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The Nature vs Nurture and Free Will vs Determinism Debates

Info: 2460 words (10 pages) Essay
Published: 9th Sep 2021 in Psychology

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The nature versus nurture debate in Psychology is concerned with how much of human behaviour is influenced by nature and nurture.

Support for the nature debate comes from Plato to which he described “All knowledge is present at birth”. The nature debate refers to abilities or characteristics that are determined by our genes. Nativists support the nature debate as they argue that predispositions are innate. They also argue that any behaviour has evolved because it increases an individual’s chance of survival and thus reproducing to pass on their genes to offspring. The nature debate argues that certain physical characteristics are biologically determined by genetic inheritance. For example; the colour of a person’s eyes, straight or curly hair, skin pigmentation or even diseases such as Huntington’s. These characteristics are all a function of the genes we inherit. The nature debate questions if psychological characteristics such as behavioural tendencies, personality and mental abilities are also wired in before birth. The nature debate assumes that individual differences are due to everyone’s unique genetic code and that everyone has an inner biological clock which switches on and off types of behaviours in a pre-programmed way.

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Support for the nurture debate comes from Aristotle as he argued that “Humans are born with a blank slate and behaviour and thoughts are due to experience”. The nurture debate refers to the influences of experiences and the environment in which we live. Empiricists favour the nurture debate as they argue that psychological characteristics and behavioural differences that emerge through infancy and childhood are the result of learning and socialisation. For example, attachment which is due to the love and attention received from others which ensures survival by forming a bond.

The free-will versus determinism debate in Psychology is concerned with the extent to which it is reasonable to assume that our behaviour is under our own control.

Support for the free-will debate comes from Descartes. Descartes argued the theory of mind-body dualism. He argued that the mind and the body are completely distinct from one another, therefore are able to exist independently. He argued the mind as a thing which thinks, and that the nature of the mind was completely different from the body. He argued it is possible for one to exist without the other. Free will refers to the ability of an individual to act or choose in a way in which they desire and are therefore responsible for their own actions. The humanistic approach in Psychology favours free-will. Psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, argued that “Freedom is not only possible but also necessary if we are to become fully functional human beings”. Valentine (1992), proposed several characteristics of free will to which he argued that the existence of free will lies in the idea of moral responsibility. Valentine argues that if individuals have a choice, they should be able to behave differently under similar circumstances. He also argues that if an individual has a choice, they should not have been forced into doing something by another individual. He further argues that we have few behaviours which are involuntary therefore, there are many voluntary behaviours which are our own choice to make. He also argued that individuals have a choice when they deliberately change their routine and behaviour can be the result of disruption.

Support for the determinism debate comes from Oakley (2001), to which he argues “Determinism is the view that, for everything that happens, there is a condition or set of conditions which are casually sufficient for that thing happening” (www.stenmorton.com) Determinism argues that all behaviour has an underlying cause. Determinism also argues that free will is an illusion and behaviour is governed by internal or external forces that individuals have no control over. Internal determinism argues that internal forces are the determining factor of behaviour. Bowlby’s attachment theory in 1969 argued that a child has an innate need to attach themselves to one main attachment figure. External determinism, however, believes that the cause of behaviour is out with the control of the individual by external forces such as the media, schooling or parental influences. Bandura’s social learning theory in 1977, argued that behaviour is learned by observational learning from the environment. There are also different levels of determinism which are hard and soft determinism. Hard determinism focuses on forces outside of an individual’s control for example an individual’s past experiences which has shaped their behaviour. Hard determinism rejects the concept of free-will and instead argues that behaviour is predictable and determined. It argues that individuals are not free and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. Soft determinism argues that only some aspects of human behaviour can be determined, therefore individuals are morally responsible for their actions. It argues to a certain extent; behaviour is constrained by our biological make-up or by the environment. Soft determinism argues that there is an element of free-will in our behaviour as opposed to hard determinism.

The nature versus nurture debate can be argued on the subject on intelligence. Intelligence is used freely to describe differences between individuals and to explain why they behave the way they do. Intelligence is a powerful concept used in everyday life and is associated with terms such as bright, dull or quick thinking to label people of a certain type. Individual intelligence or IQ tests, administered on a one-to-one basis by a psychologist, are the preferred way to measure intelligence (drkennethshore.nprinc.com)

The nature debate argues that intelligence is determined by genetics. Many studies relating to genes and intelligence come from the studies of twins. Bouchard et al (1990), conducted studies on identical twins who were raised together as well as raised separately. This study aimed to investigate if genetic inheritance played a role on an individual’s level of intelligence. Bouchard’s findings concluded that identical twins raised together showed an 86% correlation rate compared to a 72% correlation of twins raised in separate homes. The correlation of 72% suggested that identical twins raised in different homes tended to have very similar IQ scores. These twins even showed higher similarities in accordance to non-identical twins who had a correlation percentage of 60. Further studies to support the nature debate come from Bouchard and McGue’s adoption studies of (1997). These studies concluded that adopted children tend to be very similar to their biological parents in terms of IQ. Research has found that those with high levels of IQ who place their child up for adoption, despite being raised by others, have higher levels of intelligence and therefore high correlations with their biological parents. The problems with both studies are that they disregard any aspects of external or environmental factors. In Bouchard et al twin study of (1990), both twins could have shared the same early environmental background before they were reared apart which could have contributed to similar correlations of IQ. Also, Bouchard and McGue’s study of (1997), fails to mention that adopted children may have been raised in an encouraging family which could be a further reason for high levels of intelligence.

The nurture debate of intelligence argues that the environment plays a significant role in an individual’s levels of intelligence. Evidence for the nurture debate comes from the studies of formal schooling by Ceci (2003). This study aimed to discover if the effect of formal schooling influences a child’s level of intelligence. This study discovered that children who regularly attend school have higher levels of intelligence than those who do not attend school. This study concluded that a child’s IQ drops by five points each year of delay. It also highlighted that children’s levels of IQ slightly decline over the summer period where children do not attend school. It further concluded that children who drop out of school are more at risk of lower intelligence in comparison to those who regularly attend school with higher levels of intelligence. There is further evidence from Ricciuti (1993), to suggest that severe malnutrition can affect the mental development of a child either before it is born or during the early years of the child’s life. This study investigated how early nutrition of a child might produce significanct and irreversible impairment of a child’s intellectual development. This study investigated children over a ten-year period and discovered that the IQ of children was significantly reduced in terms of school performance in poor children assumed to have chronic or mild malnutrition. The problem with both studies is that they fail to take account of the nature influence of intelligence. Children’s brains can develop at different times therefore a child’s intelligence can emerge at a later period in the child’s life.

The nature versus nurture debate has contributed to the study of Epigenetics. Epigenetics is an emerging are of scientific research. Epigenetics argues that environmental influences children’s experiences to affect the expression of the child’s genes. This challenges the nature versus nurture debate and instead proposes that genes are not always ‘set in stone’. Epigenetics argues that a collection of chemical marks known as the epigenome determine how little or how much of that gene will be expressed. It argues that identical twins can exhibit different behaviours and differing levels of skills due to difference in their arrangement of chemical marks (www.developingchild.harvard.edu) The concept of Epigenetics has been widely studied across the world, particularly on rats. This study highlighted that the nurturing behaviour of a mother rate during its first week of life shapes her pups’ epigenomes. The epigenetic pattern that the mother rat establishes tends to stay put, even after the pups become adults and this was achieved by physically altering the genetic expression of the rat due to a different experience during the rat’s development. The concept of epigenetics may provide further understandings and conclusions towards the nature versus nurture debate.

The free will versus determinism debate in contemporary psychology can be argued in terms of almost all aspects of human behaviour. The case of Stephen Mobley in 1991, raised new arguments whether some individuals are born with criminal genes. Mobley’s lawyer raised the plea that the murder Stephen Mobley committed was that of a genetic predisposition to crime rather than his own choice of free-will (www.independent.co.uk) The Mobley case sparked the debate of the criminal gene and has led to various studies and investigations. It has raised the concern of a possibility of genetic explanations diminishing responsibility for an individual’s actions and therefore eliminating the idea of free-will.

The nature versus nurture debate has proved very important in psychology. It has led to various studies and investigations as to whether inherited influences or environmental experiences determine human behaviour. The nature versus nurture debate, however, is bound by many ethical restrictions, particularly in terms of the use of twin studies. It would be ethically challenging to rear two identical twins separately in order to establish the relative influence of nature and nurture. It further ignores the fact that nurture can affect nature if an individual is prone to drug and alcohol abuse this can negatively affect the way an individual’s brain functions.

The free will debate is important because individuals are constantly exercising free-will through everyday life choices, therefore this gives validity to the concept of free-will. The problem with the free-will debate is that it can be argued that individuals have an active role in terms of controlling their own behaviour where they are free to choose in a way they want to and are not acting in response to any internal or external forces (www.jrwpsychology.wordpress.com) The determinism debate is important in attempting to identify causes of behaviour. For example, Raine’s study which compared the PET scans of murderers pleading guilty due to the reasons of insanity. It highlighted that murderers had certain dysfunctions in areas of the brain which therefore led them to result in criminal acts. The determinism debate, however, raises concerns over the issue whether individuals can be blamed and punished for things that they have no control over.



Issues, Debates and Approaches in Psychology by Ian Fairholm

Internet Sources







Connor, S. (1995). Do your senses make you a Criminal. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/do-your-genes-make-you-a-criminal-1572714.html. Last accessed 2nd Jun 2019.

Dennett, D. (2011). Philosophy of human Psychology. Available: http://www.stenmorten.com/English/php/php.htm. Last accessed 2nd Jun 2019.

Fairholm, I (2012). Issues, debates and approaches in Psychology. London: Palgrave Insights. P84-169.

Harvard University. (2019). Epigenetics and Child Development: How Children’s Experiences Affect Their Genes. Available: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-epigenetics-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development/. Last accessed 2nd Jun 2019

Jrw Psychology. (2011). Determinism vs. Free-will. Available: https://jrwpsychology.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/determinism-vs-free-will/. Last accessed 2nd Jun 2019.

Shore, K. (2013). How is intelligence measured?. Available: http://drkennethshore.nprinc.com/special-education/intelligence-measured/. Last accessed 2nd Jun 2019.


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