Nature Vs. Nurture: What Matters Most?

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Have you ever questioned how much of your personality or difficulties you’ve faced may be due to your biology, and how much may be due to the environment you’ve lived in and learned from? If so, you aren’t alone. This is one of the fundamental bases of nature vs nurture psychology, which has been studied by experts for decades. It’s even been featured in countless articles from publishers as prominent as the New York Times for decades.

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The debate over what drives human culture, personality, and behavior is actually believed by many to go back thousands of years to Ancient Greece. It can involve cultural, philosophical, and scientific elements to identify a variant or a hypothesis of the primary force behind human nature. Understanding this element of scope and pursuing ongoing education in this area can help you to determine how either element affects your present-day experience and how you can live well in your current situation. 

Read on to learn more about the nature vs nurture debate in psychology and how both can affect your daily experiences. 

Nature vs. nurture psychology

Nature vs nurture in psychology is generally defined as the timeless debate over whether inherent factors (such as biological and genetic factors) or external factors (such as experience and environmental influences) are the primary force in determining a person’s personality traits—and their likelihood of experiencing mental health conditions throughout their lives.

Nature refers to inherent characteristics while nurture refers to outside factors. The topic has been debated for millennia, and many have found that science has yet to arrive at a definitive answer—possibly suggesting that human nature is complex and not easy to define with labels. 

The history of the nature vs. nurture debate

Galen, a philosopher in Ancient Greece, is thought by many to have first proposed that a person’s personality can arise from the levels of four types of bodily fluids (or “humors”), also known by many as the humorism or humoralism theory. 

Later on, in the 1870s, Sir Francis Galton is quoted in historical texts using the terms “nature” and “nurture” when explaining his theory that traits, like intelligence and personality, could be developed by genetics and inherited at birth. During the same period, philosopher John Locke proposed that children were born as blank slates, and their characters developed from what they learned.

According to medical history, many behavioral and psychoanalytic theories in the early 1900s relied on the assumption that learning, environment and experience might be the most critical elements that can contribute to a person’s mental health. However, as time progressed to the later years of the 20th century, genetics and neuroscience gained popularity—and many medical professionals may have shifted back toward the nature “side” of the argument. 

Current research generally indicates that individual differences in personality, behavior patterns, and mental health can all have intricate ties to genetic and environmental factors.   

The interactionist position in the nature–nurture debate

Many field experts appear to support the interactionist position in the nature vs nurture debate—which is thought to state that genetics and environmental factors work within a fully interactive system that can determine a person’s personality and overall mental well-being. 

As parents can provide someone with both genetic makeup and early environment and childhood lessons, in most cases, it can be argued that one of the most influential factors in human and child development—childhood caregivers—is, by definition, driven by both nature and nurture. 

“Nature vs nurture is one of the oldest questions in science. The answer is not an either/or, but rather it is both nature and nurture, acting in various degrees”. — Grand Challenge: Nature Versus Nurture

Why does the nature vs nurture debate matter? 

Your opinion on what matters most may affect how you approach your mental health. For example: If you stand firmly on the nature side, you may feel powerless to change something you believe was determined before birth. If nurture is the basis of your philosophy, however, you may feel powerless in pursuit or ownership of your unique fusion of personality traits. 

Understanding both sides of the debate can give you an open mind regarding mental health treatment options, as you can change your experience in a range of ways. Those who favor the interactionist position may work with all the factors that could influence them—possibly empowering them to make an informed decision about improving their well-being with varied methods.  

To help you to determine your own set of personal beliefs, we’ve listed a summary of both nature- and nurture-related elements below. 

Nature: Biological factors

Nature can refer to your genetics and other biological factors that can influence your mental health and personality development. 

Elements included on the nature side of the debate

While there can be a range of elements included in this area of the nature vs nurture argument, some of the most  includes: 

  • Genetic diseases and disorders
  • Appearance-related elements, such as eye, hair or skin color 
  • Behavior

How does nature affect you?

In a 2021 study, researchers sought to determine genetic influence on one’s experience and understanding of self with the removal of the environmental factors provided by parents to avoid errors related to causation. As a result, they suggested using the Familial Control Method as a workaround when genetically sensitive information isn’t available. 

This could be a plausible measure to determine how nature truly can affect you. Per current psychological understanding, your genetic code is thought to be the source of your nature—while your genes might determine your brain structure, and your individual neurochemistry may shape your thought patterns, emotions and behaviors. 

Nurture: Environmental factors

Nurture generally refers to the environmental factors, such as relationships, experiences and culture, which can impact who you are and how your mental health develops. 

Elements included on the nurture side of the debate

Many people might have common nurture-related experiences, such as: 

  • Parenting and attachment style variations during childhood
  • Learned experiences (facilitated by school or extracurricular activities) 
  • Social relationships 
  • Culture-related achievements (variable) 

How does nurture affect you?

As you might imagine, your experiences and everything you’ve been through can impact your life and experiences. For example: Your experiences as an infant and throughout childhood substantially influence who you become, from your attachment style affecting how you form and maintain relationships to traumatic experiences changing how you react to certain situations. 

Can nurture be changed?

Psychotherapy is generally defined as a proven method to help change one’s behavior and thought patterns. It can be regarded as an effective treatment for various mental health conditions. 

Many may have nearly limitless ways to alter your environment—and psychotherapy can help you rebuild your cognitive pathways, according to data presented in a 2017 study. This published work alone shows the potential of change that nurture can hold, encouraging those who may wish to change facets of their personality or thought processes over time. 

What are examples of nature vs. nurture in psychology? 

You can see practical examples of nature vs nurture in everyday life, specifically in the area of behavioral psychology. Many believe that rather than showing definitive evidence for one side or the other, the evidence can show how integral and widespread the connection between nature and nurture truly is. 

Nature vs nurture: Abusive behaviors

If a person exhibits abusive behavior, is it because they learned it by observing violence during their formative years, or is it due to being born with violent tendencies? This can be a common topic that’s brought up in the nature vs nurture debate. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Nature vs nurture: Intelligence

Does a person who demonstrates a high level of intelligence owe that to their genetic makeup or years of studying? How do we account for people who are born geniuses? 

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Nature vs nurture: Personality

Twins can offer a unique view into how genetics and environment can shape your personality, mental health and emotional stability. For example, why would identical twins develop separate personalities and interests when they have the exact same genetics? Or how could children adopted into a home develop personality characteristics like their non-biological siblings?

Nature vs nurture: Mental health conditions

Some mental health conditions, like schizophrenia, might have a significant genetic component, while others can be directly caused by experiences—such as post-traumatic stress disorder. There are several brain issues, like Huntington’s disease, known to be passed on through genetics as well. What role would nature vs nurture have in these instances? How would one account for that? 

Nature vs. nurture debate status

According to a 2018 study the medical community suggests that there’s not a single answer to the nature vs. nurture debate. The solution for many may be to allow both nature and nurture to interact throughout your life, shaping you into the person you are and influencing your mental health and stability in many complex ways. 

How can online therapy help you establish mental stability

Mental health conditions can often leave you feeling overwhelmed. This level of overwhelm can make it difficult for you to leave the home, especially to confront your nervousness head on through in-person therapeutic intervention. Working with a licensed therapist online through virtual therapy platforms like BetterHelp can empower you to work on your mental health from the convenience and comfort of your own home—possibly offering a sense of safety when speaking about vulnerable topics. 

Is online therapy effective? 

Studies published by the American Psychological Association (APA) suggest that online therapy can be a viable, affordable option for many mental health conditions. It can also effectively boost the overall mental well-being of people who are not currently diagnosed with a mental condition. The APA has been quoted stating that virtual options for therapy can make treatment available in areas that did not previously have in-person option, possibly maximizing the amount of benefit that a larger pool of people can gain. 

Takeaway

Regardless of where you land on the nature vs nurture psychology debate, it can be helpful to understand the underlying theories and the thought processes behind them. The information presented in this article may offer some insight into both sides of the discussion and help you form an opinion of your own. Online therapy can support you in managing your mental health and changing your perspective. BetterHelp can connect you with an online therapist in your area of need.
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