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The expression “nature vs. nurture” describes the question of how much a person's characteristics are formed by either “nature” or “nurture.” “Nature” means innate biological factors (namely genetics), while “nurture” can refer to upbringing or life experience more generally.

Traditionally, “nature vs. nurture” has been framed as a debate between those who argue for the dominance of one source of influence or the other, but contemporary experts acknowledge that both “nature” and “nurture” play a role in psychological development and interact in complex ways.

The Meaning of Nature vs. Nurture

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The wording of the phrase “nature vs. nurture” makes it seem as though human individuality—personality traits, intelligence, preferences, and other characteristics—must be based on either the genes people are born with or the environment in which they grew up. The reality, as scientists have shown, is more complicated, and both these and other factors can help account for the many ways in which individuals differ from each other.

What does the phrase “nature vs. nurture” get wrong?

The words “nature” and “nurture” themselves can be misleading. Today, “genetics” and “environment” are frequently used in their place—with one’s environment including a broader range of experiences than just the nurturing received from parents or caregivers. Further, nature and nurture (or genetics and environment) do not simply compete to influence a person, but often interact with each other; “nature and nurture” work together. Finally, individual differences do not entirely come down to a person’s genetic code or developmental environment—to some extent, they emerge due to messiness in the process of development as well.

How do nature and nurture work together?

A person’s biological nature can affect a person’s experience of the environment. For example, a person with a genetic disposition toward a particular trait, such as aggressiveness, may be more likely to have particular life experiences (including, perhaps, receiving negative reactions from parents or others). Or, a person who grows up with an inclination toward warmth and sociability may seek out and elicit more positive social responses from peers. These life experiences could, in turn, reinforce an individual’s initial tendencies. Nurture or life experience more generally may also modify the effects of nature—for example, by expanding or limiting the extent to which a naturally bright child receives encouragement, access to quality education, and opportunities for achievement.

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The Nature-vs.-Nurture Debate

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Theorists and researchers have long battled over whether individual traits and abilities are inborn or are instead forged by experiences after birth. The debate has had broad implications: The real or perceived sources of a person’s strengths and vulnerabilities matter for fields such as education, philosophy, psychiatry, and clinical psychology. Today’s consensus—that individual differences result from a combination of inherited and non-genetic factors—strikes a more nuanced middle path between nature- or nurture-focused extremes.

How old is the nature-nurture debate?

The debate about nature and nurture has roots that stretch back at least thousands of years, to Ancient Greek theorizing about the causes of personality. During the modern era, theories emphasizing the role of either learning and experience or biological nature have risen and fallen in prominence—with genetics gaining increasing acknowledgment as an important (though not exclusive) influence on individual differences in the later 20th century and beyond.

Where does the phrase “nature vs. nurture” come from?

“Nature versus nurture” was used by English scientist Francis Galton. In 1874, he published the book English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, arguing that inherited factors were responsible for intelligence and other characteristics.

How Genetic and Environmental Factors Are Identified

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Modern scientific methods have allowed researchers to advance further in understanding the complex relationships between genetics, life experience, and psychological characteristics, including mental health conditions and personality traits. Overall, the findings of contemporary studies underscore that with some exceptions—such as rare diseases caused by mutations in a single gene—no one factor, genetic or environmental, solely determines how a characteristic develops.

How can we tell what portion of psychological differences are due to genes?

Scientists use multiple approaches to estimate how important genetics are for any given trait, but one of the most influential is the twin study. While identical (or monozygotic) twins share the same genetic code, fraternal (or dizygotic) twins share about 50 percent of the same genes, like typical siblings. Scientists are able to estimate the degree to which the variation in a particular trait, like extraversion, is explained by genetics in part by analyzing how similar identical twins are on that trait, compared to fraternal twins. (These studies do have limitations, and estimates based on one population may not closely reflect all other populations.) 

Which is more important, “nature” or “nurture”?

It’s hard to call either “nature” or “nurture,” genes or the environment, more important to human psychology. The impact of one set of factors or the other depends on the characteristic, with some being more strongly related to one’s genes—for instance, autism appears to be more heritable than depression. But in general, psychological traits are shaped by a balance of interacting genetic and non-genetic influences.

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