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  • Writer's pictureSarah M.

The Truth: Is It In Our Genes or Our Environment?

Are you the way you are because you were born that way, or because of the way you were raised?

Do your genetics and biology dictate your personality and behavior, or is it your environment and how you were raised? These questions are central to the age-old nature-nurture debate.

In the history of psychology, no other question has caused so much controversy and offense: We are so concerned with nature–nurture because our very sense of moral character seems to depend on it.

  • The crux of the nature side of the debate is that genetics or other natural influences are mostly, if not entirely, responsible for the characteristics pertaining to the personality, behavior and intelligence of an individual.

  • Conversely, the nurture debate largely argues that the main contribution to how a person develops is made by the influence of the people and events that interact with that person throughout their life.

But the debate seems to be an ongoing one.

One major problem with answering nature-nurture questions about people is, how do you set up an experiment?

There has been thousands of researches over the years, some more horrifying than others and today, the majority of experts believe that both nature and nurture influence behavior and development.

It is understood that certain physical traits, as well as the susceptibility to most physical and mental health disorders tend to run in families. Specifically, whatever illnesses your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other biological family members have does not guarantee you will inherit them, but it does increase the likelihood that you may develop them.

On the other hand, it is understood that environmental factors often have a significant effect on whether or not you develop the health problems that run in your family. (You can change your gene expressions).

A couple of examples of how the environment (nurture) can provide a benefit, and possibly decrease your risk in getting an illness from your family are:

  • If you are at risk for heart disease or diabetes, eat a healthy diet and exercise.

  • If you are at risk for other conditions, for example, breast or colon cancer, get regular health screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies per your doctor's recommendations.

Examples of how negative environmental influences can affect genetic expression include:

  • Exposure to discomfort and/or violence increasing the likelihood of anxiety

  • Depression and negative behaviors

  • Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke may develop cancers more often than those who do not have that experience

Is our intelligence based on nature or nurture?

As with most human traits, intelligence is now understood to be the result of some combination of both nature and nurture. While genes have a great influence on the size and biochemistry of the brain, its full development does not usually occur until after the first 20 years of life. So there is plenty of room for the environment to interfere in good or bad.

Intelligence and subsequent learning are also viewed as being largely molded by the environment the person grows up in, both before and after birth.


Take literacy. Making language visible is one of the most extraordinary achievements of human beings. Reading and writing is fundamental to our ability to thrive in the modern world, yet some individuals find it difficult to learn.

This difficulty can arise for many reasons, including dyslexia, a neuro-developmental disorder. But it turns out neither genes nor environment are fully responsible for differences in reading ability. And reading is a cultural invention and not a skill or function that was ever subject to natural selection.

When we think about our own qualities, they seem under our control in some respects, yet beyond our control in others. And often the traits that don’t seem to have an obvious cause are the ones that concern us the most and are far more personally significant.

Nature and nurture are traditionally set in opposition to each other. But in truth, the effects of environment and experience often tend to amplify our innate predispositions. The reason is that those innate predispositions affect how we subjectively experience and respond to various events, and also how we choose our experiences and environments. For example, if you are naturally good at something you are more likely to want to practice it.

Throughout the history of psychology, however, this debate has continued to stir up controversy. So instead of thinking of nature and nurture as adversaries in a zero sum game, we should think of them as feedback loops where a positive influence of one factor increases the positive influence of the other – producing not a sum but an enhancement.

What are your thoughts and experiences on this topic? Let's chat in the comments below or come say hi on Instagram.



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