What Is Inherited Behavior?
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated June 16, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault
Our behaviors greatly influence our lives. We usually think of our behavior as something that we have complete control over. That's true to an extent, but changing a behavior can be difficult—especially when it's an inherited behavior.
Evolutionary psychologists study how our minds work based on certain processes that benefit the human species. Evolutionary psychologists divide behavior into two main groups, inherited behavior and learned behavior. Learned behavior is the things that you are taught by your parents, teachers, and members of the community, or behaviors that you teach yourself. So, what are inherited behaviors?
Inherited behaviors are behaviors that are passed down genetically. Our genes control things like our hair type and color, our eye color, and our height—but we don't usually think of them controlling our behavior. That's partly because most of our behaviors are learned, rather than inherited.
However, some behaviors are so beneficial to the human species that the ancient peoples that mastered them were able to survive—living long enough that they could then pass those traits down to their offspring, and so on. These are our inherited behaviors.
While most scientists agree that some behaviors are controlled by genetics, which ones are controlled, and to what degree, is a topic of frequent debate.
Studying Inherited Behavior
Studying inherited behavior is difficult because studying genes is difficult.
As introduced above, genes are the biological basis for who we are as individuals within the species. As you can probably imagine, 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, with behavior it’s more complex. There isn't a single gene—that we know of—that determines whether an individual will be greedy or violent.
Further, genes seldom work in one-to-one, on/off relationships. What's more common is a multitude of genes working together to determine the strength of a trait. So, while in some cases a single gene determines something like eye color, there isn't—so far as we know—a single gene that determines something like curiosity. This makes genes even more difficult to study, especially when it comes to behavior.
Nature Versus Nurture
One of the oldest discussions in psychology is that of nature versus nurture. This question used to ask whether the behavior is learned or inherited, but as the scientific community has largely accepted the inheritance of some behaviors, it is now more a question of which behaviors are learned or inherited, and to what degree.
The problem is that, unlike in the case of physical traits, character traits can be passed down through either genetics or upbringing, or both. If a child is brought up by frugal parents and grows up to be frugal, who is to say whether they were brought up to mind their dollars and cents, or whether the tendency to save money was genetically passed down. The answer, of course, is—at least very probably—a lot more nuanced than that.
At different times, both the nature argument and the nurture argument have held almost complete sway. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, took the concept of nature to the extreme when he suggested eugenics. Popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, proponents of eugenics believed 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 even killed. The movement quickly declined in popularity when Adolf Hitler used eugenics against criminals and people with mental health conditions, as well as people of various religious groups, social groups, and sexual orientations.
Conversely, behaviorism could be considered an opposite approach. Proponents of behaviorism believe that all of our actions are the result of choice. Behaviorism comes up a lot in discussion of criminal justice where behaviorists suggest that the goal of sentences should be to help the offender to become a healthy member of society, rather than to remove them from society.
The idea of twins—two humans sharing identical genes—has long fascinated us. That goes double for scientists who want to use twins to end the nature versus nurture debate. 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 of the characteristics that they had in common would be potentially inherited, while all of the characteristics 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 all of their genetic material where non-identical twins share only half of their genetic material, this could presumably help to separate inherited from learned traits.
While some scientists highly value twin studies, others are skeptical of their value. This is for several reasons. For one thing, twin studies often assume that twins experience their lives in similar ways, which isn't necessarily the case. Further, because some characteristics are highly valued across all cultures, these behaviors could likely appear to be inherited in a twin study even though they were simply taught to both children, despite their being raised apart.
Scientific advances like the Human Genome project haven't gotten rid of the centuries-old twin experiment—though they have changed how scientists conduct this research and interpret their results.
Genetics and Mutation
In case genetics wasn't complicated enough already, we're learning that genetics can change.
We used to think that the genetics that a person is born with are more or less carved in stone. However, recent research has shown that trauma can change a person's DNA. This means a lot in terms of the inherited behavior versus learned behavior debate.
For example, suppose that trust is an inherited behavior. If your "trust gene" were to change because of a traumatic event, that may—theoretically—be passed down to your offspring. Proving this with certainty may eventually be done through a combination of psychological and genetic testing. In the meantime, however, a characteristic—like trust, in our example above—could just as likely be taught after trauma as passed down after a trauma. After all, it makes sense that a parent's sense of trust could be damaged by a traumatic event, leading them to teach their children to be less trusting.
Can Inherited Traits Be Unlearned?
The question of learned versus inherited behavior and nature versus nurture isn't just a pure science question. It could also have some very real-world implications.
One good example of this that we have already addressed in this article has to do with the topic of criminal justice. If a behavior—let's say, violence—is a learned behavior, then it could presumably be unlearned or corrected through things like therapy or education. If, on the other hand, violence is an inherited behavior, one might ask whether it would ever 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 us to have hope in an individual's ability to control themselves and their fates. The belief that our actions are strictly determined by things like genetics is a school of philosophy called determinism. This school of philosophy holds that, because our actions cannot be controlled by the individual, people who perform, or are likely to perform, undesirable actions need to be removed from society.
Understanding Your Behavior With BetterHelp
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 mental health issues, ranging from negative body image to phobias to tinnitus. The study focused on the benefits of internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is used to help reframe negative or unhelpful thoughts that could be underlying certain behaviors. The researchers found that online platforms can help both the therapist and the person seeking help to create a proper counseling program. This research points to online therapy as a safe and effective way of helping people better understand their behavior.
As mentioned above, online therapy platforms can be highly beneficial for those seeking help with a range of behaviors. One advantage of online therapy, as opposed to traditional face-to-face counseling, is lower costs. The licensed therapists at BetterHelp don’t have to rent expensive offices, meaning those savings get passed along to you. Also, online therapy can provide flexibility that traditional therapy cannot, including the ability to reach out to your therapist outside of session hours, and expanded access to mental health resources through mobile platforms. Below, read reviews of licensed BetterHelp counselors, from people who’ve sought help with understanding their behavior.
“Hal is absolutely wonderful! He took plenty of time to get to know me, my past, my concerns, my thoughts, my situation - everything. I have never felt so heard. I have a lot of work to do, but I’m glad I will be doing it with is help. He is knowledgeable but not pompous. His patience and care truly shine. I can’t recommend him enough!”
“Mary was wonderful, serving as an empathetic person that I could talk to when struggling with an acute issue. She listened and gave me reassurances and advice that no one else around me could provide. Would highly recommend her help to anyone in need.”
One role of psychology is to help us to better understand the causes of our actions, and how to build societies that encourage the general health of the community. Click here to find out how you can better understand the causes of your actions today.
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