Behaviour Learnt or Innate

Whether our behaviour, actions and conduct are determined by nature, the genes given to us by our parents or by nurture, the factors of the environment upon us after birth and through childhood is a debate that has fascinated psychologists throughout history. Starting with Galton’s study of Darwin’s book on evolution and carrying on with other famous Psychologists such as Pavlov, Watson and Skinner, this is an area of study that is both popular and important.

There has been no definitive correct answer to the debate of nature versus nurture and so there are still differing views. Some views have differed in the extreme. For example Galton (1883) suggested “nature prevails enormously over nurture” yet Eysenck (2003) reports John Locke arguing “They (Babies) are born with a mind that is like a blank slate (tabula rasa) and experience records itself in such a way that each individual becomes a unique being. We inherit nothing and all behaviour is acquired as a consequence of experience.”

It is a very difficult question to answer because it is almost impossible to ascertain whether someone’s actions are due to genes or environment. One method used to try and determine whether genes are the most important factor are with identical twin studies. If two monozygotic twins have the same characteristics as each other then it suggests that genes are causing this effect. There are however flaws with this reasoning as twins generally experience the same environment e.g. parents, friends, school etc so it could be argued that the similarities are down to this. A perfect study would be identical twins separated at birth who have experienced completely different environments. Unfortunately this case study is hard to come by and so no real proof can be gained from this.

Pavlov was a staunch behaviourist believing that responses can be conditioned. Pavlov gave an example of behaviour being learnt in his study on dogs. In this experiment he rung a bell directly before serving food, to which the dogs salivated over. After a number of times the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell alone. Sperling (1967) records that “The salivation response had become conditioned to the new bell ringing stimulus”.

John Watson is another behaviourist who was heavily influenced by Pavlov. Watson believed behaviour could be learnt. He showed this in an experiment on fear conditioning with Rosalie Rayner in 1920. In this test he provoked fear in an eleven-month-old infant, Albert, by striking a steel bar. They then proceeded to show a white rat to Albert but as he touched it struck the steel bar, which made him cry. After repeating this procedure a number of times Albert showed a fear reaction to the rat alone. As a result he became frightened of every white fury animal he came it contact with.

Galton is the father for the nature side of the argument although his view is at the extreme end of the spectrum. Galton had observed that genius ran in families, where there was one exceptional individual in a family there was often another one. Seligman (2002) reports Galton established that “numerous heritable traits, including height and intelligence, exhibited regression to the mean – meaning that extreme inherited results tended to move toward average results in the next generation”.

Galton became convinced that talent in science, the professions, and the arts, ran in families. Galton followed this even further by declaring that it would be “quite practicable to produce a high gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations”. This line of thought leads into eugenics a subject, which has become morally questionable due to certain government policies and could be a reason why psychologists have moved away from the idea of nature toward nurture at certain points in history such as after the first world war.

Another example of heuristic behaviour can be seen in Robert Tyron’s (1940) study on rats that are fast maze learners. He discovered that when interbreeding rats with a fast maze-learning trait together and rats with a slow maze-learning trait together, Bernstein et al (2003) reports of Tyron’s study, “after several generations the offspring of the fast learners were significantly better at maze learning than those of the slow learning

The question “Is Behaviour Learnt or Innate” gives the impression that only one answer can possibly be correct, yet choosing just one answer is detrimental to the full understanding of the subject. The only really valid studies of nature versus nurture are identical twin studies but as stated earlier there are not enough examples of this to form a perfect argument for one side or the other. The evidence in this essay leans more towards the behaviourists view on the subject, as there is more information available on the experiments used to support their theories and more coherent arguments. However most Psychologists would agree that it is not solely genes or the environment that is responsible for our behaviour but a measured contribution of the two.


1. Eysenck, Michael. W. Key Topics in A2 Psychology (2003), Ch 10 Perspectives: Debates, (pp 352) East Sussex, Psychology Press Ltd.

2. Sperling, A. Psychology (1967), pp 58, Oxford, Heinemann Professional Publishing Company

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