Nature Vs Nurture Psychology Debate

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This debate in psychology looks at the different aspects of behaviour and if it is learned behaviour or inherited. To explore this, we will be looking at the case of a 17-year-old boy called Peter. Peter comes from a dysfunctional family and has become involved in violence and anti-social behaviour in his local neighbourhood. We will look at reasons for his aggressiveness is it behaviour from family genes or if it’s learned behaviour from the surrounding environment. (McEldowney 2018)

‘There are many different factors of aggression that can lead to a range of behaviours such as harming yourself or others both mentally and physically.

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There are two types of aggression, hostile and instrumental. Hostile aggression typically in the form of anger is not planned but impulsive whereas instrumental aggression is methodical and intended.’ (Cherry 2018)

Links can be made to Peter’s aggression when we evaluate different theories and their explanations of aggression. The theories of nature and nurture help give us an explanation as to Peter’s aggressiveness.

Nature – refers to our pre-wiring, influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological features e.g. Hormones and neurological make up.

Nurture – is the influence of external factors such as environment, exposure, experience and learning of an individual.’ (Cherry 2018)


Peter has a volatile relationship with his parents, his mother and siblings all subjected to abuse by his father who drinks heavily. This is a difficult relationship and both genetics and the environment may impact Peter’s behaviour. Research shows human behaviour can be influenced by the genes we acquire from our parents.

Twin adoption theories show the link between genetic behaviours being shared and the extent of a shared environment. Psychologists like to study identical twins because of the identical genes they carry. Hereditary and environmental influences are studied to investigate behavioural traits. (McEldowney 2018)

Thomas Bouchard carried out a study on identical twins the Jim Twins, separated at birth and raised by two different families, 39 years later they met. They were ideal candidates as they had only been acquainted for a short time and they also had very similar lives both sharing the same name, their sons sharing the same names, both divorced and married women of the same name. One of Bouchard’s personality tests on the twins showed that they may as well have been the same person the results were so similar. Brain wave tests and many other tests also gave the same results. The twins also had the same medical history both having high blood pressure, vasectomies etc. (Hartman 1980)

The findings from the study of the twins proves and may explain why Peter may be so aggressive as he may have inherited this aggressiveness from his father.

The Instinct Theory of Aggression was a theory developed by Sigmund Freud. Freud believed all humans have the potential for aggressive ‘fighting’ behaviour to protect and defend territory, mates and offspring, this cannot be eliminated based on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He states aggression is an instinct inside every individual, these feelings can build up and if not released could lead to mental health problems e.g. stress anxiety and emotional strain.

This aggressive energy must be released so it is known as a displacement of aggression. The energy can be displaced in a variety of ways both positive and negative such as taking part in sport (positive) or through aggressive behaviour and physical violence. This could mean Peter is displacing his aggression in a negative way as he doesn’t do any extracurricular activities. If Peter participated in sport, he would be releasing his aggressiveness leading him to be overall less aggressive. This displacement of aggression is also known as Catharsis. (McEldowney 2018 Rowe)

The theory of attachment suggests that everyone comes into the world pre-programmed to create attachments with others for survival.

Konrad Lorenz looked at this theory using animals such as ducklings. Experiments showed that ducklings were pre-programmed to attach and imprint on their mother. He believed that everyone is pre-wired with a natural fighting instinct to be used in times of despair or survival due to these results. (Hess 2018)

John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory is influenced by Lorenz’s Theory of animal instinct behaviours. Bowlby believes that maternal deprivation can lead to mental health issues further on in life. This means if a young child loses connection or receives little interaction or care from their mother it can lead to delinquency, development issues and affectionless psychopathy. Bowlby believes a child comes into the world already born with the skills to create these attachments with others in order to help them survive. (McEldowney 2018)

Bowlby carried out the study of the 44 Thieves, children were selected from a juvenile delinquency clinic. 44 delinquents were interviewed these were children that had been caught stealing or had committed some small crime. Another 44 children selected as a control group, had emotional issues but had not yet committed any crime. His results showed over half of the juveniles had been separated from their mother for more than six months in the first five years of the children’s lives whereas the control group only had two children with separation. The results showed that 32% of the juveniles had affectionless psychopathy, meaning they were unable to show any emotion towards others. Bowlby concluded maternal deprivation can cause serious permanent emotional damage.

However, Bowlby’s Theory doesn’t acknowledge other forms of criminal behaviour or the reason for the separation of parent and child. (McLeod 2007)

Overall Bowlby’s study can be regarded as biased due to his involvement in the experiment as he conducted and designed it himself. This could mean he has influenced his findings to match his expectations. Due to only interviewing males it is gender biased. The results may not be accurate as he asked participants to recall memories and these may have been figments of the imagination for all he knows. Finally, his sample size was small, with only 88 participants, this means it can not be compared to a larger sample size.

In Peter’s case Bowlby’s theory suggests Peter could be showing aggression due to a lack of care and affection from his mother. He could be showing aggression due to prolonged separation as his family unit is dysfunctional.

Peter is an adolescent male, meaning his body is going through a number of hormonal changes. Due to the hormonal and physical changes in the body at this time it can be a tough and confusing time to go through especially if Peter doesn’t have the support he requires from his family. Studies show high levels of testosterone and low levels of Serotonin could be having an effect leading to his aggression. Research shows high levels of testosterone and low serotonin lead to aggressive behaviours in both animals and humans.

If Peter is experiencing fluctuating hormone levels, he could make an appointment with his local practitioner for a test to confirm this theory. Medication can then be prescribed to balance the levels, this would be beneficial to him. (O’Connor 2009)

Dabbs et al (1995) examined the behaviours of 692 male adult prisoners and their testosterone levels were measured from saliva samples, their behaviour was also taken from prison records. The results showed those guilty sex crimes and violence also had higher testosterone levels compared to those that had just committed theft and drugs. These results showed those with higher testosterone had more confrontation and violated rules in prison. This information overall shows how low and high testosterone levels can be linked to behaviour and aggression. (Unknown)

The Frustration Aggression Theory studied by Dollar, Doob, Miller, Mower and Sear in 1939 states aggression can be caused by blocking a person’s efforts to achieve a goal. Other research shows frustration is more likely to lead to aggression when an individual becomes frustrated and they believe aggressive behaviour will reduce frustration and help achieve their goal. In the experiment in 1939 individuals were asked to create a specific origami pattern with the help of an instructor. During the experiment the subjects were interrupted during the instructions and the instructor made an excuse to having to leave early and wouldn’t slow down when showing the instructions. A questionnaire was then filled out by test subjects regarding the instructor and it confirmed as they became more frustrated with their instructor it showed they were more aggressive on the questionnaire when compared with control groups. (Unknown 2). This implies frustration when not displaced the right way can lead to aggression being directed at an innocent target. This theory falls on both sides of the nature/nurture debate because as humans we all feel these emotions of aggression and frustration leading it to fall on the nature side. However, it becomes nurture when we look at the surrounding environment that leads to the creation of this frustration. Peter may feel that showing aggression make others fear him and his group and it may solve his problems although it will have the reverse effect, the feelings of frustration and aggression could also be from past pain and trauma.


Some behaviours can be learned through observation, imitation and experience. (McEldowney 2018). Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment looked at observational learning and led Bandura to believe expression of aggression is learned therefore, it is the nurture of a child that influences their behaviour. The Bobo Doll experiment was conducted in 1961, children were shown to a room filled with toys individually, some watched an adult act aggressively towards a Bobo doll for 10 minutes, some were exposed to none-aggressive model and others had no adult model in the room at all. Children ranged from aged 3-6years old, the non-aggressive toys included a tea set, crayons and farm animals, the aggressive toys consisted of a mallet, dart guns and a 3-foot Bobo doll. The child’s behaviour was observed through a one-way mirror at 5 second intervals, any behaviour that didn’t imitate the model was recorded e.g., punching the Bobo doll on the nose.

Results showed those exposed to the aggressive model expressed imitative aggressive responses than compared to the non-aggressive and control group. Boys imitated more aggressive acts than girls although there was little difference in verbal aggression. (McLeod 2014).

Banduras experiment gave accurate representation of how behaviour can be learnt and copied by children. He covered variables by controlling the time children observed the model and the gender of the model. It can not be said whether the experiment had any long-term impacts on the children due to the one display of violence with results being recorded almost instantly. Results may have been bias as the children were all from the same area and social background. Cumberbatch (1990) discovered children who had not interacted with a Bobo Doll before were five times as likely to imitate aggression than those familiar with the doll. He believes this is due to the novelty value of the doll. Many psychologists are critical of these studies due to there low ecological validity, as the situation involves an adult model and child which is a limited social situation with no interaction between the model and child at any time therefore there is no chance for the child to influence the model in any way. As the child and model are strangers this is unlike a normal experience between a family. The social learning theory also ignores the child’s uniqueness, brain development and any learning differences, it is also a question if the children just wanted to please the adults leading to imitation. (McLeod 2014).

This theory suggests Peter’s behaviour is learned from what he has witnessed and experienced in his home environment as he has grown up. As he gets older, he may become more stressed form witnessing domestic violence and this can lead to further behavioural issues e.g. imitation and exhibition of uncontrollable behaviours.

Peter may be suffering PTSD from exposure to domestic violence, it’s found that if a PTSD sufferer feels threatened, they will act out aggressively as a response. It may be impulsive if a PTSD sufferer has learned no other well of handling threatening situations from a young age. This could be seen as another cause from Peter’s aggressiveness towards others.

Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment demonstrates social roles influence on our behaviours. He studied a select group of young men in a mock prison environment. One group imitated guards and the other, prisoners. Over a short period both groups adapted to their roles especially guards. The experiment was due to last a fortnight and lasted six days. Brutal abuse was shown by the guards leaving many prisoners mentally and emotionally unable to complete the experiment. Zimbardo found deindividuation caused the group to lose their personal responsibility and sense of identity. (McLeod 2018). Although it wasn’t set in a real prison the experiment showed considerable evidence that participants reacted genuinely. However, it consisted of only males and can be considered gender bias as well as unethical due to lack of fully informed consent of participants as the experiment was unpredictable.

Deindividuation is when one loses self-awareness and self-restraint, they become more anonymous and feel less responsible for their actions due to being a group. (McEldowney 2018). The Klu Klux Klan is a deindividualized group by wearing white cloaks to disguise their identities within the groups. This applies to Peter as he may feel being in a group means it is less likely for him to be identified in the anti-social behaviours, he may be acting like this as he is subjected to group behaviour rather than his own individual behaviour. He may just be imitating the behaviours due to peer pressure.

Overall there is no clear evidence that Peter’s behaviour is solely nature or nurture. From theories surrounding the debate it can be seen that both have an effect on his behaviour. Both sides can give explanations and reasons for his behaviour be it hormones, genetics, deindividuation or learnt behaviour. He is showing normal youth rebellion as he is a teenager and is maybe struggling to find his own identity and self-worth. Having to defend himself from his father and also fend for himself throughout his neglected youth has left him without little guidance or appropriate role models.

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Nature vs Nurture Psychology Debate. (2022, Jun 07). Retrieved from