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An Analysis of the Key Elements of the Nature-Nurture Controversy

The debate between nature vs nurture is widely considered to be one of the most important when it comes to psychology. Understanding the extent to which people are products of their environments or not is hugely important for psychologists. This sample essay provides an example of the features and benefits Ultius offers.

Background on the nature versus nurture controversy

The debate regarding what is the most important element in the psychological development of humans—nature or nurture — extends farther back in history than many may assume.

This historical element was noted by Meyers (2013) who stated that this debate is the “biggest and most persistent issue” (p. 6) in the field of psychology.

Meyers stated that the Greek philosopher Plato believed human intelligence—and all related capabilities—were the result of nature, or inherited traits (i.e., genetics). In contrast, Aristotle expressed a belief that personality develops as the result of learning and experiences over time (Meyers, 2013).

These two opposing sides of the psychological argument continue today, and are much more refined and delineated than they were in ancient times. The first to use the term “nature versus nurture” is believed to be Francis Galton (Sameroff, 2010, p. 8). There are strong proponents of both positions, and there is evidence presented for both arguments as well. A strong belief in one side or the other also results in potential conflicts regarding human behavior.

Both sides leave questions

A basis for controversy exists in this debate since if human nature and the development of personality are based primarily on nature—or genetics—then the role of parenting is greatly diminished as it implies that a child will develop in specific ways predominantly as the result of inherited traits. If, on the other hand, personality and behavior results from nurture—or one’s environment—it implies that parents (or other caregivers) play a critical role in the psychological development of children (Meyers, 2013).

If the latter scenario is accepted as true, the implication is that parents can be blamed for the negative conduct or behavior of their children later in life, since it is assumed that they failed in some way during the child’s developmental years. In contrast, a belief that human behavior is primarily determined by genetics (nature) implies a sort of genetic “excuse” for poor behavior and possibly even criminal behavior later in life. Undoubtedly then, there is a controversial element involved in firmly adhering to one side of this debate or the other with many ramifications for both parents and their offspring.

The two studies regarding nature and nurture

There is extensive literature related to the nature versus nurture debate, and this includes a wide variety of studies that attempted to prove one side or the other. For example, studies including twins are very beneficial for determining whether nature or nurture is more important in the psychological development of children.

Studying twins to determine the truth

One of these twin studies was conducted by Davis et al. (2012) who studied “data from over 6700 families to show that genetic and environmental contributions to 45 childhood cognitive and behavioral phenotypes vary geographically in the United Kingdom” (p. 867). This study examined both fraternal and identical twins, focusing on any observed differences based on geographical location (which would imply the influence of nurture—or environment—on psychological development).

Davis and colleagues started from the perspective that both nature and nurture are critical in the psychological and personality development of children (2012). The results of the research indicated that the genetic predisposition of children is modified or complemented by their environment. In other words, it should be accepted that nature and nurture work together to create personality and neither one nor the other should be viewed as dominant.

Family genetics and different personalities

A second study was conducted by Plomin, Asbury, and Dunn (2001) and focused on the ways that children within a family display different traits in spite of growing up in the same environment with shared genetics. This study was basically a meta-analysis which reviewed recent research on this topic. Since children in the same family definitely share the same genetics, and therefore the same “nature”, the question posed by this study was why are there differences in psychological development among children from the same family since it must also be assumed that the environment (nurture) would be similar for all family members?

The study indicated that, somewhat surprisingly, each child in a family experiences a slightly different environment based on a variety of factors (Plomin et al., 2001). The researchers found that each child in a family responds differently to the shared environment based, in part, to the different ways that parents treat each child. In addition, it was suggested that the interaction between children creates a somewhat unique environment for each child in the family. Again, this study [similar to Davis et al. (2012)] determined that nature and nurture work together to influence psychological development of children. The researchers recommended further studies on the topic to clarify this interaction.


While the “nature versus nurture” debate is typically cast as an either-or proposition, much of the literature and numerous studies (including the two included here) clarify that it is much more likely that genetics and environment work together in the psychological development of children. Thus, it is important that parents understand this relationship and take their responsibilities seriously to ensure that their children become mature and responsible adults.

In addition, it verifies that, while genetics play an important role in human development, it is not the sole determinant of behavior, nor should it be used as an excuse for poor behavior later in life. As implied by the two studies as well as the other sources cited, it is important that genetic research related to psychological development include environmental elements in order to provide a true representation of the multiple factors that influence personality and behavior. In spite of a desire to present simple explanations, nature and nurture should be accepted as implying a much more complex reality than this ancient debate would imply.


Davis, O. S. P., Haworth, C. M. A., Lewis, C. M., & Plomin, R. (2012). Visual analysis of geocoded twin data puts nature and nurture on the map. Molecular Psychiatry, 17, 867- 874. doi: 10.1038/mp.2012.68.

Myers, D. G. (2013). Psychology (Tenth ed.). Holland, MI: Worth. Print.

Plomin, R., Asbury, K., Dunn, J. (2001). Why are children in the same family so different?

Nonshared environment a decade later. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 46, 225-233. Web. Retrieved from

Sameroff, A. (2010). A Unified Theory of Development: A Dialectic Integration of Nature and Nurture. Child Development, 81(1), 6-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01378.x.

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