Nature Versus Nurture


Nature Versus Nurture

As previously mentioned in a few posts, for the past few years, I have enrolled in a number of night classes as a means of attaining the qualifications I failed to attain in high school. Mostly the subjects I have picked have been very practically related to my further development, subjects such as maths and english, which are integral to undertaking further study. But I also chose subjects which I felt would interest me, and one higher which was of particular interest was psychology.

I really enjoyed the subject matter, looking at different aspects of behaviour and development gave me a great insight into the way in which humans learn and grow. Some of this I found I could directly apply to my roles both in care and in education. The other aspect of this course which I found incredibly useful was the transferable nature of the course content. When I began to study Higher English, I was surprised to realise just how free the course was to a student’s personal experience.

As part of the course a writing portfolio had to be created, I’ve already posted the the creative piece, which I submitted to the SQA, and so I felt that to further share my experiences of the last couple of years, it would perhaps be of interest to see the contrasting discursive writing piece. I was tasked with writing an essay which looked at both sides of an opposing argument. As I had spent a whole year studying psychology the year before and the knowledge was fresh in my head, I felt that focusing this essay on the nature versus nurture debate, would be a great topic to discuss.

My prime example throughout the essay is that of the condition Anorexia Nervosa, and how it can be affected by both aspects of the nature versus nurture debate. Thankfully I have never experienced the extremes of this particular condition personally, although I have experienced a lesser degree of body dysmorphia throughout my life, and can empathise greatly with those who push their bodies to an extreme to attain an unattainable physique. My own personal experiences though, pale in comparison to some of the more serious cases, so if you do read this please bear in mind that this is a portfolio piece written independently by a student and not a to be taken as anything other than a personal insight into a vast, vast topic. As the essay had to be capped at 1200 words, there was a lot of content which I had to leave out and so this is a very concise introduction to a fascination, yet powerful topic.

The facts which I cite are to the best of my knowledge truth, but if you happen to know otherwise, please don’t hesitate to correct me. I have added the references which I used to write this piece, but bear in mind that this was written over a year ago and facts have a tendency to be updated.

Lastly, if you or anyone you know is affected by this condition, I would urge you to seek further advice on the matter. By just being yourself, the way that you are you can do anything you put your mind to, don’t force yourself to be something you are not. Live life safely and happily to the best of your ability, and I’ll try for my part to do the same.


Within the field of psychology, no debate has had greater impact, than that of the ‘Nature versus Nurture’ debate. The debate itself arose naturally with the development of psychology as a science. The two sides in this debate are Nativists, who believe that behaviour is genetically inherited and Empiricists, who believe that infants are born a blank slate and that behaviour is learned from birth onwards, through experience and social learning.

No one side of this debate has ever been proved conclusively correct, instead as the science of psychology has developed, the preferred stance has swung, much like a pendulum, from one side to another, depending on which model of psychology is most preferable at the time. The biological approach, explains behaviour as being an innate part of each person, and believes that all deviances from ‘normal’ behaviour are a result of neurochemical imbalances, which can be treated medically. Alternatively behaviourists such as Bandura, set to prove that behaviour is learned through observation and repetition. Bandura’s “Bobo doll” experiment shows a positive correlation between witnessing aggressive behaviour and emulating that same behaviour afterwards.

The reason this debate has been so prevalent, is due in part to each side being able to explain specific conditions or behaviours by using their own approaches to psychology. Take for example the condition anorexia nervosa, a life threatening condition, which causes patients to become obsessed with their body size. Psychologists from different fields explain and treat patients with Anorexia Nervosa differently, yet each field is able to justify doing so based on reasons discerned from their own research.

Nativists have support from researchers such as Strober et al. who found that first-degree relatives of Anorexia Nervosa patients are more likely to also develop the condition. This correlation is further supported by Holland et al. (1988) who developed a twin study finding that there is a significantly increased chance of identical twins both developing Anorexia Nervosa, than in non-identical twins. While this research clearly shows that there is a genetic link to the development of Anorexia Nervosa, empiricists have argued that the results of Holland et al.’s experiments can also be explained by the fact that identical twins have, in most cases, grown up together and so have shared the same environment, and experiences.

Other arguments in favour of the Empirical debate come from the work by researcher Hsu, whose study of women’s body shapes suggested that women from Western industrialised societies were typically more likely to develop Anorexia Nervosa, than counterparts of the same age in non-industrialised society, whose body shapes reflected their life style and were typically rounder in body shape, as fit with their cultural norm. Empiricists have long suggested that Anorexia Nervosa is a cultural disorder, much more prevalent in Western society as women are subjected more often to unrealistic expectations of body size and shape due to exposure to photo shopped media representation and models with a perfect, yet unattainable form. Young girls especially aspire to look like idols they see in magazines, yet in actuality, the models and actresses they are trying to emulate do not look the way they are presented by the media. This argument was further supported by Dolan, whose study in 1991 found that white American women were eight times more likely to develop Anorexia Nervosa than counterparts of African American or Latin American women. This again would suggest a correlation between cultural norms and development of Anorexia Nervosa. However Dolan has been criticised, as women of different creeds have a different genetic make up, which may in turn explain why, white women are more likely to develop Anorexia Nervosa as it is genetically part of them.

While both arguments have held favour at one time or another, it is clear that the debate is far from over, each side believes that they can explain specific characteristics of behavioural disorders, but both sides can also be countered by the other. This has led to an on-going virulent debate, which has lasted for decades. Now however it would seem that the pendulum has come to rest in the middle of both camps, with the development of the Cognitive approach to psychology.

While the cognitive approach to psychology is still in it’s infancy compared to some of the more traditional approaches; it is fast becoming the standard on which all treatment is based. This is because it takes into consideration both sides of the argument and the treatments, which have been developed, based on this approach, encompass all of the elements, which can affect behaviour, not just the parts which can be explained.

Take for example a patient with Anorexia Nervosa, being treated under the Cognitive approach, depending on the severity of the disorder an Anorexia Nervosa patient may be prescribed SSRI’s, a type of anti-depressant, and referred to take part in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a time sensitive talking therapy, which asks patients to set themselves goals and meet specific weight gain targets, while also trying to discern the root causes of their emotional problems which may have led to the initial development of Anorexia Nervosa. Due to the damaging nature of Anorexia Nervosa, patients are not usually prescribed SSRI’s until they have started to gain weight; this is to prevent any further damage to their bodies. In more serious cases patients can be hospitalised and detained under the mental health act to prevent any further harm to the patient. This is a last resort and is only used if the patient is at serious risk of death. While detained a patient can be force fed, by the use of a nasogastric tube which delivers food directly to their stomach, this is a short term treatment, and patients are once again expected to eat themselves after this, but are again supported by a team of psychologists trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The cognitive approach believes in treating patients medically, before moving on to supporting patients through the use of talking therapies, in doing this they treat for both genetic and environmental causes.

The nature versus nurture debate has inspired a great many psychologist to develop innovative new treatments and experiments, and in so doing, furthering our understanding of human behaviour as a whole. While it is clear that this debate is far from over, we can look at both sides as having value, and we should continue to unify the ideas presented by both sides as a means of moving forward. It is only now that we are beginning to consider looking holistically at human behaviour, and with time I believe the development of treatments and support for people who deviate from normal mental health will only continue to improve.


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