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Is Personality More Nature or More Nurture? Behavioral and Molecular Genetics

23 September, 2015 - 14:33


  1. Explain how genes transmit personality from one generation to the next.
  2. Outline the methods of behavioral genetics studies and the conclusions that we can draw from them about the determinants of personality.
  3. Explain how molecular genetics research helps us understand the role of genetics in personality.

One question that is exceedingly important for the study of personality concerns the extent to which it is the result of nature or nurture. If nature is more important, then our personalities will form early in our lives and will be difficult to change later. If nurture is more important, however, then our experiences are likely to be particularly important, and we may be able to flexibly alter our personalities over time. In this section we will see that the personality traits of humans and animals are determined in large part by their genetic makeup, and thus it is no surprise that identical twins Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein turned out to be very similar even though they had been raised separately. But we will also see that genetics does not determine everything.

In the nucleus of each cell in your body are 23 pairs of chromosomes. One of eac h pair comes from your father, and the other comes from your mother. The chromosomes are made up of strands of the molecule DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), and the DNA is grouped into segments known as genes. A gene is the basic biological unit that transmits characteristics from one generation to thenext. Human cells have about 25,000 genes.

The genes of different members of the same species are almost identical. The DNA in your genes, for instance, is about 99.9% the same as the DNA in my genes and in the DNA of every other human being. These common genetic structures lead members of the same species to be born with a variety of behaviors that come naturally to them and that define the characteristics of the species. These abilities and characteristics are known as instincts—complexinborn patternsof behaviors that help ensuresurvival and reproduction(Tinbergen, 1951). 1 Different animals have different instincts. Birds naturally build nests, dogs are naturally loyal to their human caretakers, and humans instinctively learn to walk and to speak and understand language.

But the strength of different traits and behaviors also varies within species. Rabbits are naturally fearful, but some are more fearful than others; some dogs are more loyal than others to their caretakers; and some humans learn to speak and write better than others do. These differences are determined in part by the small amount (in humans, the 0.1%) of the differences in genes among the members of the species.

Personality is not determined by any single gene, but rather by the actions of many genes working together. There is no “IQ gene” that determines intelligence and there is no “good marriage partner gene” that makes a person a particularly g ood marriage bet. Furthermore, even working together, genes are not so powerful that they can control or create our personality. Some genes tend to increase a given characteristic and others work to decrease that same characteristic—the complex relationship among the various genes, as well as a variety of random factors, produces the final outcome. Furthermore, genetic factors always work with environmental factors to create personality. Having a given pattern of genes doesn’t necessarily mean that a particular trait will develop, because some traits might occur only in some environments. For example, a person may have a genetic variant that is known to increase his or her r isk for developing emphysema from smoking. But if that person never smokes, then emphysema most likely will not develop.