Nurture Over Nature: How the Environment Affects the Mind

For decades, psychological experts have continued to debate over the significance of one’s traits given at birth—their nature—over the significance of the circumstances the individual is placed in (known as the “nurture” argument) and its effect on their development. Human nature is often defined by the biological traits given through genetics, such as hereditary medical conditions, race, and gender (not to be confused with one’s gender identity, which may not always align with the one assigned at birth). For example, while an individual living far away from the equator may have a greater likelihood of developing Multiple Sclerosis than one living in South America, their likelihood of developing the disorder increases exponentially when there is a genetic link, such as a parent or grandparent. Therefore, one may argue that the individual’s nature has the most significant effect in the scenario. However, supporters of the “nurture” argument believe that socialization, classical and operant conditioning are essential tools in encouraging children to behave in ways similar to others in their society. Additionally, there are also cases of physical and emotional abuse which often lead individuals to develop psychological disorders and various other negative consequences that often manifest during adolescence and carry into adulthood. Therefore, while the traits given to one at birth certainly are a significant factor in psychological and physical development, ultimately individuals shape their personalities and values through the processes of socialization, conditioning, and recovering from traumatic experiences.

Socialization is defined as the act of adapting to the behavior of the individuals around one’s self. (Persell, 98) Beginning in early childhood, one’s primary socialization agents are their families, especially parental figures. An example of socialization is the development of spiritual and political ideologies. For example, a child raised in a household with politically liberal parents are unlikely to develop conservative opinions as they age, due to the environments they are exposed to as a child. Socialization prepares individuals to understand how to conform to society’s norms and values, and in many cases, it refers to the preparation for individuals to become fully functioning members of a specific group of society. An example of such can be found in gender socialization; from a young age, young boys are taught that they must enjoy outdoor activities, violent shows, and competitive sports. However, girls are socialized to use pink-colored toys, enjoy the Disney Princess franchise, and to participate in non-aggressive physical activities, such as the performing arts. As a result, it is often difficult for one to break the norm they have been taught to conform to, often allowing their career path and personality to be dictated by the behaviors their society has socialized them to follow, for fear of being rejected by their peers. The effects of socialization have been experienced by every person living as part of a certain race, religion, or nationality. However, in 1979, critics of the nurture theory’s presence over nature launched a study in order to discover the extent to which human personality is genetic or nurtured.

This study led by Thomas Bouchard, Jr. is known as the catalyst for the Minnesota Twin Study, which continues to study the genetic and sociological similarities of identical and fraternal twins. The initial experiment, conducted among over 1,000 sets of twins living in the United States Midwestern region, shows that even when reared apart, twin siblings still develop similar personalities and interests. Participants are also known to share mental disorders with their twins; if one sibling has been diagnosed with a condition such as Psychopathy, the other sibling’s risk of developing the disorder rises exponentially. Therefore, supporters of the “nature” aspect of the theory might argue that the twins’ similarities are due to their time shared in the womb. However, those supporting the “nurture” argument argue that the study analyzes twins who, although reared separately, have still been raised in similar situations. Most significantly, all of the study’s participants reside in the Midwestern region of the United States; often, many participants live near Minnesota. Readers are also only shown the effects of the study on one’s intelligence quotient (IQ), (Bouchard, 225) and therefore are shown minimal information on the other personality traits the participants have developed. Therefore, it can be inferred that the individuals may have been raised in similar environments, and similar environmental circumstances may have led to the development of similar preferences, ideologies, and personalities.

Classical conditioning refers to the learning process in which two stimuli are paired: an independent stimulus and another which accompanies it repeatedly. John Watson’s experiment on an infant famously known as “Little Albert” is well-known for explaining the process. “Little Albert” is known in the study of psychology for demonstrating the effects of classical conditioning as a participant in Watson’s study, showing how painful or otherwise uncomfortable stimuli can lead to the creation of phobias. (Schwartz) In the experiment, Watson would present a pre-school toy (a “cute” object like a stuffed animal) to the infant while simultaneously providing an unpleasant stimulus, such as a loud noise. This would cause the child to weep, and after multiple cycles of repetitively pairing the two stimuli together, the child would sob simply due to seeing the independent stimulus (the toy). Many critics of the ethics of the study argue that “Little Albert” was permanently traumatized by the events, thus leading him to fear many similar objects. It is highly possible that the events surpassed the territory of conditioning and led to the event of a traumatic experience.

Traumatic experiences also greatly affect one’s mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Gabor Mate further emphasizes the significance of one’s circumstances when explaining the common causes leading to drug use and eventual addiction: he describes it as “the individual’s attempt to escape from the pain.”  (Lavitt) Most drug addicts the doctor has encountered explain the cause of their use to be traumatization, which is often unnoticed until pointed out by a psychological professional. While most addicts initially believed the cause of their use to be a part of their nature (often stating that they simply believed themselves to be “bad people”), there is often a connection between the majority of addicts, and that is that the majority of the time, the underlying cause of the person’s decision to abuse drugs is to avoid emotions of guilt caused by exposure to traumatic experiences. Some might argue that addiction can be hereditary, and therefore nature may still have a dominance over nurture. While this may be true, it does not alter the fact that individuals decide to use illegal drugs in order to escape from their pain, and often turn to substances that they have seen those around them abuse as well. Therefore, it can be inferred that there is a correlation between substance addiction and psychological trauma.

After reviewing all of the information discovered, one can come to the conclusion that one’s surroundings may have an even greater impact on psychological development than the influences given to individuals through their genetic material. Each person is born with a specific number of traits; although some traits are not discovered until later in life, they are always present from the hour of one’s birth to the minute of their death. However, psychological development and personal growth can only be expanded over the course of one’s lifetime; humans are constantly exposed to new environments over the course of their lifetime. With new exposure, individuals are able to learn new cultural norms, new languages, and to meet new individuals who can help inspire them to continue to enhance their world view. While there will always be factors that cannot be changed, there is always the possibility of improvement.


Works Cited

Bouchard, Thomas. “Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart.” Pp. 223-228. Print.

Lavitt, John. “Addiction Is a Response to Childhood Suffering: In Depth with Gabor Maté.” The Fix. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.

Persell, Caroline Hodges. 1990. Understanding Society: An Introduction to Sociology. 3rd ed. Pp. 98-107. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Schwartz, Steven. Classic Studies in Psychology. Palo Alto: Mayfield Pub., 1986. Print.



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