What shapes our personality?

Is it the result of nature – what we are born with – or nature – what we experience? We search for the answer.

Por Jeff Figueroa

It is definitely nature.

  1. Two and a half thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks believed that your personality was the result of different fluids, or «humor», in your body, like blood, phlegm, and bile. According to Hippocrates, the «father of modern medicine», black bile caused depression and irritability, while blood made you brave and hopeful. These ideas spread all over the world, and in the 18th century, people with mental illnesses were sometimes treated with leeches in order to restore the balance of their humor. It was only in the 19th century that scientists began to doubt the theory of humor, although patients may have noticed much earlier that they weren´t getting any better!
  2.  By the late 19th century, personality had been correctly linked to the brain. This was a big advance, but some people took it too far and phrenologists believed that the brain affected the shape of the head, and so by feeling someone´s head, they could discover the shape of their brain and therefore their personality – including, for example, how likely someone was to commit murder. At the height of its popularity, phrenologists were consulted about possible marriage partners or to give a background check on job applicants. Job interviews must have been interesting in those days!
  3. More recently, scientists have looked to our genes as the source of personality. While there is certainly a link, it is far from simple. For a start, a single gene might be involved in many different aspects of our personality – and we have around 25,000 genes in our body. And when even a simple thing like the color of your skin is the result of more than 100 different genes, imagine how many are involved in a character trait like being open, extrovert, agreeable, conscientious, or neurotic.

According to Hippocrates, the «father of modern medicine», black bile caused depression and irritability, while blood made you brave and hopeful. These ideas spread all over the world, and in the 18th century, people with mental illnesses were sometimes treated with leeches in order to restore the balance of their humor.

«The consensus these days is that our personalities result from a complicated interaction between nature and nurture.»

It is definitely nurture

4. If it is hard to find the roots of personality in nature, then can we find them in nurture? The nurture theory says that we are all born as «blank slates».

Our personality develops as the result of our parents, our peers, our environment, and so on. As the famous psychologist BF Skinner once said, «give me a child and I will shape him into anything».

5. Nurture theory has even been enforced by law. In Ancient China, if a young man committed a serious crime and was sentenced to death, then his parents might be executed, too – because they were responsible for the character of their son. Even in modern Britain, if a child plays truant from school, her parents can be prosecuted.

6. However, there is more to nurture than parents, there is environment, too. One shocking example of how easily environment can affect personality comes from the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison experiments. These experiments took 24 normal, healthy men and asked them to play the role of prisoners or guards in a pretend prison. The experiment had to be ended after just six days because the guards became very cruel, locking one prisoner in a cupboard and forcing the others to bang on the cupboard door.

In a new environment, it seems that «normal» people can completely change their behaviour.

7. Some studies of twins, however, challenge the importance of nurture. According to nurture theory, identical twins should only have similar personalities if they grow up together, but different personalities if they grow up apart, due to different upbringing and experiences. However, studies show the same striking similarities in personality, whether these twins are brought up separately or together. 

So do we have an answer?

Well, sort of. The consensus these days is that our personalities result from a complicated interaction between nature and nurture. Perhaps one day we will understand the exact recipe for personality but then again, we may never understand ourselves fully!

 

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