rpt . 2020;7(3):325-342. doi:10.1007/s40572-020-00275-4

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models .  The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1961; 63 (3), 575–582 doi:10.1037/h0045925

By Christopher Bergland Christopher Bergland is a retired ultra-endurance athlete turned medical writer and science reporter. 

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Nature vs. Nurture

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

The expression “nature vs. nurture” describes the question of how much a person's characteristics are formed by either “nature” or “nurture.” “Nature” means innate biological factors (namely genetics ), while “nurture” can refer to upbringing or life experience more generally.

Traditionally, “nature vs. nurture” has been framed as a debate between those who argue for the dominance of one source of influence or the other, but contemporary experts acknowledge that both “nature” and “nurture” play a role in psychological development and interact in complex ways.

The Meaning of Nature vs. Nurture

The nature-vs.-nurture debate.

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The wording of the phrase “nature vs. nurture” makes it seem as though human individuality— personality traits, intelligence , preferences, and other characteristics—must be based on either the genes people are born with or the environment in which they grew up. The reality, as scientists have shown, is more complicated, and both these and other factors can help account for the many ways in which individuals differ from each other.

What does the phrase “nature vs. nurture” get wrong?

The words “nature” and “nurture” themselves can be misleading. Today, “ genetics ” and “environment” are frequently used in their place—with one’s environment including a broader range of experiences than just the nurturing received from parents or caregivers. Further, nature and nurture (or genetics and environment) do not simply compete to influence a person, but often interact with each other; “nature and nurture” work together. Finally, individual differences do not entirely come down to a person’s genetic code or developmental environment—to some extent, they emerge due to messiness in the process of development as well.

How do nature and nurture work together?

A person’s biological nature can affect a person’s experience of the environment. For example, a person with a genetic disposition toward a particular trait, such as aggressiveness, may be more likely to have particular life experiences (including, perhaps, receiving negative reactions from parents or others). Or, a person who grows up with an inclination toward warmth and sociability may seek out and elicit more positive social responses from peers. These life experiences could, in turn, reinforce an individual’s initial tendencies. Nurture or life experience more generally may also modify the effects of nature—for example, by expanding or limiting the extent to which a naturally bright child receives encouragement, access to quality education , and opportunities for achievement.

How does epigenetics relate to “nature vs. nurture”?

Epigenetics —the science of modifications in how genes are expressed— illustrates the complex interplay between “nature” and “nurture.” An individual’s environment, including factors such as early-life adversity, may result in changes in the way that parts of a person’s genetic code are “read.” While these epigenetic changes do not override the important influence of genes in general, they do constitute additional ways in which that influence is filtered through “nurture” or the environment.

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Theorists and researchers have long battled over whether individual traits and abilities are inborn or are instead forged by experiences after birth. The debate has had broad implications: The real or perceived sources of a person’s strengths and vulnerabilities matter for fields such as education, philosophy , psychiatry , and clinical psychology. Today’s consensus—that individual differences result from a combination of inherited and non-genetic factors—strikes a more nuanced middle path between nature- or nurture-focused extremes.

How old is the nature-nurture debate?

The debate about nature and nurture has roots that stretch back at least thousands of years, to Ancient Greek theorizing about the causes of personality. During the modern era, theories emphasizing the role of either learning and experience or biological nature have risen and fallen in prominence—with genetics gaining increasing acknowledgment as an important (though not exclusive) influence on individual differences in the later 20th century and beyond.

Where does the phrase “nature vs. nurture” come from?

“Nature versus nurture” was used by English scientist Francis Galton. In 1874, he published the book English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture , arguing that inherited factors were responsible for intelligence and other characteristics.

What is genetic determinism?

Genetic determinism emphasizes the importance of an individual’s nature in development. It is the view that genetics is largely or totally responsible for an individual’s psychological characteristics and behavior. The term “biological determinism” is often used synonymously.

What is the “blank slate” view in psychology?

The blank slate (or “tabula rasa”) view of the mind emphasizes the importance of nurture and the environment. Notably described by English philosopher John Locke in the 1600s, it proposed that individuals are born with a mind like an unmarked chalkboard and that its contents are based on experience and learning. In the 20th century, major branches of psychology proposed a primary role for nurture and experience , rather than nature, in development, including Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism.

How Genetic and Environmental Factors Are Identified

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Modern scientific methods have allowed researchers to advance further in understanding the complex relationships between genetics, life experience, and psychological characteristics, including mental health conditions and personality traits. Overall, the findings of contemporary studies underscore that with some exceptions—such as rare diseases caused by mutations in a single gene—no one factor, genetic or environmental, solely determines how a characteristic develops.

How can we tell what portion of psychological differences are due to genes?

Scientists use multiple approaches to estimate how important genetics are for any given trait, but one of the most influential is the twin study. While identical (or monozygotic) twins share the same genetic code, fraternal (or dizygotic) twins share about 50 percent of the same genes, like typical siblings. Scientists are able to estimate the degree to which the variation in a particular trait, like extraversion , is explained by genetics in part by analyzing how similar identical twins are on that trait, compared to fraternal twins . ( These studies do have limitations, and estimates based on one population may not closely reflect all other populations.) 

Which is more important, “nature” or “nurture”?

It’s hard to call either “nature” or “nurture,” genes or the environment, more important to human psychology. The impact of one set of factors or the other depends on the characteristic, with some being more strongly related to one’s genes —for instance, autism appears to be more heritable than depression . But in general, psychological traits are shaped by a balance of interacting genetic and non-genetic influences.

Is mental illness due to genes or the environment?

Both genes and environmental factors can contribute to a person developing mental illness. Research finds that a major part of the variation in the risk for psychiatric conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, and schizophrenia can be attributed to genetic differences. But not all of that risk is genetic, and life experiences, such as early-life abuse or neglect, may also affect risk of mental illness (and some individuals, based on their genetics, are likely more susceptible to environmental effects than others).

Is personality shaped more by genes or by the environment?

Like other psychological characteristics, personality is partly heritable. Research suggests less than half of the difference between people on measures of personality traits can be attributed to genes (one recent overall estimate is 40 percent). Non-genetic factors appear to be responsible for an equal or greater portion of personality differences between individuals. Some theorize that the social roles people adopt and invest in as they mature are among the more important non-genetic factors in personality development.

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4 Human Behavior: Nature or Nurture?

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

Introduction: What Do We Mean By Nature Vs Nurture?

In this chapter it is discussed that nature vs nurture is the debate of whether we are a product of nature (genetics) or nurture (environment). There is evidence supporting both sides of the debate. By the end of this, you should be able to determine that both nature and nurture play a key role in humans and animal behaviour.

Memory Match

The memory match game allows you to identify keywords pertaining to nature and nurture. The goal is to click a card and match the word on the card, with another card that has the same word. Now that you know how to play, let’s see how many you can match!

Sir Francis Galton

When we refer to nature, we are talking about our genetics that we inherit from our parents.  A fairly recent study (Kamran, 2016) conducted in Pakistan suggests that the parallels drawn regarding the temperament of siblings are due to their genetics. The results of this study states that the genetic makeup of relatives of the family (even deceased) also influence how the child acts. These behaviours of the child are identifiable by the family members even though the deceased family member no longer is present.

Browse through Galton’s timeline and discover his story!

Pair the Pioneer

The following pioneers play a key role in what we know about nature and nurture today! The goal of the game is to pair the correct pioneer with the correct fact pertaining to the pioneer. If you place your mouse above the pioneer, there is a fun fact that has a clue to help. Be careful, there is a trick pioneer!

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

When we refer to nurture, we are talking about all the environmental factors that influence us. Environmental factors include but aren’t limited to parenting style, birth order, peers, family size, culture, language, education, etc. The main argument for nurture is that the environment is what makes us who we are. Those who are on the extreme side of nurture are empiricists. They believe humans are born as blank slates and acquire all information from their environment with their 5 senses.

Behaviorism, established by John Watson, is the theory that all behavior is a result of stimulation from the environment or a consequence of the individual’s previous conditioning. Behaviorism is a school of psychology that is on the side of nurture.

A study in 2019 performed an experiment on Bonobos (a species of chimpanzee) to observe social learning. The results of the experiment found supporting evidence that Bonobos are able to learn from observing others of their species just like humans.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory states that people learn by observing, imitating, and modeling behavior. In 1961, Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment’s findings support the argument for nurture in that our environment influences our behavior.

Key Terms: 

Nature or Nurture? Or Both?

Given what we have discussed so far, is it genes or environment that influences behaviour? It is actually both genetic and social influences that contributes to an individual’s behaviour. Below is a video that explains how both components contribute to an individual.

Now that you understand how genes and environment work together, is it possible for one component to influence an individual more than the other? Below is an article that explains how grizzly bears’ conflict behaviour may attribute to genetic inheritance or social learning… talk about beary bad behaviour!

 Beary Bad Behaviour

Grizzly bear den

Welcome to the Grizzly Bear den. Inside there are paws, click any paw to learn key concepts within the article! Don’t worry, the bears won’t bite!

A study done in Alberta, Canada analyzed the genetic and environmental relationship of grizzly bears, pertaining to their offspring’s conflict behaviour. The study predicts that aggression is determined genetically from either biological parents. If the cub’s conflict behaviour is inherited from the father’s genes, then necessary relocation of wildlife protection is necessary to avoid human-conflict interaction. If the cub’s behaviour is inherited from the mother’s genes, then relocation of female bears is much more difficult to do as there are legal wildlife implications.

The study genotyped 213 grizzly bears, most of which were males. The study described conflict-beahviour or “problem bear” as those that exemplified invasive or aggressive behaviour on private property, public property, or had an incident with an individual. The results of the study indicated that the offspring of the female parent displayed a negative interaction more so than the offspring from the male parent.

According to Morehouse et al., (2016), “ results support the social learning hypothesis, but not the genetic inheritance hypothesis as it relates to the acquisition of conflict behaviour. If human-bear conflict was an inherited behaviour, we would have expected to see a significant relationship between paternal conflict behaviour and offspring behaviour.  Social learning has the potential to perpetuate grizzly bear conflicts highlighting the importance of preventing initial conflicts, but also removing problem individuals once conflicts start” (p.7). 

 Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies

In this study, it talks about the general observations of 50 study samples regarding over 800,000 pairs of twins and how their behavior may have been impacted by genes or by their environment. Due to the ethical limitations of human experimentation, there can only be a conclusion that there are mild causal effects. Heritable estimations are quite frankly useless in these studies because the results purely depend on the environmental conditions of the study participants, and it only becomes applicable when all participants are in the same environment.

If a separated teen is brought up in a rich environment, their gene makeup has a higher likelihood of being a factor in their upbringing. If his or her counterpart twin, in contrast, is brought up in a poor environment, the influence of their genes will be insignificant because of a less nurturing surrounding. Another example is the first sexual encounter on separated twins; do their shared genetics influence them to take action around the same time? The answer is no, because such events are a result of the environmental influences of delinquency.

Psychologist Eric Turkheimer states that there are essentially Three Laws of Behaviour Genetics:

“First Law: All human behavioural traits are heritable.

Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.

Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.”

He explains that genes only make up ~50% of our behaviours while the rest is influenced by our environment.

“The omnipresence of genetic influences does not [mean] that behaviour is less psychological or more biologically determined”, but it’s the facilitation of the environmental conditions that allows people to bring out their full behaviouristic tendencies to light; and even then, our genes are only half the story.

The following video is a study that looked at the effects of nature and nurture on twins. In short, there are many coincidences that may seem that their actions come from genetic relations.

Chapter References

ABC News (2018, Mar 10) 20/20 Mar 9 Part 2: Adopted twins were separated and then part of a secret study. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://youtu.be/0-2FFsuitO4

Benjamin, J. (2017, March 31). Cancer: Nature Vs. Nurture. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://marybird.org/blog/olol/cancer-nature-vs-nurture

Biography.com Editors. (2019, August 28). Charles Darwin Biography. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://www.biography.com/scientist/charles-darwin.

Cherry, K. (2019, July 1). The Age Old Debate of Nature vs. Nurture. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-nature-versus-nurture-2795392.

David L, “Social Learning Theory (Bandura),” in Learning Theories, February 7, 2019, https://www.learning-theories.com/social-learning-theory-bandura.html .

Det medisinke fakultet. (2016, January 26). Epigenetics: Nature vs nurture. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://youtu.be/k50yMwEOWGU

Everywhere Psychology. (2012, August 28). Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from https://youtu.be/dmBqwWlJg8U .

FuseSchool-Global Education. (2019, August 27). Nature vs Nurture | Genetics | Biology | FuseSchool Retrieved November 18, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmctxRcmloc

Gervais, M. (2017, August 31). Dr. Albert Bandura – The Theory of Agency. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from https://art19.com/shows/minutes-on-mastery/episodes/a1cef11d-e32c-4f03-ba4a-262a91268f4c.

Johnson W, Turkheimer E, Gottesman II, Bouchard TJ Jr. Beyond Heritability: Twin Studies in Behavioral Research.  Curr Dir Psychol Sci . 2010;18(4):217–220. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01639.x

Kamran, F., PhD. (2016). Are siblings different as ‘day and night’? parents’ perceptions of nature vs. nurture.  Journal of Behavioural Sciences, 26 (2), 95-115. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/docview/1864042019?accountid=35875

Merriam-Webster. (2019). Retrieved November 17, 2019 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epigenetics

McLeod, S. A. (2016, Feb 05). Bandura – social learning theory . Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/bandura.html

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Dec 20). Nature vs nurture in psychology. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html

Miko, I.  (2008)  Gregor Mendel and the principles of inheritance.  Nature Education   1( 1 ) :134

Morehouse, A. T., Graves, T. A., Mikle, N., & Boyce, M. S. (2016). Nature vs. nurture: Evidence for social learning of conflict behaviour in grizzly bears. PLoS One, 11 (11) doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2080/10.1371/journal.pone.0165425

Rose, H., & Rose, S. (2011). The legacies of francis galton. Lancet, the, 377 (9775), 1397-1397.doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60560-6

Shorland, G., Genty, E., Guéry, J.-P., & Zuberbühler, K. (2019). Social learning of arbitrary food preferences in bonobos. Behavioural Processes, 167. https://doi-org.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/10.1016/j.beproc.2019.103912

TED-Ed. (2013, March 12). How Mendel’s pea plants helped us understand genetics. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://youtu.be/Mehz7tCxjSE.

Thesaurus.Plus . (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://thesaurus.plus/thesaurus.

Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean.  Current Directions in Psychological Science ,  9 (5), 160–164. https://doi-org.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/10.1111/1467-8721.00084

Winch, J. (2012, Mar 08). Genius with a finger on the pulse of discovery: Birmingham-born sir francis galton was a victorian genius. but today he would be thought a racist because of the controversial interest for which he is best remembered – eugenics. jessica winch reports. Birmingham Post. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.kpu.ca:2443/docview/926809806?accountid=35875

Wikipedia. (2019, November 16). Francis Galton. Retrieved November 17, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Galton.

Evolutionary Psychology: Exploring Big Questions Copyright © by kristie. All Rights Reserved.

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Nature vs. Nurture Debate in Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Learn about our Editorial Process

Olivia Guy-Evans

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Key Takeaways

The nature-nurture debate is concerned with the relative contribution that both influences make to human behavior, such as personality, cognitive traits, temperament and psychopathology.

Nativism (Extreme Nature Position)

It has long been known that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance.

Color of eyes, straight or curly hair, pigmentation of the skin, and certain diseases (such as Huntingdon’s chorea) are all a function of the genes we inherit.

eye color genetics

These facts have led many to speculate as to whether psychological characteristics such as behavioral tendencies, personality attributes, and mental abilities are also “wired in” before we are even born.

Those who adopt an extreme hereditary position are known as nativists.  Their basic assumption is that the characteristics of the human species as a whole are a product of evolution and that individual differences are due to each person’s unique genetic code.

In general, the earlier a particular ability appears, the more likely it is to be under the influence of genetic factors. Estimates of genetic influence are called heritability.

Examples of extreme nature positions in psychology include Chomsky (1965), who proposed language is gained through the use of an innate language acquisition device. Another example of nature is Freud’s theory of aggression as being an innate drive (called Thanatos).

Characteristics and differences that are not observable at birth, but which emerge later in life, are regarded as the product of maturation. That is to say, we all have an inner “biological clock” which switches on (or off) types of behavior in a pre-programmed way.

The classic example of the way this affects our physical development are the bodily changes that occur in early adolescence at puberty.

However, nativists also argue that maturation governs the emergence of attachment in infancy , language acquisition , and even cognitive development .

Empiricism (Extreme Nurture Position)

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

Their basic assumption is that at birth, the human mind is a tabula rasa (a blank slate) and that this is gradually “filled” as a result of experience (e.g., behaviorism ).

From this point of view, psychological characteristics and behavioral differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the results of learning.  It is how you are brought up (nurture) that governs the psychologically significant aspects of child development and the concept of maturation applies only to the biological.

For example, Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory states that aggression is learned from the environment through observation and imitation. This is seen in his famous bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961).

bobo doll experiment

Also, Skinner (1957) believed that language is learned from other people via behavior-shaping techniques.

Evidence for Nature

Freud (1905) stated that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. He thought that parenting is of primary importance to a child’s development , and the family as the most important feature of nurture was a common theme throughout twentieth-century psychology (which was dominated by environmentalists’ theories).

Behavioral Genetics

Researchers in the field of behavioral genetics study variation in behavior as it is affected by genes, which are the units of heredity passed down from parents to offspring.

“We now know that DNA differences are the major systematic source of psychological differences between us. Environmental effects are important but what we have learned in recent years is that they are mostly random – unsystematic and unstable – which means that we cannot do much about them.” Plomin (2018, xii)

Behavioral genetics has enabled psychology to quantify the relative contribution of nature and nurture with regard to specific psychological traits. One way to do this is to study relatives who share the same genes (nature) but a different environment (nurture). Adoption acts as a natural experiment which allows researchers to do this.

Empirical studies have consistently shown that adoptive children show greater resemblance to their biological parents, rather than their adoptive, or environmental parents (Plomin & DeFries, 1983; 1985).

Another way of studying heredity is by comparing the behavior of twins, who can either be identical (sharing the same genes) or non-identical (sharing 50% of genes). Like adoption studies, twin studies support the first rule of behavior genetics; that psychological traits are extremely heritable, about 50% on average.

The Twins in Early Development Study (TEDS) revealed correlations between twins on a range of behavioral traits, such as personality (empathy and hyperactivity) and components of reading such as phonetics (Haworth, Davis, Plomin, 2013; Oliver & Plomin, 2007; Trouton, Spinath, & Plomin, 2002).


Jenson (1969) found that the average I.Q. scores of black Americans were significantly lower than whites he went on to argue that genetic factors were mainly responsible – even going so far as to suggest that intelligence is 80% inherited.

The storm of controversy that developed around Jenson’s claims was not mainly due to logical and empirical weaknesses in his argument. It was more to do with the social and political implications that are often drawn from research that claims to demonstrate natural inequalities between social groups.

For many environmentalists, there is a barely disguised right-wing agenda behind the work of the behavioral geneticists.  In their view, part of the difference in the I.Q. scores of different ethnic groups are due to inbuilt biases in the methods of testing.

More fundamentally, they believe that differences in intellectual ability are a product of social inequalities in access to material resources and opportunities.  To put it simply children brought up in the ghetto tend to score lower on tests because they are denied the same life chances as more privileged members of society.

Now we can see why the nature-nurture debate has become such a hotly contested issue.  What begins as an attempt to understand the causes of behavioral differences often develops into a politically motivated dispute about distributive justice and power in society.

What’s more, this doesn’t only apply to the debate over I.Q.  It is equally relevant to the psychology of sex and gender , where the question of how much of the (alleged) differences in male and female behavior is due to biology and how much to culture is just as controversial.

Polygenic Inheritance

Rather than the presence or absence of single genes being the determining factor that accounts for psychological traits, behavioral genetics has demonstrated that multiple genes – often thousands, collectively contribute to specific behaviors.

Thus, psychological traits follow a polygenic mode of inheritance (as opposed to being determined by a single gene). Depression is a good example of a polygenic trait, which is thought to be influenced by around 1000 genes (Plomin, 2018).

This means a person with a lower number of these genes (under 500) would have a lower risk of experiencing depression than someone with a higher number.

The Nature of Nurture

Nurture assumes that correlations between environmental factors and psychological outcomes are caused environmentally. For example, how much parents read with their children and how well children learn to read appear to be related. Other examples include environmental stress and its effect on depression.

However, behavioral genetics argues that what look like environmental effects are to a large extent really a reflection of genetic differences (Plomin & Bergeman, 1991).

People select, modify and create environments correlated with their genetic disposition. This means that what sometimes appears to be an environmental influence (nurture) is a genetic influence (nature).

So, children that are genetically predisposed to be competent readers, will be happy to listen to their parents read them stories, and be more likely to encourage this interaction.

Interaction Effects

However, in recent years there has been a growing realization that the question of “how much” behavior is due to heredity and “how much” to the environment may itself be the wrong question.

Take intelligence as an example. Like almost all types of human behavior, it is a complex, many-sided phenomenon which reveals itself (or not!) in a great variety of ways.

The “how much” question assumes that psychological traits can all be expressed numerically and that the issue can be resolved in a quantitative manner.

Heritability statistics revealed by behavioral genetic studies have been criticized as meaningless, mainly because biologists have established that genes cannot influence development independently of environmental factors; genetic and nongenetic factors always cooperate to build traits. The reality is that nature and culture interact in a host of qualitatively different ways (Gottlieb, 2007; Johnston & Edwards, 2002).

Instead of defending extreme nativist or nurturist views, most psychological researchers are now interested in investigating how nature and nurture interact.

For example, in psychopathology , this means that both a genetic predisposition and an appropriate environmental trigger are required for a mental disorder to develop. For example, epigenetics state that environmental influences affect the expression of genes.

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

So what is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the term used to describe inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes. For example, features of a person’s physical and social environment can effect which genes are switched-on, or “expressed”, rather than the DNA sequence of the genes themselves.

One such example is what is known as the Dutch Hunger Winter, during last year of the Second World War. What they found was that children who were in the womb during the famine experienced a life-long increase in their chances of developing various health problems compared to children conceived after the famine.

Epigenetic effects can sometimes be passed from one generation to the next, although the effects only seem to last for a few generations. There is some evidence that the effects of the Dutch Hunger Winter affected grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the famine.

Therefore, it makes more sense to say that the difference between two people’s behavior is mostly due to hereditary factors or mostly due to environmental factors.

This realization is especially important given the recent advances in genetics, such as polygenic testing.  The Human Genome Project, for example, has stimulated enormous interest in tracing types of behavior to particular strands of DNA located on specific chromosomes.

If these advances are not to be abused, then there will need to be a more general understanding of the fact that biology interacts with both the cultural context and the personal choices that people make about how they want to live their lives.

There is no neat and simple way of unraveling these qualitatively different and reciprocal influences on human behavior.

Epigenetics: The Agouti Mouse Study

Waterland and Jirtle’s (2003) Agouti Mouse Study examines the relationship between nature and nurture, showing how epigenetic mechanisms change gene expression lab mice and, by extension, human beings.

The video below provides context for the Agouti Mouse Study, and outlines the development of an epigenetic approach to our understanding of disease.

Bandura, A. Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through the imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology , 63, 575-582

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss . New York: Basic Books.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax . MIT Press.

Freud, S. (1905). Three essays on the theory of sexuality . Se, 7.

Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into human faculty and its development . London: J.M. Dent & Co.

Gottlieb, G. (2007). Probabilistic epigenesis . Developmental Science, 10 , 1–11.

Haworth, C. M., Davis, O. S., & Plomin, R. (2013). Twins Early Development Study (TEDS): a genetically sensitive investigation of cognitive and behavioral development from childhood to young adulthood . Twin Research and Human Genetics, 16(1) , 117-125.

Jensen, A. R. (1969). How much can we boost I.Q. and scholastic achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 33 , 1-123.

Johnston, T. D., & Edwards, L. (2002). Genes, interactions, and the development of behavior . Psychological Review , 109, 26–34.

Oliver, B. R., & Plomin, R. (2007). Twins” Early Development Study (TEDS): A multivariate, longitudinal genetic investigation of language, cognition and behavior problems from childhood through adolescence . Twin Research and Human Genetics, 10(1) , 96-105.

Plomin, R. (2018). Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are . MIT Press.

Plomin, R., & Bergeman, C. S. (1991). The nature of nurture: Genetic influence on “environmental” measures. behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14(3) , 373-386.

Plomin, R., & DeFries, J. C. (1983). The Colorado adoption project. Child Development , 276-289.

Plomin, R., & DeFries, J. C. (1985). The origins of individual differences in infancy; the Colorado adoption project. Science, 230 , 1369-1371.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior . Acton, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Trouton, A., Spinath, F. M., & Plomin, R. (2002). Twins early development study (TEDS): a multivariate, longitudinal genetic investigation of language, cognition and behavior problems in childhood . Twin Research and Human Genetics, 5(5) , 444-448.

Waterland, R. A., & Jirtle, R. L. (2003). Transposable elements: targets for early nutritional effects on epigenetic gene regulation . Molecular and cellular biology, 23 (15), 5293-5300.

Further Information

Evidence for Nurture

Evidence for an Interaction

Nature Vs Nurture: The Sociology of Human Behaviour

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

Source: Pixabay

The Nature vs Nurture debate is one widely covered in the Social Sciences and Philosophy. The premise of the Nature vs Nurture debate is as to whether Nature (biology, instinct) or Nurture (socialisation, social structures etc) is the force behind behind human behaviour. Free will, or at least some freedom of action, is pre-supposed in the Criminal Justice System. Where offenders are held responsible for their actions. Otherwise sending individuals on long stretches in prison would be seen as immoral.

Sociology as a discipline tends to seem as though it subscribes to the nurture side of the Nature vs Nurture debate. With a large amount of research primarily within the realm of Society. But that doesn’t put the subject into direct opposition to Biology, with its scientific research on human anatomy (nature). The field of Sociobiology is based on the assumption that Social behaviour has resulted from evolution and attempts to explain and examine social behaviour within that contexts.

What is Human Behaviour?

Sociologists study group life and the social forces that affect human behaviour. A central goal is to gain insight into how our lives are influenced by the social relationships around us. Since all behaviour is social behaviour, Sociology is a very broad field of study. Sociology focuses on understanding the social and cultural aspects of human behaviour at the local, national, and global levels (Radford University, 2018).

Nature – Explanations of Human Behaviour

The most prominent nature explanation of human behaviour is that humans, as animals act according to their primal instincts. This view is held by many biologists and some branches of psychology e.g. evolutionary psychology. Physical evolution can be seen in fossils dating back thousands of years. We’re taller than earlier groups of sapiens who lived and other groups such as Neanderthals who we bred with on some scale. But physical evolution doesn’t necessarily mean that human behaviour is hardwired.

Neuropsychology, paleobiology, evolutionary psychology all hold that humans today are all ingrained with hunter gather mentalities. An instinct to fight furiously when threatened, for instance, and a drove to trade information and share secrets (Nicholson, 1998). Our hunter-gather mentality is also said to have some affect on why men like to see women in red lipstick (Cabka, 2005).

Hereditary illnesses, passed from a parent to a child can also change behaviour. These include; Sickle Cell Anaemia & Cystic Fibrosis. Nurture side of the Nature vs Nurture debate coming up.

Related Posts

What is Sociology?

What is Patriarchy?

Nurture – Explanations of Human Behaviour

The Nurture side of the Nature vs Nurture debate explains human behaviour by examining socialisation, environment, and relationships. Moving away from Biology and Evolution. When a girl child is born, her family will usually socialise her to be feminised. They will grow her hair, clothe her in dresses, buy dolls, all conforming their child to the feminine ideal before the child has any idea of what gender is. This is referred to as gender socialisation.

It is also valuable to examine an individuals social environment when considering their behaviour. Expressions of Nationalism may become prevalent at times of war than times of peace.

Sociologists believe social environments, interactions, and structures shape human behaviour. Family types, family structures, subcultures, media, government, wealth, and inequality all mold an individuals personality which ultimately drives their behaviour.

Why do Sociologists believe in Nurture?

Sociologists study people all over the world and are of the consensus that people tend to behave differently. They can even find difference amongst groups when they divide by class, race, ethnicity.

Evidence supporting the Nurture Debate

What do you think? This debate could go on forever. The Sociologists say Nurture (on the whole).

By Shaneka Knight

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Cabka, O. (2005). Lipstick had long evolution to become the everyday thing women use today. Pravda Report . Retrieved from http://www.pravdareport.com/health/20-10-2005/9099-lipstick-0/ [Accessed 23rd of October 2018].

Nicholson, N. (1998). How Hardwired Is Human Behaviour? Harvard Business Review, July-August 1998. [online]. Retrieved https://hbr.org/1998/07/how-hardwired-is-human-behavior [Accessed 23rd of October 2018].

Radford University. (2018). About Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.radford.edu/content/chbs/home/sociology.html [Accessed 23rd of October 2018].

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Nature vs. Nurture: The Debate Over Our Personalities

New parents tend to pull out all the stops to raise their children in a nurturing environment, painting nursery walls in subdued hues, praising their child’s first steps and words, and reading a favorite storybook as their child drifts off to sleep. Chances are that there’s a copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” open on someone’s nightstand right now. However, even the most meticulously laid plans often do little to alter the course of nature, and parents may find their newborn’s behavior influenced more by biology than their well-meaning care.

The nature versus nurture debate has endured for thousands of years, since Ancient Greeks pondered the origins of personality. Who are we? Are we products of our genome (nature) or environment (nurture)? These questions strike at the very heart of psychology, and to answer them, we’ll be taking a closer look at these diametrically opposed ideas.

English philosopher John Locke compared the mind at birth to a tabula rasa , or blank slate, upon which our experiences imbue reason and knowledge. This is “nurture,” the idea that a child’s environment determines whom they turn out to be.

A report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) affirms that informed parents are more likely to have positive interactions with their children in ways that support healthy development. By showing warmth, being responsive, and promoting other evidence-based practices, parents can improve outcomes relating to their child’s emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social skills. Conversely, children can experience devastating, long-term changes as a result of neglect and abuse , ranging from the development of antisocial behaviors to the stunting of their growing minds.

A person’s environment is most impactful during their early years, when their brain has yet to fully develop and their experiences are shaped entirely by their home life. There’s no doubt that nature plays a critical role in deciding the trajectory of our lives. The question is, how much of our behavior is inherited?

When people talk about heredity, they almost exclusively refer to their physical traits. They might say, “I have my mother’s eyes” or “my father’s nose,” but the characteristics we inherit from our parents are more than skin deep.

The determinants of your most prominent traits are found in your chromosomes, with each of your parents contributing half of their chromosomes to the 23 pairs found in your cells. Chromosomes are composed of segments of DNA called genes. Think of genes as blueprints, carrying instructions that determine your every biological trait, including the color of your hair, eyes, and skin. Moreover, your personality, intelligence, and mental health can also be attributed, at least in part, to your genetic makeup.

Two of a Kind

Scientists have taken a novel approach to testing the effects of heredity on personality: studying twins. Identical twins share the same genes, whereas fraternal twins share half of their genes, like other siblings. By contrasting the traits of identical and fraternal twins, scientists have been able to separate the influences of nature and nurture on human behavior. In a meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits , researchers looked at over 50 years of twin studies, compiling evidence from over 2,000 publications reporting on a combined 17,804 traits and 14,558,903 twins. They found that the heritability of human traits, including temperament and personality functions, is about 50%. To put it simply, half of our unique personalities can be attributed to heredity, or nature.

Ending the Debate

Has the revelation that genetics accounts for half of our mental and physical traits—and that both sides hold equal sway over our personalities—put an end to the nature versus nurture debate? Not quite. This debate has proven more nuanced than previously thought, particularly with the revelation that genetically driven behaviors shape our environments in the same way our environments shape us. For example, parents responding negatively to their child’s antisocial behaviors may end up reinforcing those same behaviors. Complicating matters further are epigenetic changes that switch genes on and off. Traumatic experiences, in particular, can be passed on from one generation to the next . Complex factors like these continue to stoke the flames of this age-old debate.

More than opposing ideas, nature and nurture describe entwined influences that alter and build upon one another. While some argue that nature carries more weight because our genes, as opposed to our experiences, are set in stone, this is exactly why nurture is such an important concept. The family, society, and culture we’re born into are random, but not all environmental factors are beyond influence, and something as simple as reading bedtime stories to a child could make a world of difference in who they grow up to be.

Discover Who You Are

Professionals in the field of psychology define themselves by their work, whether they’re conducting research or administering care. This is a rewarding, albeit challenging, career path ideal for anyone interested in bringing fulfillment to their life and the lives of others. Nature versus nurture aside, you decide the course of your professional journey. And if you choose to become a psychologist, The University of Texas Permian Basin can help.

UT Permian Basin offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program that provides the foundational psychology knowledge you need to set yourself up for success in graduate school and beyond. Through our program, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of empirical research, mental disorders, and the application of psychological principles in the real world. Virtual courses help ensure that you can participate when it’s convenient for you, and although our program is entirely online and asynchronous, you’ll receive the same distinguished degree as on-campus graduates. From its well-rounded curriculum to its experienced professors, our program offers everything you need to excel in a diverse range of psychology roles.

Ready to pursue your passion for psychology? Apply to our online BA in psychology program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to become the psychology professional you were born to be.

Sources: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/in-the-nature-nurture-war-nature-wins/ https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/19/do-your-genes-determine-your-entire-life https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/nature-vs-nurture https://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/genetics.aspx https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/long_term_consequences.pdf https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm

Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour

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Nature explanations argue that biological inheritance and genetics determine human behaviour; nurture explanations argue that society, culture and social processes such as socialisation explain human behaviour.

nature vs nurture debate on human behaviour

Nature Explanations of Behaviour

In Sociology, we are looking at human behaviour. Human behaviour is the term we use that refers to all of the things that people do. There are many ways of explaining why certain people do things in particular ways.

Some biologists and psychologists think that people behave as they do because they are animals who primarily act according to their instincts. This is known as the “nature theory” of human behaviour. Other scientists and psychologists are researching whether our behaviour is “genetic” i.e. certain types of behaviour are passed down from parent to child. Again, this is a nature theory of human behaviour because it supports the belief that our behaviour is pre-programmed to a large extent. For example, it has been debated whether there is a criminal gene which means some people are more likely to commit crime.

Nurture explanations of behaviour

Nurture arguments focus on the way people are brought up and how their environment moulds their personality and behaviour. Sociologists argue that some people are brought up to be kind and caring, and others are brought up to display very different forms of behaviour.

An individual’s personality and identify are moulded and developed in response to their social environments and the people they meet. They are by taught others around them telling them what is right and wrong, including teachers, siblings and most importantly parents. This is why sociologists study the family and education (the two topics on the AS course) amongst other topics because it allows to investigate how these institutions effect human behaviour.

Nurture explains more than nature

We have two different ways of explaining human behaviour. One uses nature to explain behaviour, the other uses nurture. The question is, which is the best explanation?

If you explain human behaviour as being the same as animal behaviour, that means that humans would all behave in the same way. French cats behave in the same way as British cats. Do British people behave like French people? People in Britain do tend to behave in a similar way. They do similar things and wear certain types of clothing. Do all people all over the world behave in the same way? Sociologists tend to say ‘no’ and use two main types of evidence to prove the point:

Historical Evidence against Nature theories

changing gender roles

Anthropological Evidence against Nature theories

The second argument uses anthropological evidence. Anthropologists are people who study and compare societies from all over the world. If our behaviour was in our genes then people all around the world would behave in the same way. This is because other than the external physical difference between humans, the actual biological difference between people from different parts of the world is tiny. However, anthropologists show that people behave differently in different societies.

nature and nurture

 Further evidence against nature theories

The Analaysis podcast below demonstrates the importance of nurture over nature explanations of human action…

“ I should be a psychopath, but I’m not?” 5:30 – 11:44 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010mcl1 (2011)

What was the pattern in the professor’s family history? What genetic pattern did the professor have?What factors does researcher suggest prevented him from becoming a killer, criminal etc?How do the researchers view of genetics vs surroundings explanations of behaviour change?

Nature or Nurture: Conclusions

NOTE – the Nature Vs. Nurture debate is hotly debated topic. No side can claim to provide compelling evidence that entirely disputes the other i.e. neither side can completely disregard nature or nurture in explanation of human behaviour.

Signposting and Related Posts 

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Nature Vs. Nurture: What Affects Your Behavior Profoundly?

You like social outings and spending time with your friends. So is this because you are genetically disposed to do so, or is it because of the environment you grew up in? And what is the reason for your fear of dogs? These are some of the things that form a part of the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, and we try to understand which of two factors affects our behavior more.

Nature Vs. Nurture: What Affects Your Behavior?

It Runs in the Family!

The phrase “nature and nurture” was first coined by polymath Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1874.

Since the time man started studying their own species, one of the main topics of interest had to be understanding what makes an individual the way he is. The subject of psychology was borne from such curiosity. Since then we have looked into how the human mind and body works, with subjects like intelligence, personality, memory, sense and perception, and lifespan development, amongst others. But one of the most debated upon subjects that will forever remain is that of the study of heredity and environment, and which of the two plays a more crucial role in the development of the different traits and makeup of mankind.

Within the study of this subject is one of the most controversial topics of ‘Nature vs. Nurture’, and which of the two is more important while studying individual development. The term was coined by Francis Galton, who was influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin’s book on evolution. Back then, they believed that our genes defined who we became (natural selection, which was proposed by Darwin) and is the only thing that influences human development. But over the years, with rigorous study, it was realized that the environment in which we were brought up and the ones in which we interact in, also plays a big hand in the development.

We explain what nature and nurture is all about, along with how it affects the different aspects of human development like personality, intelligence, and behavior.

Defining Nature and Nurture

The study of nature and nurture is in fact the study of the influence of heredity and environment on human development. So how do we define each of them individually?

Nature refers to the biological factors in a human. Essentially, it is the genetic or hereditary makeup of an individual. These are the genes that we are born with that cannot be altered with conditioning. Traits such as hair color and type, eye color, height, and physical makeup forms a part of what is called “nature”. Disorders and diseases that are inherited genetically also forms a part of this view.

Nurture refers to the environmental factors and influences, along with an individual’s personal experiences. This includes the childhood experiences, upbringing, relationships with friends, families, neighbors and colleagues, events, and experiences that play a role in shaping who we become.

Now that we know what each of these terms mean, let us look at the controversy that the two have given rise to in the understanding of an individual.

The Big Debate

When Galton first took inspiration from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the idea of natural selection, he believed that intellectual ability was inherited and that natural superiority was the reason for the genius that was seen in certain people. After just observing that intelligent people tend to have families that are just as smart, he went as far as to say that to speed up the process of natural selection, people with the same intellectual ability must marry each other to produce a superior race. This kind of fallacy was the cause of many socio-political events like apartheid, the sterilization programs, and the discrimination’s based on class, amongst others.

People who believed in the idea that genetics and genetics only can determine what an individual becomes, were known as Nativists, and from there grew theories like Naturalism in psychology. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a group of people who believed that environmental experiences solely determined the factors of individual development. This group was known as the Empiricists. Philosopher John Locke coined the term “Tabula Rasa” which is Latin for blank slate. According to him, at birth a human is born with a blank slate that is eventually filled with his or her own personal experiences. Theories like Behaviorism rose from this train of thought.

Over time people learned that one is not separated from the other and that it is the interaction between the two that helps define who we are as people. But with that idea came the question of “How much?”. People started to debate, research upon, and come to conclusions on which of the two factors had a greater role to play in making us, well, “Us”.

But before we try to come to terms with that, let us see how nature and nurture affects different segments of our development.

Effect on Different Aspects of Human Development

Nature can be thought of as the factor that defines certain physical characteristics as well as something that creates an outline for the innate abilities and potentials that we possess. Nurture on the other hand is the factor that takes these genetic predispositions and shapes it so that these abilities can be realized (meaning they can be achieved). From this we can infer that both play a role in shaping us as an individual. What we will now look at is how the two of them interact together in our developmental process.

Behavior, Personality, and Intelligence As we know already, our genetic makeup bestows on us our physical characteristics. Along with it, certain underlying traits are also heritable. For example behavioral traits like what language we speak, how we interact with people, how we respond to certain situations, are all molded by ‘nurture’ – this is obvious because the environment in which we are brought up in, shapes these factors over time. But it is also noted that some of these traits are partially heritable. For example, certain disorders are genetically inherited. But their manifestation might only become more apparent if that disorder is somehow cultivated. Aggressive behavior is something that is partially received from genes. But if the person grew up in an aggressive family environment, had friends who displayed aggressive behavior, then that person will eventually grow up themselves to be very aggressive. It is noted here that even though certain behavioral traits may be partially heritable, it only manifests if that particular trait is nurtured.

The example of nature vs. nurture and its effect on behavior was shown in an article in Wall Street Journal, where they showed that environmental sensitivity can be attributed to genetic factors. The scientists divided people into two groups – orchids and dandelions. The orchid were people whose behavior was more susceptible to environmental factors, while it was much less significant in the dandelions. This was because of the variation in their genes in the amount of dopamine (such as DRD4) produced in their bodies. The orchids had a lower amount of this dopamine produced, which is why they were more prone to stress and get distracted easily with the slightest stimulus. The dandelions on the other hand, had an ample amount of this hormone produced, which is why they tend to learn better from adversity and are comparatively more stable.

The ability to pick up different speech sounds, and learn a language, amongst other things is genetic and is seen in all babies, irrespective of their environmental conditions. Physical and intellectual skills like learning particular subjects, or ability to play certain sports, or being artistic may be partially heritable, but it needs to be cultivated over time for it to manifest the individual.

Based on Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment, it is suggested that the bond between mother and child is innate, that is it is genetically inherited. Another propagator of the naturalist view was Chomsky, who suggested that the language is gained through the use of an inherited Language Acquisition Device (LAD).

Skinner on the other hand, believed that language was acquired by imitation and the cultivation of the same in an individual’s respective environment. Certain genetic factors can also decide how an individual interacts with their environment. For example, a child who is by nature inhibited, may be shy or introverted when it comes to social interaction, while those who are predisposed to be extroverted may be sociable, friendly, and will actively seek social bonds. Conversely, when the environment is more extreme, they play a greater role in a person’s development. For example even if a child is naturally intelligent, but is brought up in an environment of deprivation, he may not grow up to reach his full intellectual capacity. During prenatal development, if a child is exposed to drugs or other harmful substances through intake by the mother, then he may be susceptible to diseases, disorders, or may grow up with deformities. So what started out as an environmental factor turned into a genetic predisposition.

When it comes to personality traits, the Twin Studies is one of the major factors that can be used as reference. In this study, identical twins who were rared apart show a more similar personality that those reared together, or a random selection of people. Identical twins are more similar that fraternal twins, while natural siblings are more alike than adopted siblings. This suggests that personality is partially heritable, but eventually nurture plays a role in how these traits are shaped. Adopted Studies on the other hand showed that even when these siblings are reared in the same family environment, by adulthood, there is almost no similarity in their personality, which suggests the manifestation of nature.

In the case of intelligence, the same adoptive studies revealed certain occurrences. These show that environmental factors have a bigger hand in molding childhood IQ. But by adulthood, this correlation is almost null. They revealed that by adulthood, the difference in IQ among adoptive siblings may make them seem like strangers, despite the shared environment they grew up in. In natural siblings on the other hand, there was a correlation of about 0.6. In the twin studies, it showed that identical twin who were reared apart had a higher correlation (about 0.86) while fraternal twins raised together had just 0.6 heritability. Adoptive siblings on the other had a 0.0 heritability of IQ. This seems to suggest that nature plays a bigger role in shaping intelligence.

But we cannot rule out nurture entirely. For example, nutrition plays an important role in shaping intelligence. If a child is not put on a proper diet from the get-go, then their neural connections and pathways get disrupted, which leaves then mentally challenged. Stress and exposure to toxins can also impede intellectual growth. As mentioned earlier, a person may have innate talents, but if they were not brought up in the right surroundings, their potentials may never be realized. Conversely even someone with lower genetic inheritance of intellect may be nurtured in a rich educational environment and may be able to supersede his original potential.

After going through this you may wonder what then really affects our behavior. The fact is, that both go hand-in-hand and one cannot work without interacting with the other; and thus both play more or less an equal role in shaping how you behave. An interesting thing to note is that the nature versus nurture is a factor present in animals too. Let us see how.

Nature and Nurture in Animals

While studying the social behavior in animals, certain theories had been established. These are:

But recent studies seem to suggest that genetics may play a more important role than what was previously considered. Oxford biologist found out that primate species tended to have the same social structure as their close relatives, regardless of how and where they live, suggesting that the similarity in social structures of related species may be due to genes inherited from a common ancestor.

We can now see that even animals show that development relies on both nature and nurture. Despite these findings in both humans and animals, certain criticisms have been raised on moral and philosophical grounds.

Moral and Philosophical Criticisms

As mentioned earlier, certain theories that propagated both nature and nurture respectively led to socio-moral problems like racial discrimination, stereotyping, and construction of a reality based on facts that fit our train of beliefs. On the other hand, philosophers questioned the very idea of the existence of ‘traits’ and what it all really stood for. Also, if we are who we are because of something that is predetermined like genetics or an influence of environmental factors, then where is our own free will?

These controversies and debates regarding the influence of heredity and environment on our development started centuries ago, and with every new discovery, will come another challenge based on scientific, moral, socio-political, and philosophical grounds. So for now we will rest our case with the fact that we need both to survive and thrive and can’t ignore the existence of one in favor of the other.

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  1. The Nature vs. Nurture Debate - Verywell Mind

    Nature refers largely to our genetics. It includes the genes we are born with and other hereditary factors that can impact how our personality is formed and influence the way that we develop from childhood through adulthood. Nurture encompasses the environmental factors that impact who we are.

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  3. Nature vs. Nurture | Psychology Today

    The expression “nature vs. nurture” describes the question of how much a person's characteristics are formed by either “nature” or “nurture.” “Nature” means innate biological factors...

  4. Human Behavior: Nature or Nurture? – Evolutionary Psychology ...

    Many aspects of the nature vs. nurture theory argues that various behaviours in humans are based both on genetics and the environment of an individual. However, it is possible that one variable from the theory may contribute more of an effect on the individual. Chapter References

  5. Nature vs. Nurture Debate in Psychology

    The nature versus nurture debate involves the extent to which particular aspects of behavior are a product of either inherited (i.e., genetic) or acquired (i.e., learned) influences. Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors.

  6. Nature Vs Nurture: The Sociology of Human Behaviour

    The Nature vs Nurture debate is one widely covered in the Social Sciences and Philosophy. The premise of the Nature vs Nurture debate is as to whether Nature (biology, instinct) or Nurture (socialisation, social structures etc) is the force behind behind human behaviour.

  7. Nature vs. Nurture: The Debate Over Our Personalities

    More than opposing ideas, nature and nurture describe entwined influences that alter and build upon one another. While some argue that nature carries more weight because our genes, as opposed to our experiences, are set in stone, this is exactly why nurture is such an important concept.

  8. Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour ...

    Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour Nature explanations argue that biological inheritance and genetics determine human behaviour; nurture explanations argue that society, culture and social processes such as socialisation explain human behaviour.

  9. Nature Vs. Nurture: What Affects Your Behavior Profoundly?

    Nature Nature refers to the biological factors in a human. Essentially, it is the genetic or hereditary makeup of an individual. These are the genes that we are born with that cannot be altered with conditioning. Traits such as hair color and type, eye color, height, and physical makeup forms a part of what is called “nature”.