What Is Inherited Behavior?
Genes can control hair type, eye color, and height. Due to the physical nature of these attributes, individuals do not often think of these areas as controlling factors in behavior. However, the concept of inherited behaviors posits that specific genes may control more than people believe. To understand whether there may be a genetic component behind how people act, it can be helpful to investigate behavioral psychology and studies on inherited genes.
Studying inherited behavior
The science behind behavioral genetics isn’t fully accepted. While some evolutionary psychologists agree that some behaviors are controlled by genetics, which ones are controlled and to what degree is a topic of frequent debate. This debate may be partly because behaviors are often learned rather than inherited. However, some behaviors are so beneficial to the human species that the ancient humans that mastered them were able to survive and pass those traits down to their offspring. These are inherited behaviors.
Studying genetically inherited behavior can be difficult because studying genes is difficult. Genes are the biological basis for what makes a person unique. There are more possible genetic combinations than there are humans. This science is so complex that the decades-long Human Genome Project—the identification and mapping of all of the human genes and their functions—was only completed in 2003.
There are some cases in which a single gene determines a single physical characteristic. However, behavior is more complex. There isn't a single gene that has been found that determines whether an individual will be greedy or violent. Further, genes seldom work in one-to-one or on-and-off relationships.
Genes often work together to determine the strength of a trait. So, while in some cases, a single gene determines eye color, there isn't a single gene that determines curiosity. For this reason, behavioral genes can be difficult to study.
Past studies on biology and behavior
Below are some of the topics that have been studied regarding genes and behavior.
Nature versus nurture
One of the oldest discussions in psychology is that of nature vs nurture. This debate was initially focused on whether behavior is learned or inherited. However, as the scientific community has largely accepted the inheritance of some behaviors, it is now focused on which behaviors are learned or inherited and to what degree.
Unlike physical traits, character traits might be passed down through genetics, upbringing, or both. If a child is raised by frugal parents and grows up to be frugal, some scientists might believe that their frugal behavior exists because they learned it. In contrast, others would propose that the behavior was genetically passed down. However, the answer may be more nuanced.
At different times, both the nature argument and the nurture argument have held popularity. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, took the concept of nature to the extreme when he suggested eugenics. Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, proponents of eugenics posited that people with character traits that were not beneficial to society could be prevented from reproducing, thus gradually “improving” the human species. For years, people who committed crimes or had mental health conditions were forcibly sterilized or killed. The movement quickly declined in popularity when Adolf Hitler used eugenics against people of various religious groups, social groups, and sexual orientations.
Conversely, behaviorism could be considered an opposite approach. Proponents of behaviorism believe that all actions are the result of choice. Behaviorism comes up in discussions of criminal justice, where behaviorists suggest that the goal of sentences should be to help the offender to become a healthy contributor of society rather than to remove them from society.
The idea of twins—two humans with identical genes—has long fascinated science. The idea of twin studies as a way of separating learned from inherited traits was initially proposed by Galton. Theoretically, if two twins were raised apart from each other, all the characteristics that they had in common would be potentially inherited, while all the features that they didn't have in common would be potentially learned.
Other twin studies aim to determine which character traits identical twins raised together might have in common, compared with non-identical twins raised together. Because identical twins share their genetic material and non-identical twins share only half of their genetic material, this process could separate inherited from learned traits.
While some scientists value twin studies, others are skeptical. Twin studies often assume that twins experience their lives similarly, which may not be the case. Further, because some characteristics are valued across all cultures, these behaviors could appear to be inherited in a twin study even though they were taught to both children, despite them being raised apart.
Scientific advances like the Human Genome project haven't disbanded the centuries-old twin experiment—though they have changed how scientists conduct this research and interpret their results.
Genetics and mutation
Genetics can change. Researchers used to think that the genes a person is born with are carved in stone. However, recent research has shown that trauma can change a person's DNA.
For example, suppose that trust is an inherited behavior. If your "trust gene" were to change because of a traumatic event, that gene may—theoretically—be passed down to your offspring. Proving this idea with certainty may eventually occur through psychological and genetic testing. In the meantime, a characteristic like trust from the above example could be taught because of one’s behavioral reactions to trauma. For example, it can make sense for a parent's sense of trust to be damaged by a traumatic event, leading them to teach their children to be less trusting.
If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.
Can inherited traits be unlearned?
The question of learned versus inherited behavior and nature versus nurture isn't only a science question. It could also have real-world implications.
For example, some people look at this topic in the realm of criminal justice. If violence is a learned behavior, it could presumably be unlearned or corrected through therapy or education. If violence is an inherited behavior, one might ask whether it would be possible to unlearn it or whether violent people are born that way and will remain that way regardless of the intentions of the criminal justice program.
One argument is to act as though all behavior is learned. This approach encourages individuals to have hope in their ability to control themselves and their fates. The belief that genetics strictly determine actions is a school of philosophy called determinism. This school of philosophy holds that because actions cannot be controlled by the individual, people who perform or are likely to perform undesirable actions should be removed from society.
Support options for behavior
If you’re living with a behavioral trait you don’t want, talking to a therapist may be a beneficial way to reduce the way this behavior impacts your life. Many behaviors can be changed, and some people with mental illness can go on to live functional lives with symptom remission. If you face barriers to treatment, modern forms of therapy like online therapy have been developed to offer convenient support.
Studies show that guided online therapy is an effective means of educating and counseling those who have questions or concerns about their behavior. According to a comprehensive study published in World Psychiatry, internet-based counseling is effective in managing various mental health challenges, ranging from negative body image to phobias to tinnitus.
The study focuses on the benefits of internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is used to help clients reframe unhelpful thoughts that could be underlying certain behaviors. The researchers found that online platforms can help both the therapist and the person seeking help bond and receive results.
In some cases, online therapy can provide flexibility that traditional therapy cannot, including the ability to reach out to your therapist outside of session hours and the expanded availability of mental health resources through mobile platforms.
What behaviors are inherited from parents?
Behavioral traits can be influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. While genetics play a role, it's crucial to recognize that behaviors are complex, and many are shaped by a combination of genetic predispositions and environmental influences, including parenting styles, cultural factors, and life experiences. Here are some examples of behaviors that may have a genetic component:
- Temperament: Individual differences in temperament, including aspects such as activity level, adaptability, and emotional responsiveness, may have a genetic basis. Some infants, for example, may be naturally more fussy or more easygoing.
- Personality Traits: Certain personality traits, such as extroversion, introversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience, can have a genetic component. These traits are often stable across the lifespan.
- Risk-Taking Behavior: Genetic factors may contribute to an individual's propensity for risk-taking behaviors. This can influence decisions related to activities such as sports, financial investments, or recreational pursuits.
- Cognitive Abilities: Genetic factors play a role in determining cognitive abilities, including intelligence. However, environmental factors, such as education and early experiences, also significantly contribute to cognitive development.
- Mental Health Conditions: Some mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, can have a hereditary component. However, the interplay of genetic and environmental factors is complex in the development of mental health disorders.
- Addiction Vulnerability: Genetic factors can influence an individual's vulnerability to addiction. This includes a genetic predisposition to substance use or other addictive behaviors.
- Learning Style: While the specific ways individuals learn can be influenced by both genetics and environment, some aspects of learning style, such as a preference for visual or auditory learning, may have a genetic component.
- Social Behavior: Certain aspects of social behavior, such as shyness, sociability, or empathy, may have a genetic basis. However, the environment, including family and peer interactions, also plays a crucial role.
What are examples of learned and inherited behaviors?
Behaviors can be categorized into two main types: learned behaviors and inherited behaviors. Here are examples of each:
Inherited Behaviors Examples:
- Reflexes: Inborn and automatic responses to specific stimuli, such as the grasping reflex in infants or the knee-jerk reflex.
- Instincts: Innate behaviors that are present in animals from birth and do not require learning. For example, bird migration, mating rituals, or the web-building behavior of spiders.
- Maternal Instinct: The innate tendency of female animals, including humans, to care for and protect their offspring.
- Hunting and Foraging Skills: Some animals inherit the ability to hunt or forage for food. For example, the hunting skills of predators like lions or the foraging behavior of certain insects.
- Territorial Behavior: The instinctive marking and defending of territory, as seen in many animals, such as dogs marking their territory with scent.
- Nesting Behavior: The innate tendency of certain animals to build nests for shelter or protection, like birds or rodents.
- Communication Patterns: The ability to communicate using specific signals or calls, as seen in animal species with specific mating calls, warning signals, or social communication.
Learned Behaviors Examples:
- Language Acquisition: Humans learn language through exposure, imitation, and practice, rather than inheriting a specific language.
- Cultural Practices: Customs, traditions, and social behaviors that are learned within a specific cultural context, such as greetings, rituals, or ceremonies.
- Social Skills: Learning how to interact with others, make friends, and navigate social situations through observation and experience.
- Problem-Solving Skills: Animals and humans can learn to solve problems through trial and error or by observing others.
- Tool Use: Many animals, including some primates and birds, learn to use tools for various purposes, such as obtaining food or building nests.
- Operant Conditioning: Learning through the consequences of behavior, where behaviors are strengthened or weakened based on their consequences. For example, a dog learning to sit when commanded to receive a treat.
- Classical Conditioning: Learning by associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to produce a conditioned response. The famous example is Pavlov's dogs associating the sound of a bell with food.
What are 4 examples of inherited traits?
Inherited behavioral traits are characteristics or tendencies in behavior that are influenced by genetic factors passed down from one generation to the next. Here are four examples of inherited behavioral traits:
- Risk-Aversion or Sensation-Seeking: Individuals may inherit tendencies related to risk-taking behavior or, conversely, a preference for safety and risk aversion. Genetic factors can play a role in shaping an individual's propensity for seeking novel experiences, taking risks, or being more cautious.
- Social Behavior: The inclination towards social behaviors, such as extraversion or introversion, can have a genetic basis. Some individuals may inherit a predisposition for sociability, gregariousness, or, alternatively, a preference for solitude and less social interaction.
- Aggression and Impulsivity: Genetic factors contribute to an individual's predisposition for aggression or impulsivity. Some people may inherit a temperament that inclines them toward more impulsive or aggressive reactions in certain situations.
- Anxiety or Stress Response: The way individuals respond to stress or anxiety can have a genetic component. Genetic factors influence the regulation of neurotransmitters and hormones involved in the stress response, affecting an individual's ability to cope with stressors.
Behavioral traits are complex, and they result from an interplay between genetic and environmental factors. Inherited traits provide a predisposition, but environmental influences, life experiences, and personal choices also play a significant role in shaping behavior.
What personality traits are inherited?
Personality traits have a complex and multifaceted origin, with contributions from both genetic and environmental factors. While no single gene is responsible for a specific personality trait, research suggests that certain aspects of personality have a hereditary component. Here are some personality traits that may have a genetic influence:
- Extroversion vs. Introversion: The tendency to be outgoing, sociable, and enjoy social interactions (extroversion) or prefer solitude and quiet environments (introversion) may have a genetic basis.
- Neuroticism: Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anxiety, moodiness, and stress. Genetic factors contribute to individual differences in neuroticism.
- Conscientiousness: Conscientious individuals are generally organized, responsible, and goal-oriented. There is evidence to suggest that genetic factors play a role in determining the level of conscientiousness in individuals.
- Openness to Experience: Openness involves a preference for novelty, creativity, and a willingness to explore new ideas and experiences. While influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, there is evidence of a genetic component to openness.
- Agreeableness: Agreeable individuals tend to be compassionate, cooperative, and considerate of others. Genetic factors are thought to contribute to individual differences in agreeableness.
What are 5 examples of learned behaviors?
Learned behaviors are actions or responses that an individual acquires through experiences, interactions, and environmental influences. These behaviors are not inherited genetically but are developed through learning. Here are five examples of learned behaviors:
- Language Acquisition: Learning a language is a classic example of a learned behavior. Infants and young children acquire language skills by listening to and interacting with others in their environment. The ability to speak, understand, and communicate effectively is a learned behavior.
- Riding a Bike: Riding a bike is a skill that is learned through practice and experience. Individuals acquire the necessary motor skills, coordination, and balance by actively engaging in the process of riding a bike.
- Playing a Musical Instrument: Playing a musical instrument involves learning specific techniques, reading musical notation, and developing auditory skills. Individuals acquire proficiency in playing an instrument through instruction, practice, and exposure to musical experiences.
- Driving a Car: Driving a car is a complex set of behaviors that are learned through instruction, practice, and experience. It involves acquiring skills such as steering, braking, and understanding traffic rules.
- Social Skills: Social skills encompass a range of learned behaviors related to interacting with others. These behaviors include effective communication, empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, and understanding social cues. Social skills are developed through observation, imitation, and interpersonal experiences.
Can habits be inherited?
Habits themselves are not directly inherited in the same way that genetic information dictates physical traits like eye color or blood type. However, there can be a genetic component to certain aspects of behavior that might influence the likelihood of developing specific habits.
Is motivation an inherited trait?
Motivation is a complex behavioral and psychological phenomenon influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and personal factors. While there may be some genetic contributions to certain aspects of motivation, it is not accurate to consider motivation as a strictly inherited trait.
Is attitude learned or inherited?
Attitude is a complex psychological construct that encompasses a person's evaluation or emotional response to an object, person, situation, or concept. The development of attitudes is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and experiential factors.
Is leadership an inherited trait?
Leadership is a multifaceted skill that involves guiding, influencing, and inspiring others to achieve common goals. While certain personality traits and characteristics associated with effective leadership may have a genetic component, leadership skills are not strictly inherited. Leadership is also developed through a combination of environmental influences, experiences, education, and personal choices.
What are inherited traits influenced by?
Inherited traits are influenced by a combination of genetic factors, environmental influences, and the complex interplay between genes and the environment. Here are key factors that contribute to the influence of inherited traits:
- Genetic Information (DNA): The genetic information encoded in DNA plays a fundamental role in determining inherited traits. Genes, which are specific segments of DNA, carry instructions for the synthesis of proteins that contribute to the development and functioning of organisms.
- Genetic Variation: Genetic variation occurs due to differences in the sequences of genes among individuals. This variation contributes to the diversity of inherited traits observed within a population.
- Mendelian Inheritance: The principles of Mendelian inheritance describe the transmission of genetic traits from parents to offspring. These principles include the inheritance of dominant and recessive alleles, and the distribution of traits in predictable patterns.
- Polygenic Inheritance: Many traits are influenced by multiple genes, a phenomenon known as polygenic inheritance. Polygenic traits result from the combined effects of several genes, each contributing to a portion of the trait's variation.
- Gene Expression: Gene expression refers to the process by which information in a gene is used to synthesize proteins or functional RNA molecules. The timing and level of gene expression influence the development and expression of traits.
- Environmental Influences on Gene Expression: Environmental factors can influence the expression of genes. Epigenetic modifications, such as DNA methylation and histone modification, can be influenced by environmental factors and affect how genes are expressed without altering the underlying DNA sequence.
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