Nature vs Nurture - Can Our Personality Traits Be Reversed?
How we become who we are, and do we have the power to change ourselves?
Over the last few days, I have been perplexed by a simple question. A question which became two questions, a downward spiral of questions— and then a migraine.
How did I become this person?
Is it something in my genes?
Did my parents screw me up?
Can I change?
This, therefore presented the debate of nature vs nurture. Is it my upbringing that has made me who I am, or is it something hereditary? The argument presented by nativists (supporting the belief of 'nature') believe that our personality traits are derived from our genes. We do know that our DNA carries chromosomes which hold information that determines our hair colour, eye colour and all the intricate details of our make-up, but how far does this extend?
It has been learned through research that longevity, ADHD, our body clock (i.e. whether we may have advanced sleep phase syndrome or may be a night owl) and diseases can be identified through our DNA. Not only that, but thrill-seeking genes and those for obesity can also be found. The controversy with this, is that although our bodies may contain information about our genetic make-up, it does not necessarily determine the outcome. Simply, some of our genes affect us by raising or lowering the probability of particular traits being passed on. Take obesity for example, there may be a gene running through your family. Your mother, grandmother and great-great-great grandmother may all have had it, but if you only eat a single packet of ramen noodles once per day, everyday—obesity isn't going to be the issue.
A biological theory conducted by Eysneck shows data consistent to this. Genes are basically proteins giving out the orders for how much to grow in certain areas. Therefore, it is thought that genes may influence personality by telling the body to develop more of a certain hormone, i.e. testosterone, dopamine or serotonin which therefore can influence a person's behavioural patterns and ultimately, their personality. There is also substantial evidence backing up the theory that mental illness can run in the genes, but psychopathology concludes that both a genetic disposition and environmental trigger are believed to be needed for it to develop.
Taking this one step further, genes may also influence brain growth in some areas, for example, a person may have an undersized amygdala (a significant area of the brain involving emotion) and therefore, the person may struggle to deal with emotions once again playing a significant role on their personality.
Over time, research has provided us with substantial evidence, however, although some personality traits remain dominant for what is seemingly permanent, continuous changes in the environment have resulted in the altering of some traits. Based on this, it has been concluded by many that some aspects of our personality are hereditary, while others are developed through the responses we have to our environment.
There are many, many reasons why a significant portion of our personality is down to our genes—maybe you can see a little of your mum's attitude in yourself, or your dad's stubbornness, but we still have our own individuality, and how did we obtain it? This is the very moment when the environmentalists (or, empiricists) gatecrash the party—this the very moment they have been waiting for. This is the argument of nurture.
Empiricists (I choose this word solely for the fact it takes less effort to spell than the environmentalist) believe in the prospect that our personalities are born through our experiences as we grow up. At birth, the mind is said to be a tabula rasa (a blank state—basically me all the time) and it is gradually filled through our experiences. So forth, they back up their arguments with how cognitive development depends upon a stimulating environment, and how language comes from imitation. They have a fair point.
The love and treatment we receive from our caregivers does, according to empiricists, play a dramatic role in our personalities. When a parent treats a child with conditional love, they may grow to be adults with a very fragile self-perception. Children who are verbally abused may grow to have very low self-esteem, and a negative outlook on life.
Taking this further, we can look at the experiment preformed by Bandura (1977), where he had children observe adults acting aggressively towards Bobo dolls. The children were then left to play with the same dolls, and it was observed that they imitated the actions of the adults, being significantly more violent in their interaction with it. Could it be just as easy as that, our personalities being a blatant reflection of those who have been most influential in our lives?
Both sides of this argument present an interesting case, and with my small mind, I choose to follow the majority of psychologists in the present day who believe that our personality is not solely defined by our environment or by our genes. While concluding this however, I discovered that there is another important aspect influencing the growth of our personality which has not been considered. This is how we choose to interact with our environment.
Forty genetically identical mice, were placed in this grand, multi-tier home. It was riddled with toys and various things for all these mice to do. These mice were no ordinary mice however, but fitted with a radio- frequency identification transponder that communicated with 20 radio antennae's throughout the big arena. This allowed their activity to be recorded. Not only that, but these mice were shooting up drugs. Well, more precisely, it was a compound which allowed scientists to tract the proliferation of hippocampal neurones.
At the end of observing these cyborg-mice on dope, the adult mice produced some very interesting findings. They had highly individualised explorative behaviours, despite living in the exact same environment as each other and being genetically identical. Each mouse reacted to their environment differently: some became explorers, roaming the thick terrain of wood shavings and their fellow furry friends' poop, while others learned to comfortably stick close to areas that they knew.
These behavioural differences also showed up in the hippocampal neurogenesis (brain growth through cell division) of the rodents. Those that explored more grew more neurones than less adventurous peers. On average, domestic mice living in smaller cages were found to have less neurogenesis than those in larger ones.
The whacky dude with a disturbing mouse obsession, was Kempermann. He makes my autocorrect go crazy with a name like that. His findings concluded that it was not just genes or the surrounding environment which impact us as people, but our experiences within it which build our individuality significantly.
So with that in mind, personality is developed to some extent, through our life experiences. My mind right now is praying that there is hope for me yet. Can we change our personalities? Can I transform the disastrous mess I have become into something like Donald Trump, who is completely and utterly, blissfully oblivious to the ginormous spoon that he is?
The answer, is, to some extent—yes. Through circumstances in our lives, our personalities may be altered, for example by becoming a parent we may become a lot more considerate of others or by growing into a more serious relationship, we may start to mirror the characteristics of our partner. Hudson and Fraley believed through their research, that with strong motivation and enough time, people can change their patterns of how they think, feel and behave, thus altering their personality. For example, if a person begins developing positive opinions about themselves, they may become more extroverted. Adults (although I have not seen any hope for myself) grow out of the kind of temperament that they once had as children—temperaments that develop through genes and environmental factors. We mature, and grow in emotional stability. What is to say other aspects of our personality may also change in this time?
In contradiction to this however, many people may have life coaches, public speaking coaches etc, and find that although there may be change for a time, often things revert back to how they were before. This once again demonstrates what severe mental strength is required to alter our own personalities.
To conclude, despite this extensive research into questions I longed answered for the sake of my own personality, and the prospect of altering it for generally higher success in other parts of life—I don't believe it is worth it. We are a sum of our experiences as a whole, genetics playing what I believe to be a very minor part of who we are. In a survey conducted by psychologists, it was found that only three percent of people reported that they were happy with where they currently stood in regards to the 'five personality points.' To me, this shows that contentment does not come from altering who we are as people, but instead from growing in one simple aspect of it: self love. Yes, it sounds grossly cheesy, but acceptance for who we already are produces the opportunity to truly change us in ways we did not even picture for ourselves. We learn to that it is OK to behave in certain ways, rather than putting ourselves down simply due to judgmental onlookers. We can do what we enjoy, freely. Loving who we are means freeing ourselves to the painful, damaging, and unrealistic ideas of the person we wish to become. We can be happy right now, if we choose it.