I was at home having lunch with my girlfriend, Veronica, and her sister, Daniela. We were eating and watching TV. I’m at the centre of the table, my girlfriend sits on the left and her sister is across from her, on my right. As we are eating, something shows up, either on TV or casual conversation, that initiates a comment from Daniela, saying we are born a certain way. Not surprisingly (they’re sisters), Veronica has a totally different opinion, and says we are not borne a certain way, instead, we are made a certain way after birth. They didn’t know they were discussing 2 major topics in the history of Psychology, Nature vs Nurture.
Both Daniela and Veronica’s point of views reminded me of how Charles Darwin set the stage for us by observing breeding on animals. Good race horses could be mated with other horses that had desirable physical characteristics to pass down to their offspring the same or even better physical traits fit for race track performance. With dog breeding, Darwin observed that psychological traits could be passed too. Domesticated dogs are a result of breeding from the tamest wolves, and from then on breeders played on colours and even psychological traits to get dogs to perform or adapt to specific needs, like a Labrador was bred to be gentle, love to swim and have a decent nose, all good traits for a duck hunting dog. This concept, when applied to humans, can have a potentially dangerous effect, as was shown by Eugenics, a scientific theory relating to breeding in humans with the means of making the human race better, to self-direct human evolution. This mindset might have been a culprit behind some of the atrocities witnessed in History (Jews in Nazi Germany).
As the discussion started to escalate between Daniela and Veronica, I stepped in to point out validity on both points of view, without dismissing both entirely, and that the subject we were discussing, Nature vs Nurture, or Genetics vs Environment, has more to it than meets the eye. Twin studies comparing identical twins and fraternal twins (also called fake twins), shows that there is genetic influence, especially among those that share the closest possible related DNA (identical twins) and how it positively relates to certain behaviours they might pick up together. We are born with certain inate behaviours that are hardwired and we don’t have to learn them. Examples can be seen in babies that turn their head instinctively looking for a source of feeding (mother’s breast milk). However, our behaviour is shaped throughout our lives, based on stimulus by the environment, so called Nurture. John Watson thought that through behavioural technics, you could explain everything, which was the basis of the school of psychology known as behaviourism. He proved his point with his Little Albert experiment, where he induced a fear learned response to a child to common everyday objects or innocent animals like a rabbit, by associating their presence with a loud bang of a hammer, the same way Pavlov associated a dog salivating to a whistle. Another psychologist, John Locke, stated along the same lines that we are born as blank slated, and then are shaped by experiences, a concept he called “Tabula Rasa”.
As I was already participating in the discussion, and now serving as a kind of referee to Daniela and Veronica, I pointed out some rational arguments and on how things are not so black and white. We are in fact a product of both schools of thought, we are neither one or the other exclusively, but a mix of them in between. There are certain inate behaviours that we have as human beings, and also many others we learn (or unlearn) throughout our lives, changing our behaviour as we go, through observation (kids modelling violent behaviour of grown-ups), consequence (reinforcement and punishment) or conditioning. Thus, while we don’t follow as many of natural instincts as animals have, humans have a mix of guidelines of both genetics and environment that make us a product of not just one or the other, but a result of both, throughout our inheritance and a set of skills and behaviours being shaped throughout our ever more complex modern lives.
NOTE ON THIS ARTICLE
This article was created as an assignment for a course I’m undertaking on Coursera.org, Intro to Psychology. The assignment involves describing a current event that relates to a psychology concept and how it applies to the event in question. I hope you like reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here’s a link to the course: https://class.coursera.org/intropsych-001/
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