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» A-Level Psychology Model Answers – Nature vs Nurture
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Posted on: May 27th, 2011

Explain what is meant by the terms nature and nurture (5 marks)

Nature is the extent to which abilities are present at birth. Ability can be determined by genes, including those which develop by age. The biological and evolutionary approach both support the view that all behaviour is determined by nature. Nurture refers to the influence of experience. Empiricists had the view that all behaviour is learnt and that through reciprocal determinism we influence the environment as the environment influences us. The behaviourist approach is the most common supporter of this view.

Outline the history of the nature-nurture debate in Psychology(10 marks)

Philosophers in ancient times, such as Plato, believed that a child was born with some innate knowledge. Rather than learning anything new, people simply recollected knowledge which lay dormant within their mind.

Locke, however, was an Empiricist and believed that the mind at birth was a blank slate. He believed that all behaviour was learnt and that the environment and up-bringing made people behaviour in certain ways.

In the 19th century there was much tension around the argument. In order for the debate to be tested, psychologists looked at changing behaviour, such as maladaptive behaviour. If behaviour was to be changed for the better then it made sense that only the environment could do this (nurture). Behaviourists, such as Locke, supported this view due to their assumptions of classical and operant conditioning. However at the time, the dominant view was that behaviour was fundamentally hereditary. Many thought behaviour was a product of biological influence. Therefore environmental influences were limited.

By the mid 20th century there were two main thoughts. American behaviourists concluded that all behaviour is learnt through trial and error (nurture). Their work was conducted on animals yet Waal (1999) saw this as irrelevant and stated learning processes were universal across species.

In contrast the ethological school in Europe focused on natural behaviour. According to this theory animals are born with abilities. They used the example that you do not learn to cry or laugh.

Contemporary beliefs are that it is in fact an interaction of both nature and nurture that determines behaviour, with the environment acting as a catalyst for pre-disposed genes.

To what extent is it possible to explain behaviour in terms of only nature or nurture? (15 marks)

Some behaviour more than others suit either the nature or nurture view more appropriately. The evolutionary approach explains behaviour as a result of nature. Bowlby (1969) suggested that attachment behaviours are displayed because they ensure the survival of the infant. It is also instinctive of the parent to make this attachment. By making attachments infants are set-up for later life increasing their chance of reproduction, thus extending there genes.

Yet a behaviourist would state that rather than nurture, individuals learn to make attachments through classical conditioning. An infant learns that as attachments are made food, play and love is given, therefore reinforcing and rewarding behaviour. As an infant ages, they will learn through modelling that the more attachments made then the more rewarding and simply life can become (in terms of large friendship groups).

It could be said that stress is an adaptive response to environmental pressures. Animals which are born with out such responses (including the fight or flight response) quickly die. However behaviourists would claim that in certain environments stress is encouraged (such as some exam stress is seen as motivation). Therefore through rewards and reinforcement, individuals display and experience stress.

The behaviour of aggression could be explained in terms of nurture. Bandura’s bobo doll studies provide evidence that behaviour can be modelled and imitated through vicarious reinforcement, especially if the model is similar to the viewer in terms of age and personality. However nativists would claim that those individuals who become aggressive are already pre-disposed to the behaviour through their genes and that if that gene is not present than a person is unlikely to experience aggression.

However it is impossible to assume that all behaviour is determined by either nature or nurture. Instead the interaction of the two by gene-environment relationship has more face validity and is being supported now by more psychologists, including the Psychodynamic approach. Using the three types of relationship I will show various ways in which a child may be musical. The first type of relationship is passive. An example of this would be a musical parent transmitting a musical gene to their offspring, then constructing a musical environment to rear their children. An evocative relationship would be if a child was musically gifted (i.e. had the pre-disposed gene) and then received special training and opportunities by teachers (therefore rewarding and encouraging such behaviour). The third is an active relationship where individuals are pre-disposed to the gene and then select their own environments to match them (e.g. a musical child chooses musical friends).

In the diathesis-stress model, a genetic vulnerability or predisposition (diathesis) interacts with the environment and life events (stressors) to trigger behaviors or psychological disorders. The greater the underlying vulnerability, the less stress is needed to trigger the behavior/disorder. Conversely, where there is a smaller genetic contribution greater life stress is required to produce the particular result. Even so, someone with a diathesis towards a disorder does not necessarily mean they will ever develop the disorder. Both the diathesis and the stress are required for this to happen.

Discuss the nature/nurture debate within Psychology (20)

The nature/nurture debate is concerned with the extent to which psychological characteristics are the product of our genes and the extent to which psychological characteristics are the product of our environment and what we learn. Different approaches within Psychology have different stances on the nature/nurture issue whilst the biological approach puts the most emphasis on genetics whereas the behaviourist approach believes that all behaviour is learned and so puts emphasis on influences within the environment.

A behaviour whos cause is a topic of discussion within the nature/nurture debate is Anorexia; an eating disorder where the individual is preoccupied with body size. One nature theory is that anorexia could be caused by genetics as there is an increased risk of developing anorexia for first degree relatives of an anorexic. This theory is supported by Strober et al. (2000) who found that first degree relatives of women with anorexia are 10 times more likely to get the disorder themselves. It was also found that although eating disorders are more unusual in men first degree relatives of a man with anorexia are also at greater risk of becoming anorexic (Strober et al.2001). Twin studies have also suggested a genetic influence as MZ twins have a higher concordance rate than DZ twins (Holland et al 1988). However there are faults with this research as twins and have shared the same environment so it may in fact be environmental factors as opposed to genetic factors. Another problem is that first degree relatives are likely to have experienced similar upbringings and similar styles of life, therefore again it may be environmental as opposed to genetic factors causing the disorder. Finally since there are never 100% concordance rates it is suggested that factors other than genes are influential.

A nurture theory is that anorexia is cause by pressure in Western society to conform to an idealised notion of beauty. This is a socio-cultural opinion as for women there is an ideal shape presented by models, actresses and other icons which some women attempt to imitate. Hsu supports this theory by demonstrating that anorexia is more common in Western industrialised countries compared to non-industrialised countries where a more rounded body shape is preferred. Similarly Garner found that the risk of eating disorders is particularly high among women with jobs such as models, dancer and gymnasts. Dolan (1991) found that in the USA it was 8 times more common for white women to have anorexia than coloured women; however some may argue that this could be due to genetic make-up. More evidence for the nurture argument for anorexia has come from Serdula et al(1999) who found that society has become more fat and health conscious as the number of female dieters has increased from 14% in 1950 to 44% in 1999 and in the number of male dieters has risen from 7% in 1950 to 29% in 1999.

Another theory from the nature side is that Anorexia is due to low serotonin levels. Several studies have reported low levels of serotonin metabolites in patients with anorexia(Kaye, Ebert, Raliegh and Lake 1984) and Kaye et al(2000) found that patients with Anorexia who’ve not been restored to a healthy weight show smaller response to serotonin agonists in comparison those who’ve regained a good amount of weight suggesting an under active serotonin system. However it could be argued that low levels of serotonin could be an effect of anorexia as opposed to a cause.

In conclusion it is likely that Anorexia is caused by a combination of both genetic and environmental influences. Some people may have a biological predisposition to anorexia but an environmental factor is needed to start it off.


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