Psychology Nature versus Nurture Debate in Psychology
Hunter Honeycutt
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0305


The nature-nurture dichotomy is a long-standing and pervasive framework for thinking about the causal influences believed to be operating during individual development. In this dichotomy, nature refers to factors (e.g., genes, genetic programs, and/or biological blueprints) or forces (e.g., heredity and/or maturation) inherent to the individual that predetermine the development of form and function. Nurture generally refers to all the remaining, typically “external,” causal factors (e.g., physical and social conditions) and processes (e.g., learning and experience) that influence development. The nature versus nurture debate in psychology deals with disagreements about the extent to which the development of traits in humans and animals reflects the relative influence of nature and nurture. It is commonly stated that psychologists have moved on from asking whether traits (or variation in traits) develop from nature or nurture, to recognize instead that both nature and nurture work together or “interact” to produce outcomes, although exactly how to view the interaction is a matter of much debate. While acknowledging the interaction of nature and nurture, one’s theoretical models and research focus might emphasize the prominence of one over the other. Thus, nativists focus more on the importance of innate factors or forces operating on development, whereas empiricists focus more on experiential or environmental factors. However, not everyone finds value in thinking about development in terms of nature and nurture. By the middle of the twentieth century, some psychologists, biologists, and philosophers began to view nature-nurture as a conceptually deficient and biologically implausible dichotomy that oversimplifies the dynamics of behavior and development. Such people espouse some variant of “developmental systems theory” and seek to eliminate or otherwise fuse the nature-nurture division.

General Overviews

The works in this section are mostly trade books that provide general introductions to the nature-nurture debate across a variety of topical areas in psychology, all of which would be suitable for use in classes with undergraduate students at all levels. Goldhaber 2012 contrasts four popular perspectives on the nature-nurture issue and would be a good place to start for anyone unfamiliar with the nature-nurture debate in psychology. Nativist perspectives are represented by Pinker 2002, Plomin 2018, and Vallortigara 2021. An empiricist-leaning position on behavior development is put forth in Schneider 2012. Developmental systems theory is promoted in Blumberg 2005 and Moore 2002. Two edited books are included and both are better suited for advanced undergraduate- or graduate-level students. The first edited book, Coll, et al. 2013, focuses on the nature-nurture issue across a range of topics and perspectives in psychology. The other, Mayes and Lewis 2012, presents empiricist (or environmentalist) perspectives on child development.

  • Bateson, P. 2017. Behaviour, development and evolution. Cambridge, UK: OpenBook Publishers.

    DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0097

    Written by a distinguished ethologist who draws extensively from his work on animal behavior, this book argues that the nature-nurture division is neither valid nor helpful in capturing the complex system of factors that influence behavioral development. Topics include imprinting and attachment, parent-offspring relations, the influence of early-life experiences on later-life outcomes, problems with genetic determinism, and the role of behavior in evolutionary change.

  • Blumberg, M. S. 2005. Basic instinct: The genesis of novel behavior. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

    Consistent with developmental systems theory, Blumberg presents an overview of the conceptual and empirical limitations of nativism in explanations of behavioral and neural development in animals and cognitive development in humans.

  • Coll, C. G., E. L. Bearer, and R. M. Lerner, eds. 2013. Nature-nurture: The complex interplay of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior and development. New York: Psychology Press.

    The contents of this edited volume are almost entirely original works with commentary that span multiple disciplines (psychology, biology, economics, philosophy) and multiple perspectives (behavioral genetics and developmental systems theory) on the nature-nurture issue.

  • Goldhaber, D. 2012. The nature-nurture debates: Bridging the gap. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139022583

    Goldhaber reviews four major perspectives (behavior genetics, environmentalism, evolutionary psychology, and developmental systems theory) on the nature-nurture issue. He argues we should reject reductionist views based on either genetic determinism or environmental determinism in favor of more holistic, interactionist approaches.

  • Mayes, L. C., and M. Lewis, eds. 2012. The Cambridge handbook of environment in human development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This handbook explores a wide variety of ways in which the environment influences child development. Chapters cover conceptual frameworks and methodological issues in thinking about and studying environmental influences as well reviewing ways in which environmental contexts and systems influence specific aspects of child development.

  • Moore, D. S. 2002. The dependent gene: The fallacy of nature vs. nurture. New York: Henry Holt.

    This book provides an introduction to the developmental systems theory take on the nature-nurture issue particularly as it relates to genetic determinism, heritability and heredity.

  • Pinker, S. 2002. The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.

    In this best-selling book, Pinker draws on evidence from behavioral genetics, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive psychology to argue for a nativist position concerning human nature.

  • Plomin, R. 2018. Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Plomin reviews traditional and more modern evidence from behavioral genetics to argue that genes are the primary factor in bringing about psychological differences between people. Moreover, he argues that many “environmental” factors operating on development are themselves strongly influenced by genetic differences.

  • Schneider, S. M. 2012. The science of consequences: How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

    Schneider presents a view grounded in behavior analysis to argue for the critical role that the consequences of genetic activity, neural activity, and behavioral activity play in individual development. While emphasizing environmental (or experiential) factors influencing development, this book also highlights the systemic and interactive nature of developmental systems across multiple levels of analysis.

  • Vallortigara, G. 2021. Born knowing: Imprinting and the origins of knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/14091.001.0001

    Drawing upon research in comparative cognition and comparative neuroscience, much of it his own, Vallortigara argues that animals, including humans, enter the world with a set of unlearned, innate or instinctive behaviors and neural circuits that bias or predispose subsequent learning and development.

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