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Psychology – Nature and Nurture | AQA B Psychology
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Psychology – Nature and Nurture

Nature and Nurture

  • Nature – refers to those characteristics and abilities that that are determined by your genes.
    • Supporters of this view = hereditarians or nativists
  • Nurture – refers to the influences of experience and environment. A belief that all knowledge is gained through experience
    • Supporters of this view = empiricists
  • The debate is an example of determinism and by their very definition is reductionism. However, both polarised views, but act together on an organism
  • The debate ignores the importance of evolutionary perspectives
  • The nature-nurture debate is concerned with how much of human behaviour is influenced by nature and nurture. The debate appears in areas of psychology such as
    • Intelligence
    • Gender development
    • Development of psychological disorders

Nativists (Nature)

  • Greek philosopher Plato ‘Children begin life with knowledge already present within them,; they do not learn anything new but merely recollect knowledge that has previously lain dormant’.
  • That our character and predispositions are innate. Main assumptions of evolutionary theories of human reproductive behaviour are that any behaviour has evolved because it increases individual’s chances of survival and thus reproducing to pass on their genes
  • Evolutionary psychologists assume that behaviour is a product of natural selection in the environment of evolutionary adaptation(EEA).
  • Results from nativists such as geneticists cannot be generalised as their studies apply to a specific group at a specific place and time.

Empiricists (Nurture)

  • Contrastingly, John Locke (1704) and Skinner both believe that the mind at birth is a ‘blank slate’
  • Believe a human infant has no knowledge or skills as result of lab experiments
  • Watson (1913) – “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select–doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors”
  • Behaviourists believe all behaviour is the result of learning through classical, operant conditioning or social learning e.g. Bandura’s Bobo Dolls
  • The nativists views were however swept away by the tide of behaviourism championed by Watson (1913) and Skinner(1938), all behaviour could be explained solely in terms of experienced.


  • Evolutionary diversity – a problem for behaviourists, as each animal is adapted to a specific way of life in a specific environment
    • Consequently, they adopted some of the evolutionary biology ideas.
  • Behavioural traits – a problem for ethologists (nature), traits such as inhibition of aggression and altruistic behaviour had no biological explanation
  • But the ability to learn has fundamental genetic basis e.g. people with a genetic disorder which affects learning processes are unable to do so.
  • All things bad are equated with nature and all things good with nurture.

Inside and Outside

  • Empiricists (nurture) place a greater importance on what is outside the organism – i.e. the environment, which shape what is on the inside
    • The outside is active, the inside is passive
  • Nativists (Nature) – place a greater importance on what is inside the organism – i.e. if the outside conditions are favourable (selective pressures) then the inside will unfold according to its own natural programme.


  • A way of improving the human race by encouraging the good groups to mate, whilst preventing the ‘bad’ groups from mating.
  • Francis Galton – was an important psychologist in this field and asked whether ‘it might not be our duty to do so by such efforts as may be reasonable, thus exerting ourselves to further the ends of evolution more rapidly and with less distress than if events were left to their own course’
  • Nazi’s carried out mass executions of ‘non-Aryans’ based on these ‘nature’ explanations, it is now evident they were pseudo-scientific hiding a vested political ideology.


  • Nature of Intelligence
  • The idea that intelligence as being innate compared to the idea that intelligence is learnt through experience.
  • Galton took a prejudice stand from the beginning, believing intelligence is innate
  • The early testing movement of intelligence was built upon the assumptions:
  • That intelligence is a thing
  • Which can be measured (hence I.Q tests)
  • That every individual has different amounts of intelligence
  • Which are the result of genetic differences
  • Due to hereditary factors
  • Heritability (of a trait) – refers to the proportion of the variability of that trait, in a population that results from hereditary/genetic variance.
  • Best way to investigate → using genetically related people
  • Ideal ppts → MZ twins since they share 100% of the same genes.
  • BUT problem is → they all share the same environment, so would be hard to see a cause and effect relationship
  • Overcome by → using MZ twins, one of which has been reared apart from the biological parents and the other with the biological parents
  • However, this type of study gives rise to the typical question
    • Are identical twins more alike than non-identical (i.e. DZ or fraternal) twins, despite sharing the same environment? If yes, genetic factors are important
  • Bouchard et al. (1990) – after analysing American studies of twins reared apart, they concluded that ‘on multiple measures of personality and temperament, occupational, leisure-time interests and social attitudes MZ twins reared apart are as similar as MZ twins reared together
  • Kendler (1998) – Reported that MZ twins reared apart were 80% concordant – i.e. separation made little difference.

Methodological Problems

  • Making sure there are no similarities between the ‘environments’ of the adoptee parents and the biological parents
  • Twins may have shared the same early environment
  • Small sample sizes/unrepresentative sample of adoptees
  • Biased, subjective judgements
  • Environment (nurture) appears to make a poor contribution to the debate regarding this topic.

The ‘Nurture’ Of Intelligence

  • As a result of research into the nature of intelligence empiricists led numerous educational programmes aimed at disadvantaged children – e.g. Operation Head Start.
  • Gifted and talented? Nature or nurture? – Top class sportspeople and musicians were thought to have good genes.
  • However, recent research has shown that it’s the level of practice they put in.
  • Perceptual Abilities
  • ….of a new born infant represent the most direct way of investigating the nature/nurture debate. In general, the earlier a particular ability appears the more likely it is to be under the influence of genetic factors
  • Wynn (1992) – suggests that infants as young as 5 months, able to make simple arithmetic calculations, leading to the suggestion that the basis for arithmetic understanding may be innate
  • Language
  • Chomsky (1940) – challenged the behaviourist account of language acquisition, suggesting that it happened not just through experience but because human children had an innate language module in the brain.

Other Examples

  • Schizophrenia – Seen as a genetic disorder and seen as a response to intolerable social and familial
  • Depression – bipolar depression is shown to run in families – i.e. inherited compared to family patterns and early socialisation.
  • Interpersonal attraction – can be explained as a consequence of sexual selection – men and women select partners who enhance their reproductive success.

An Interactionist Perspective

  • ….combines both nature and nurture
  • Best illustrated by the genetic disorder phenylketonuria
    • The inheritance of 2 recessive genes from each parents, results in the prevention of the synthesis of an enzyme to metabolise phenylalanine, causing mental retardation.
    • However, if the child is diagnosed early, they are placed on a low protein diet for the first 12yrs, helping avert a lifelong disorder.
    • Thus, nature (the disorder) is not expressed, because of an altered environment.

The Unshared Environment

  • Each individual creates their own unshared ‘microenvironment’ which relates to individual innate characteristics.
  • This microenvironment exists outside the home as well as inside the home
  • The theory suggests that your genetics influence your unshared environment, as it shapes it, which in return, shapes your development


  • New research opportunities – this new understanding leads us to explore the nature and nurture debate in a different way
  • Unshared environment → great importance now as it is unique to each individual – i.e. the extent to which nature creates its own nurture
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