Evaluate the Relative Contribution of Nature and Nurture to Human Psychological Functioning Essay

Evaluate the relative contribution of nature and nurture to human psychological functioning. Illustrate you answer with reference to material from at least two chapters from book 2. The debate concerning the contribution of nature and nurture to human psychological functioning is one of the longest running and most controversial within psychology. The question is what elements of human behaviour can be explained in terms of physical being and what can be explained in terms of social environment.

Although this debate is relevant to many topics within psychology this essay will focus on two: language and sex and gender. Firstly it must be made clear what is meant by nature and nurture. Nature refers to the characteristics and abilities that are determined by a person’s genetic material which is transmitted from generation to generation. Evolutionary psychologists such as Darwin argued that certain behaviours evolve and adapt because of the benefits to survival and increased likelihood of passing on ones own genetic codes.

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Nurture refers to the environmental influences, such as historical and cultural context, that shape human behaviour. The behaviourist approach is an example of this. John Watson argued that ‘human behaviour was largely at the mercy of the environment’ and to him ‘saints and sinners were largely formed by early environmental influences’ (Littleton, Toates and Braisby, 2002, p. 169).

The relative importance of these two influences will now be discussed with regard to language and sex and gender ‘Language is the main medium for communication between human being and where we express, explore and pursue those goals that mean most to us’ Cooper and Kaye, 2002 p67) How much this ability to produce and understand language is programmed into our genes and how much acquired through experience is an important area of research as verbal communication is a key part of society.

As all humans use language in one form or another it can be assumed that it is part of the biological make up. Evolutionists argue that at some stage language conferred an adaptive benefit as ‘there was an advantage to communicating more information rather than less’ (Cooper & Kaye, 2002, p. 77) and that natural selection would ensure that groups who communicated fully would have a better survival rate and thus breed more successfully.

The position of the larynx and the structure of the throat enable humans flexibility to form different sounds which are specialised anatomical features that only humans have, also the structure of the brain is different with specific regions known as Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas dedicated to language which, when damaged, affect speech.

Noam Chompsky in 1965 (Wikipedia 2007) theorised that humans were born with an innate ability for acquiring language and he suggested this ‘Language acquisition device’ (LAD), helped all humans, whatever language they spoke, to understand certain grammatical rules without being taught thus suggesting it to be a biological function. A criticism of the view that language is a genetic predisposition is that all humans cook their food but there is no ‘cooking gene’ it is a learnt behaviour thus supporting the nurture viewpoint.

The supporters of the ‘nurture’ theory suggest that humans advanced because of their ability to speak rather than the other way round and that as language was beneficial to problem solving it was a learned behaviour rather than a genetic predisposition. The behaviourist theory of language acquisition is that language is learnt through experience by a process of imitation and shaped by operant conditioning. Skinner proposed that learning is done through a series of positive reinforcements as parents constantly praise and reward their children for attempting to communicate thus increasing the likelihood of them trying again.

As most humans live in social groups there must be some organisation and rules for communication. Grice in 1975 proposed that ‘in order to converse successfully both parties need to co operate and obey a number of maxims and principles on which they base their interactions’ (Cooper and Kaye, 2002 p. 93). This research demonstrates the importance of understanding the shared meanings of a conversation with both party’s having knowledge of the context and culture.

This highlights the nurture influence with these rules being taught and learnt and conflicts with Chompsky view that this knowledge was innate. Much research has been done on the influences of nature and nurture within the topic of sex and gender. ‘There is a world of difference between male/female and masculine and feminine: whereas the former are supposedly biologically prescribed, the latter are psychological characteristics shaped by the experience of growing up’ (Hollway et al. 002, p119) This explanation goes some way to describing the perception of sex and gender. The biological approach emphasizes the physiological processes and, in most cases, it is the hormones and genes that determine the sex, and to some extent the behaviour patterns. These behaviour patterns were the subject of a study by Money & Erhardt in 1972 who research the behaviours of 25 girls who had been exposed to male type hormones in the womb. It was suggested that the girls exhibited a tomboyish behaviour and played more boyishly as a consequence of these hormones.

The evolutionary arguments for sex differences focus on the different reproductive strategies between males and females. This approach concentrates on the optimal reproductive style which is the behaviour which is most likely to result in producing a healthy offspring. Females can bear relatively few children, whereas males are only limited by the availability of mates. Therefore the females not only choose for healthy males but ones who will make a parental investment in the child and thus making him less likely to have the resources for another child.

Evolutionists argue that these basic differences in behaviour of our ancestors result in some behavioural predisposition between the two sexes today. In 1989 a study carried out on an American campus by Clarke and Hatfield (Hollway et al. 2002, p134) found that after being approach by an attractive stranger, engaged in conversation, and invited to either go on a date, go back to an apartment, or have sex, 69% of men compared to 6% agreed to go to an apartment and 75% of men consented to sex whereas no women did.

This supports the previous argument that male/female sexual behaviour is different and to some extent rooted in our ancestors. Although it must be stated that the stranger situation was hypothetical and maybe the students would have behaved differently in a real life situation. Also the males may have said they would have slept with the stranger because of social pressure. A criticism of the nativist approach is that it could be used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour and doesn’t allow for free will; also sexual behaviour may be altered due to historical or cultural influences.

In the social world there is an expectation from society for appropriate gender behaviour. Social constructionist argue that the biological sex of a human is just the signal for society to behave in a set way towards that person, girls are encouraged to be kind whereas boy must stand up for themselves, this social stereotyping can be seen especially in the education system. Studies by Colley et al. , in 1994, Weinreich-Haste in 1979 and Archer and McCrae in 1991 have supported the view that children in the UK judge subjects by gender.

Maths, Sports and Sciences traditionally masculine, whereas English and the Humanities are deemed to be feminine. Therefore these studies are important as they demonstrate the need to counteract gender stereotyping and allow students to study whatever they wish without the risk of being ostracized by society’s norms. In 1981 Bem’s Gender Schema Theory proposed ‘that individuals absorb culturally produced understandings of gender that they use to interpret and make sense of themselves and their behaviour’ (Hollway et al. 002, p141) and the gender that society assigns children helps the formation of identity through which the world is understood. In 1994 Bem suggested that humans ‘view the world through ‘cultural lenses’ of femininity and masculinity’ (Hollway et al. 2002, p141) and people interpret their behaviour through these lens. This view could be criticised as it fails to take in to account the evolutionary difference in sexual behaviour of men and women.

There is biological evidence that humans have evolved to use language, there are specific areas of the brain for language which no animal possesses and human physiology enable a wide variety of sound to be produced. The nurture aspect cannot be discounted as society and culture dictates the meanings of what is spoken with rules that are learnt. Within sex and gender, sex is what nature has given us but gender is taught through societies preconceived ideas of how males and female should act; these two factors influence each other.

In conclusion the relative contribution of nature and nurture to human psychological functioning remains an ongoing debate and from the topics used to explore this question it can be argued that human behaviour is a product of genetics and experience working together with no one factor is dominant but each contributing to human behaviour Word Count 1,484 References http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Language_acquisition accessed on 27/07/2007 Cooper, T. and Kaye, H. (2002) Language and Meaning in Cooper, T. and Roth, I. Challenging psychological issues, Milton Keynes, The Open University Grice, H. P. (1975) ‘Logic and conversation’.

In Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds) Sytax and semantics: Vol 3 Speech Acts, New York, Academic Press Hollway, W. , Cooper, T. , Johnston, A. & Stevens, R. (2002) The Psychology of Sex and Gender in Cooper, K and Roth, I. (2002) Challenging psychological issues, Milton Keynes, The Open University Littleton, K. Toates, F. and Braisby, N. (2002) ‘, in Miell, D. , Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K. (eds) Mapping Psychology, Milton Keynes, The Open University. Money, J. and Erhardt, A. (1972) Man and woman: Boy and Girl, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press. Skinner, B. F. (1948/1990) Walden Two, London, Collier Macmillan


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