What Is The Nature Vs. Nurture Psychology Debate, And How Does It Affect Me?
Updated October 03, 2018
What causes mental health issues? The question is one that has been studied extensively over the years, with each condition being examined. Yet, in most cases, no one clear answer has been found. One reason for this is the ongoing nature vs. nurture psychology debate.
The History Of Nature Vs. Nurture Debate
The nature vs. nurture psychology debate has been going on for thousands of years. It was first discussed in Ancient Greece when the philosopher Galen suggested that personality arose from variations in bodily fluids. Then, in 1874, Sir Francis Galton used the words nature and nurture when he wrote about his theory that intelligence and personality were determined through heredity.
About the same time, John Locke stated that children were born as a blank slate, and all their characteristics came from what they learned. During the 1900s, behaviorism and psychoanalytic theory relied heavily on the assumption that environment and learning were the most important factors in mental health.
Later in the 1900s, as studies on genetics and neuroscience took center stage, the shift went back towards the nature side. Still, research tended to suggest that both nature and nurture were equally important. As it stands currently, the old nature vs. nurture debate is in deadlock, with each side considered to be a contributing factor.
The Nature Side
So, what are nature and nurture, exactly? In psychology, nature is defined as the biological factors that influence your psychological makeup. Your genetic code is the source of your nature. Your genes determine your brain structure, which is expressed on the level of brain chemistry as well as on the level of your thoughts, responses, emotions, and behaviors.
How Can Nature Be Changed?
If heredity were the only cause of mental conditions, there would be no hope for someone with mental health issues unless that nature could be changed. For thousands of years, it was thought that nature couldn't be changed. Once the genetic code was created during conception, that embryo was destined to be mentally healthy or not. Even if genetics were the primary factor, this would present a relatively hopeless situation for people with mental conditions.
In recent years, many options have been offered to change the physical properties of the brain. Medication, of course, changes the chemical properties of the brain. Electroconvulsive therapy changes the physical structure of the brain.
Also, all sorts of diets, relaxation techniques, and brain-training gadgets and machines have been proposed as ways to change the brain. Examples include light-and-sound machines, neurofeedback devices, and electric or magnetic stimulation devices. One research study found that these attempts to change the nature of the brain do help by changing "layers" of the brain's functioning.
The Nurture Side
The nurture side of the debate focuses on the environment and learning. Nurture includes the type of parenting received as an infant and child. You're also nurtured by teachers, the community, and the culture at large. Nurture continues throughout your life, as you learn from various teachers, role models, college instructors, and community leaders.
Nurture also includes all the experiences you have. If you experience psychological trauma, it's a part of your nurture, even though it is a negatively nurturing experience. When you interact with people socially, those interactions become a part of your nurturing as well, good or bad.
Nurturing can also include anything you learn, whether it's from books, websites, classes, or on-the-job training. Learning can happen anywhere you go, at any time, and from any source. Since your environment is included in your nurture, anything you come in contact with can be included. That can mean the physical features of the environment as well as your social environment.
How Can Nurture Be Changed?
You do have direct control over your environment in many cases, at least as an adult. When you're an infant and child, you have little choice but to accept the environment you're given. But, as an adult, you can seek out different experiences.
You can educate yourself or find a mentor to teach you what they know. You can go to a counselor and learn new ways to think about your mental health issues. You can learn relaxation techniques and coping skills.
How Twin Studies And Adoption Studies Have Changed The Debate
When researchers started doing twin studies, the debate between nature vs. nurture in psychology could be evaluated accurately. Because identical twins share nearly all the same genetic information, the effects of their nurture were much more obvious. If their biology is the same, the differences must be due to their environment and learning. Adoptive siblings that are raised in the same environment can give clues as to how nature plays into their differences.
Examples Of Nature Vs. Nurture In Psychology
In every area of human thought, emotion, and behavior, there are examples of nature vs. nurture in psychology. The following are just a few of the areas where this debate is important.
Both twin and adoption studies have been conducted to find out whether intelligence is carried in the genetic code or created through nurture. Twins that were raised apart still had similar IQs. Children who were adopted into the same family with no genetic history in common were no more similar in IQ than children who had never even met each other. Therefore, the obvious conclusion seems to be that IQ is largely determined by genetic factors.
Yet, the debate hasn't been completely settled for intelligence. A brochure by the Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation suggests that intelligence can be trained by increasing mental efficiency. Techniques used include relaxation training, transcendental meditation, yoga, autogenic therapy, and biofeedback.
Another question within the nature vs. nurture debate is whether personality comes from biological or environmental factors. Twins who were raised apart tend to have more shared personality traits than random paired strangers do. Some scientists suggested that the similarities had more to do with the similarities in their appearance than with the genetic heritability of personality. When researchers tested this hypothesis, they found that the fact that the twins looked alike didn't affect the outcomes of twin studies about personality.
However, one study found that of all the personality disorders recognized by the DSM-II-R only antisocial personality seemed to be inherited through the genes. Paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant and dependent, passive-aggressive, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders seemed to be caused primarily by environmental rather than genetic factors.
At first thought, it might seem that anxiety comes mainly from the environment. However, there does seem to be a genetic component. In one study of family risk and genetic causes for anxiety disorders, researchers found that panic disorder was 43% inherited and generalized anxiety disorder was 32% inherited. The other 57% and 68% respectively were due to nonshared environmental factors.
The Interactionist Position
So, you might wonder, if some conditions have both a genetic and an environmental component, isn't there another way to look at these conditions and traits besides as either nature or nurture? There is a third way to think of these issues. It's called the interactionist position. When you take this position, you recognize that both nature and nurture play a part in most psychological similarities and differences.
Most researchers recognize the contributions of both nature and nurture to mental health issues. The real question is how much of the effect comes from nature and how much from nurture. Once researchers pin down the percentages, the path to treatment becomes clearer.
Why Does It Matter?
The way the nature vs. nurture psychology debate comes out for you has a tremendous effect on what you'll do about your mental health issues. If you believe that only genetic factors are at the root of your problems, you may feel powerless to change them. You may spend a lot of time playing the "blame game." Alternately, you may attempt to change your biological makeup through diet, medications, or biofeedback.
If you believe that nurture is most important, you may also blame others, such as your parents and teachers, for not teaching you the right lessons during your childhood. On the other hand, there's so much you can do to change your environment and learning now that this view opens up a wide range of treatment options.
If you take an interactionist position, you can work with all the factors that might influence you. You can use medications prescribed by your doctor, make lifestyle changes, or practice brain games. You can also seek new learning experiences and find out how to change your thoughts and behaviors through therapy.
Mental health issues are sometimes difficult to overcome, especially if they're rooted both in your biology and your childhood environment. With the right help, you can make lasting changes. You can talk to a licensed therapist at BetterHelp.com for convenient online therapy to learn how. Through various forms of therapy, you can change the outcome of your mental health issues for the better.