The idea of nature versus nurture in the world of psychology has been pervasive and ultimately misleading in its usefulness as a concept. Although we have used this dichotomy for years in an attempt to simplify the developmental processes into the innate unchangeable aspects (nature), and those under our control (nurture), this conceptualization has finally been debunked. As the National Research Council states in Rethinking Nature and Nurture, “It is time to reconceptualize nature and nurture in a way that emphasizes their inseparability and complementarity, not their distinctiveness: it is not nature versus nurture, it is rather nature through nurture…. Nature is inseparable from nurture, and the two should be understood in tandem.” (p.41) While this shift in our ideas on developmental psychology took a long time and much research, there are three particular studies that highlight the issue very well. Through examining the studies of Chen, Werner, and Campos we will illuminate the issue of nature and nurture and how our perception of these concepts has changed over the years.
One place where we might expect to find evidence against the conception of nature versus nurture is the field of cross-cultural studies, and this is exactly what we find in Chen (et. al.; 1998)’s study “Child-Rearing Attitudes and Behavioral Inhibition in Chinese and Canadian Toddlers: A Cross-Cultural Study. The domain of cross-cultural studies opens up the variable of different parenting styles depending on the different cultures the studies are being undertaken in. These differing parenting styles allow for us to see how infants with similar temperaments grow up to be different, a crucial piece of evidence against the nature versus nurture conception.
In this study, a sample group of one-hundred and fifty Chinese infants and one-hundred and eight Canadian infants approximately two years old were tested for inhibition. The way in which their inhibition was tested was through observing how played and how they reacted to playing with a stranger. The infants came into a university laboratory three months after their second birthday and were asked to play with an arrangement of toys while their mother filled out a questionnaire. After this, a woman who is a stranger to the infant would enter with a toy truck and encourage the infant to play with her. This was repeated again later but with a robot instead of a truck. During this time, the children were observed for how many times they made contact with their mother during the different phases. The results showed that in general the Chinese infants made much more contact with their mothers during both periods (free play and with a stranger), they also took longer to approach the stranger in the first place. Inhibition was also significantly negatively correlated to punishment orientation and maternal rejection in the Chinese sample, while being positively correlated with encouragement of independence in the Chinese and with mother’s protection and concern as well as punishment orientation in the Canadian sample.
These correlations show how the development of a child is neither nature nor nurture but the combination of both working together. Infants with similar temperaments (shy, inhibited) in different cultures are treated very differently by their parents, e.g. the more inhibited an infant is the less likely it will be punished in China but the more likely it will be in Canada. These differing reactions to behaviors shape the psyche of the child and have large ramifications in development. Thus the concept of goodness of fit enters as a synergy of nature and nurture that takes into account the correlation between a child’s specific temperament to how it is raised.
“Children of the Garden Island” (1989), a study by Emmy E. Werner, also serves to redefine our understanding of the concepts of nature and nurture. In this study six-hundred and ninety-eight children on Kauai (Hawaii) were evaluated for health at birth, age 1, 2, 10, 18, and 30-32, in an attempt to pinpoint the qualities of high-risk children who grew up to be functional, healthy adults. Of these six-hundred and ninety-eight, however the study concentrates on the two-hundred and one who were “high-risk” due to a bevy of health issues. The goal of this study was to discover what the long-term consequences of some of these issues such as prenatal and perinatal stress were and the effects of rearing conditions on them and in general.
The results showed that as time went on, the impact of these “high-risk” issues decreased and that the main factor in the child’s health was the quality of their rearing environment. Children who were able to find help in their environment, both at school and at home, and who were able to find some sort of emotional support tended to have more success than the other “high-risk” children. These children were only able to succeed if they achieved an adequate goodness of fit that allowed for their risky biological situation to be compensated with an environment that allowed for healing and support; it forced them to adapt to a certain temperament, for if the children were emotionally secluded or had grown up in a society that is less open and emotionally supporting they would not have been able to develop as regularly and completely. Therefore we can see how neither nature nor nurture is dominant, yet how they dynamically interact with each other and must both be accounted for.
Campos’s (et. al.; 1992) investigation of the fear of heights in “Early Experience and Emotional Development: The Emergence of Wariness of Heights.” also serves as a landmark study in the debate over nature and nurture. This study was the combination of four experiments involving an invisible barrier stretching over a vertical drop. The first experiment involved letting both prelocomotor and locomotor infants explore the invisible barrier over the vertical drop while monitoring their heart rate. The second experiment allowed prelocomotor infants the ability to use a walker to gain locomotor experience before subjecting them to the invisible barrier. The third experiment took a baby that did not learn to crawl until eight and a half months old and tested its weariness of the drop. The final experiment tested the effects of age of onset of locomotion versus locomotor experience to decipher the underlying variable.
The results of all of these experiments pointed to the fact that weariness of heights only comes after locomotion in infants, or in other words that experience (of falling down) is needed to create this fear. This overturns the long-held idea that fear of heights is biologically based, contrarily this weariness of heights stems from a child’s earliest experiences with motion, something closely monitored by parents. Thus the line separating nature and nurture blurs once again, as another trait attributed to nature falls into the realm of nurture and their interplay again becomes evident. The child’s brain allows the child to explore with reckless abandon until it suffers from a mistake, whereupon it creates a response to prevent this from happening again, fear. So the child’s environment and biology are constantly communicating and the interplay between these factors is what spurs forth the development of the child.
The reconceptualization of nature versus nurture to nature and nurture has been one of the biggest movements in recent developmental psychology. Reworking our understanding of the interactions between the child and its environment and its biology have allowed for powerful new tools to arise in the realm of psychology. Concepts such as goodness of fit and gene-environment correlations, in which certain genealogical traits express themselves in different force at different times depending on the trait and the environment (such as a pretty girl getting more attention from her teacher and as a result doing better in school), have arisen out of this new framework. These new tools allow for a greater understanding of the variables involved in child development and can help to further our knowledge of the intricate ways in which nature and nurture work together. Through the movement characterized by these three studies we have managed to rework our concept of nature versus nurture to nature through nurture and consequentially have broadened our understanding of ourselves and our children.