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Nature vs. Nurture: How Much do We Learn?

(Posted February 27, 2013)

David Widman, professor of psychology

Psychologists have debated the question of nature vs. nurture for centuries. Philosophers such as Plato and Rene Descartes maintained that certain behaviors and dispositions were inborn and naturally occurring phenomena, while enlightenment-era thinkers such as John Locke proposed his notion of tabula rasa, which supports the theory that the mind is equivalent to a blank slate upon birth and consequently we become who we are through the influences of our acquired knowledge and experiences. How much of who we are as individuals is shaped by the events we experience and the people and environment we are surrounded by, and how much is simply a result of our genetic makeup and predispositions? David Widman, professor of psychology, offered his opinion on nature vs. nurture.

Q: To what extent do our experiences and environment shape our identities and behaviors?

A: To me, it's a false dichotomy. It should be "nature through nurture." What that means is, who you are (your genetic info), gets filtered through your rearing. In psychology, there are strong disorders for inheritance such as schizophrenia. The right way to think about it is, that it's not a question of "either/or", but rather, it's both. You come into the world with a lot of genetic predisposition, but the world then stamps its experience on you.

Q: Are people inherently good or bad?

A: Morality is an interesting question. We're a very cooperative species in comparison to others. We've figured out that we'll do better in the long run being nice to each other, than being mean to each other. Most people do tend to cooperate, which can be expressed in the Prisoner's Dilemma. This example suggests that when two people are caught for committing a crime, upon interrogation, they will both get lesser sentences if they both admit their guilt. However, if only one person admits guilt, that person will get a larger sentence, while the other will get off free. It is therefore in the best interests of both people to admit the truth.

Q: If we are placed into certain roles, will we become them? What's stopping us?

A: If you try and pretend to do something long enough, you'll buy into the pretense. People will do really mean things to people, as long as someone else could take the blame for it. We'll do what we're told to do. Studies of this fact have helped us to understand people like Nazis. We want to follow a leader because we want to be in groups.

Q: Can you quantify how much of our behavior is nature vs. nurture?

A: Ninety percent of what you do is the environment; it's habit, which is a pattern of rewarded behavior. There are different rewards in different environments. However, there are certain inborn things that push us toward things. Culturally, different characteristics can be perceived as attractive, such as ornamentation, piercings and body hair, but there is also universal attractiveness like symmetry and clear skin, which are attractive to many different people in many different cultures.


-Hannah Jeffery '16, Juniata Online Journalist

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