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Nature v. Nurture: Can Evolutionary Psychology hold the Key to Unlock the Debate?

Updated on May 5, 2015
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Professional and Adj. Professor in I/O Psychology & Technology. Passion in Research of Data Applications and Human Technology Integration.

Uncovering the Mystery of Psychology

A Personal Theory to Uncover one of Life's Big Mysteries

Throughout history of man, evolution has continued to influence the traits of all species on the planet. These evolved traits are not just physiological adaptations, but psychological characteristics that assist in surviving and continuing a species place on the Earth. However, Darwin noted an interesting observation during the development of the theory of evolution, indicating that the passage of specific traits is based on the environment, but when other species traits are evolved, it inherently changes the environment (Ryckman, 2013). This is the paradox of the development of personality. Since general survival traits exist among humans, the environment has influenced these traits, but the change in traits also influences the environment. It is the notion of this theory that general psychological traits have been passed to all humans as a population, but it is the environment the truly influences the development of an individual’s personality.

Traits and Environment: Not Mutually Exclusive

Ultimately, it is the core of this argument that the evolutionary perspective of the development of personality psychology appears to be dismissed as formidable theory within its own framework. It is possible to justify that either genetic factors or environmental factors are determinants of personality, based on the supportive research for both approaches. Since the debate exists and both could be argued to the same degree of validity, the strict evolutionary approach could resolve the dilemma, as indicated by Darwin’s statement of how traits and environment influence each other.

The perspective that genetic traits and environment are actually the same, could now be plausible in the field of evolutionary psychology, personality psychology and beyond. Meaning, genetic trait modifications passed in one species would change the environment of other species, requiring an evolutionary change in the traits of unchanged species. Therefore, specie’s genetic trait modification is another specie’s environment and vice versa. By drilling down to human psychology, evolutionary traits in tribes or cultures could therefore be viewed as an environment change for other tribes and cultures. This would uphold both trait and environmental factors, not as a combination, but treated as the same mechanism.

Genetic Trait Evolution

Genetic Trait Evolution
Genetic Trait Evolution | Source

Emergence of Trait Theory

Ultimately, the basis of the argument of personality development can be viewed as a nature versus nurture debate. In relation to trait theory, arguments have arisen since World War I, indicating individuals’ possess general traits, but the dominantly inherited traits are not easily modifiable (Dambe & Moorad, 2008). Evidence of this occurred during the rise of the great man theory and trait theory in leadership. As the great man suggests, those individuals deemed as leaders, posses’ specific dominant traits opposed the individuals labeled followers. Trait theory emerged around the same time frame and based on the same argument as the great man theory, yet according to Dambe & Moorad (2008) trait theory was deemed much more valid based in the accuracy of the data collection and statistical processes applied to understand how traits influence leadership. Thus, many researchers holding the view of the validity of trait theory distinguished the traits of leaders as inherent and that followers could not become leaders, as the inherent traits are not modifiable through training.

Allport was an influential figure of trait theory and distinguished trait theory from other theories, including the great man theory by simply noting that inherited traits should be looked at on an individual basis and that the development of personality is rooted in the inherent traits that are shaped by interactions with the environment (Ryckman, 2013). Although Allport notes the influence of environment to one’s personality, it is the combination of the level of traits such as physiological, intelligence and others along with the learning process through interacting with the environment. Ryckman (2013) notes that many scholars perceive Allport’s view as vague, yet it is Allport’s notion that the proprium is the encompassment of various traits to the self and these traits are central in understanding behavior. Even though the notion of vagueness surrounds Allport’s trait theory, it is really the inherent theme to the theory, as every individual is prepackaged with hereditary traits from birth and from these traits, the individual perceives and learns from environmental interaction based on the ability of such traits. It is the vagueness of this theory that offers a theoretical framework that allows us to identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, focusing on the inherent trait growth prior to psychoanalytic analysis as postulated by Freud.

Recent studies have upheld Allport’s trait theory, including a study conducted by Allemand et al. (2013). This study found that dominant traits in adults, leads to trait stability. In other words, trait stability is the defining trait or traits that determine an adults primary behavior through life. After analyzing data from individuals in adulthood, Allemand et al. (2013) found that the inherently dominant traits are predictors of behavioral changes during and after significant events such as marriage. However, some of the behavioral changes were not long lasting and the adult may revert back to previous behavior or continue the changed behavior with holding a stability of the dominant inherent trait. Again, this is a vague study, but the validity of such studies are based on objective, psychometrically sound assessments, which are now used widely for many reasons such as understanding a candidate’s fit for applying to a specific job role. Ryckman (2013) does indicate positive implications of Allport’s trait theory and self-development, as clinicians and scholars agree that Allport has assisted in the accounting of the uniqueness of individuals, while assisting clinicians in treating patients.

Allport and Cattell

Allport and Cattell
Allport and Cattell

The Environmental Approach

In contrast to Allport, is a more environmentally based approach to personality development by Cattell. Cattell does not dismiss the hereditary role of traits in personality, but notes that these traits lose dominance as an individual ages and the environmental is more influential through the aging process (Ryckman, 2013). Skinner’s box is utilized as an example to uphold Cattell’s theory, as the rats in Skinner’s box are rewarded for pushing a lever and learn that pushing the lever results in a pellet, acting as reward. This type of reward learning is coined as instrumental learning. An interesting note by Ryckman (2013), is that Cattell held a belief of reaching scientifically based evolutionary requirements. However, much of the basis of this theory, known as beyondism, was held with extremist viewpoints of racial separation, opposition to immigration, race inferiority and the sterilization of individuals deemed as defective. Even though Cattell called for a scientific approach to all facets of life, beyondism is primarily a belief and value system held by Cattell himself and criticized on obvious levels.

A Conclusion with Darwin

After a review of Allport and Cattell, it is still unclear inherent traits are biologically influencing an individual’s life, or that the environment is the primary influence. Arguments and research uphold both the nature and nurture arguments. Therefore, by maintaining the position that inherent traits are not mutually exclusive from the environment, it is still feasible the concept of differentiation of the two is an underlying paradox. Darwin’s observation that changes in traits, change the environment, requiring other species to develop or change traits, may be the most basic and powerful notion of treating both trait theory and environmental theory as the same element. To this point, trait theory, environmental theory or a combination of the two may be better served as treated as a single element. Future research that is able to attempt such an aggregate approach may hold extremely valuable information to the insight of personality development, leading to more effective and efficient approaches for clinicians to assist patients in the future.


Allemand, M., Steiger, A. E., & Hill, P. L. (2013). Stability of personality traits in adulthood: Mechanisms and implications. Geropsych: The Journal Of Gerontopsychology And Geriatric Psychiatry, 26(1), 5-13. doi:10.1024/1662-9647/a000080.

Burke, D., Kaighobadi, F., & Barrett, L. (2014). Why isn't everyone an evolutionary psychologist?. Frontiers In Psychology, 51-8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00910. Retrieved from

Dambe, M., & Moorad, F. (2008). From power to empowerment: A paradigm shift in leadership. South African Journal Of Higher Education, 22(3), 575-587.

Ryckman, R. M. (2013). Theories of personality (10th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Richard Dawkins on Evolutionary Psychology

Trait or Environment

Which do you believe that human psychology such as personality is best explained?

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