Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour

While not denying the role of biology in explaining some aspects of human behaviour, sociology very much emphasises the role of society (nurture) rather than nature in explaining human action. The material below forms part of lesson one of an eight lesson introduction to Sociology. 


Nature explanations of behaviour

In Sociology, we are looking at human behaviour. Human behaviour is the term we use that refers to all of the things that people do. There are many ways of explaining why certain people do things in particular ways.

Some biologists and psychologists think that people behave as they do because they are animals who primarily act according to their instincts. This is known as the “nature theory” of human behaviour. Other scientists and psychologists are researching whether our behaviour is “genetic” i.e. certain types of behaviour are passed down from parent to child. Again, this is a nature theory of human behaviour because it supports the belief that our behaviour is pre-programmed to a large extent. For example, it has been debated whether there is a criminal gene which means some people are more likely to commit crime.

Nurture explanations of behaviour

Nurture arguments focus on the way people are brought up and how their environment moulds their personality and behaviour. Sociologists argue that some people are brought up to be kind and caring, and others are brought up to display very different forms of behaviour. An individual’s personality and identify are moulded and developed in response to their social environments and the people they meet. They are by taught others around them telling them what is right and wrong, including teachers, siblings and most importantly parents. This is why sociologists study the family and education (the two topics on the AS course) amongst other topics because it allows to investigate how these institutions effect human behaviour.

Why do sociologists believe nurture arguments are more accurate?

We have two different ways of explaining human behaviour. One uses nature to explain behaviour, the other uses nurture. The question is, which is the best explanation? If you explain human behaviour as being the same as animal behaviour, that means that humans would all behave in the same way. French cats behave in the same way as British cats. Do British people behave like French people? People in Britain do tend to behave in a similar way. They do similar things and wear certain types of clothing. Do all people all over the world behave in the same way? Sociologists tend to say ‘no’ and use three types of evidence to prove the point.

1) Historical Evidence against Nature theories

Nature arguments suggest human behaviour isn’t dissimilar to animal behaviour, which is based on automatic responses and pre-determined modes of behaviour or that our behaviour is pre-determined by our genes. However, human behaviour has changed significantly throughout history whilst animal behaviour has changed only slightly over a very long period of time. This suggests humans interact with their environments in a unique manner, both moulding and being moulded by it.

changing gender roles
Rapidly changing gender roles are one example against nature theories of behaviour


2) Anthropological Evidence against Nature theories

The second argument uses anthropological evidence. Anthropologists are people who study and compare societies from all over the world. If our behaviour was in our genes then people all around the world would behave in the same way. This is because other than the external physical difference between humans, the actual biological difference between people from different parts of the world is tiny. However, anthropologists show that people behave differently in different societies.

nature and nurture
Tribal societies with different norms and values are good evidence against nature theories of behaviour

So we can see that someone’s gender, ethnicity and class can strongly affect their life chances. Society, through institutions such as the family, media, education and the police effects different group’s behaviour. This is a fact, because we can very accurately make generalisations about the expected behaviour of these groups in society. Your behaviour isn’t as unique and individual as you think.

The Analaysis podcast below demonstrates the importance of nurture over nature explanations of human action…

I should be a psychopath, but I’m not?” 5:30 – 11:44 (2011)

  1. What was the pattern in the professor’s family history?
  1. What genetic pattern did the professor have?
  1. What factors does researcher suggest prevented him from becoming a killer, criminal etc?
  1. How do the researchers view of genetics vs surroundings explanations of behaviour change?

NOTE – the Nature Vs. Nurture debate is hotly debated topic. No side can claim to provide compelling evidence that entirely disputes the other i.e. neither side can completely disregard nature or nurture in explanation of human behaviour.

Related Posts 

All of the links below take you to introductory posts designed to provide a feel for what Sociology is, and what A Level Sociology looks like. 

What is Sociology?

AS and A Level Sociology – At a Glance

Core Themes in AS and A Level Sociology

Assessment Objectives in AS and A Level Sociology

Good resources for exploring AS and A Level Sociology further

3 thoughts on “Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour”

  1. ‘human behaviour has changed significantly throughout history whilst animal behaviour has changed only slightly over a very long period of time’

    Animals behaviour change to adapt to new environment to survive and those who could not are extinct, now thing that the world is constantly changing in a bad way for humans and the they(we) are constantly changing our behaviour to adapt, it is a much logical theory

    For example take the picture ‘evolution if dad’, it shows evolution of human species. From another point of view in can be said while evolving humans started to take better care of their children because their life expectancy was low in the past and with the new technological and medicinal advance the problem has been solved but that the behaviour remained, it also shows how humans became chained while believing that the are working out of their own will.

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