What Is Inherited Behavior?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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.

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Understanding human behavior can be complicated

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. 

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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.

Twin studies

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.

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Understanding human behavior can be complicated

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. 

Takeaway

Behavior is complex. Some scientists and psychologists believe that some behaviors are biological, while others may believe that all behaviors are psychological. If you want to learn more, consider discussing this topic in further detail with a psychologist. Over 41.7 million US adults see a therapist, and you don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to receive support.

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