Nature vs Nurture: What does research indicate on this age-old debate?

It is a common refrain in India that a thief’s son will be a thief or a fraudster’s child will be a fraudster. It essentially drives home the point that life experiences, education and guardianship do not matter much and fundamental characteristics are passed on through the genes. Another recurring instance is the mother being blamed for the behaviour of an unruly child. These habitual practices are a contrast to each other. The first propagates a popular belief that nature or genetics is responsible for an individual’s dominant traits while the other buttresses the importance of nurture or the external environment after birth.

The debate between the dominance of nature over nurture and vice-versa is as old as the study of human psychology. Over the years, psychologists, thinkers and philosophers have contributed to the debate with various research studies and theories. In the past, the narrative has mostly been one versus the other. But recent studies have found that both nature and nurture interact to shape an individual’s personality. For a better understanding, let us start with what is nature and what is nurture?

  • Nature refers to all the physical and personality traits in an individual due to hereditary factors. For instance, the colour of your eyes or your skin colour is a result of genetics or nature
  • Nurture refers to the external environment encountered by an individual after birth like early life experience, education, social relationships and surrounding culture.

With a clear idea of nature and nurture, let us take a look at the debate over the years. There have been notable thinkers in both the camps. Philosophers like Plato and Descartes had suggested that some characteristics are inborn and the external environment has no impact on them. However, nativists or the hardcore proponents of nature’s primacy over nurture believed that a majority of the traits of a child are a result of his/her genes. On the other side of the spectrum were thinkers like John Locke who suggested that a human’s mind is like a blank slate at the time of birth. Everything that you know is the result of your experiences.

What research says

These were mostly theories without the backing of objective research. A few notable research studies have been conducted to settle the nature vs nurture debate. In 2005, sociology professor Guang Gao proposed that nature and nurture hold equal weight in the development of a human being’s personality. Gao concluded that genetics interact with the external environment to create complex personality traits in individuals, and it is not the sole work of genetic inheritance. Nearly 10 years after Gao, a study conducted by the University of Queensland researcher Dr Beben Benyamin concluded that variation in human traits and diseases is determined 49% by genetics and 51% by environmental factors.

Long before Gao or Beben conclusively proved that nurture was as important as nature, a series of notable experiments conducted by psychologist Albert Bandura around 1960 had proven that children learn by observing the activities around them. In his famous Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that children could learn aggressive behaviour by simply observing adults.

The results are also backed by nutrition experts. For instance, if a child comes from a family which has tall people, he/she is likely to receive the genes for height. However, if the child doesn’t receive adequate nourishment, he/she may never be able to attain the height of his/her family members. Similarly, diabetes is a hereditary disease, but even an individual with a family history may not catch if they lead a healthy life.

How to provide the right environment to your child

Parents have a significant role to play in the development of the child. Since life experiences or nurture is an extremely important factor in the child’s future, it is the parents’ duty to ensure a nurturing environment. The single biggest step should be to promote communication. Talk to your child and encourage him/her to express his/her feelings. Listen to your child and foster a climate of mutual respect. A variety of other steps can be taken, but parents have limited control of the child’s time.

The bulk of time in a day is spent by the child in the school. If you consider the Right to Education Act, it requires students from first to fifth grade to spend 200 days in school and sit through 800 instructional hours. The actual duration may be higher. The selection of the right school is the link most parents overlook while planning for the child’s future. The importance of the school is also corroborated by a 1962 study by American Psychologist, which found that creative talent can be developed through nurturing in school.

Conclusion

The debate between nature and nature is endless, but all recent studies point towards equal importance of nurture in a child’s development. In India, the school plays a central role in the child’s life from the initial phase. A focus on choosing the right educational institute for your child could turn out to be a deciding factor for a bright future.

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Mangesh Sawant

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