Biases: Nature or Nurture?
“Nature vs Nurture” is an age-old debate, especially when it comes to the subject of human bias. Are we born prejudiced, or do we develop prejudices over time based on the environments we are exposed to? Truth be told:
Psychology Professor Laura Lauksta phrases it well: “[The question is not] is it nature or is it nurture that contributes to development… the question is how do they contribute? How can we understand how nature and nurture work together to drive development forward?”
To recognize how nature and nurture can simultaneously influence human bias, it helps to first understand them separately.
Let’s start with “nature,” otherwise known as our genetics. Numerous studies have confirmed that humans are genetically predisposed to certain traits, and while most of us think of those traits to be mostly physical, that is not always the case. Yes, genetic factors can make us more likely to be tall or more likely to inherit certain illnesses, but they can also influence our political attitudes, how much TV we watch, and even likelihood of divorce. Everything is steeped in genetics. While political stances have been cited in the past as almost solely coming from a person’s parents, research suggests that “the shared family environment has little to no lasting effect on personality and intelligence.” Now, that statement is a hefty assertion, but nonetheless our genetics play a greater role in many of our decisions than most of us are aware of.
That said, genetic predisposition does not equate to inevitability. So let’s discuss “nurture,” otherwise known as our environment(s). While infants comprehend more than most of us think they can within a few months to a year, research suggests that different social biases emerge at different points in a child’s life. The linked study found that racial bias, for example, “emerge[s] between 2.5 and 5 years of age and do[es] not affect social preferences in infancy.” Language bias (preferring people who speak the same language/share the same accent) develops earliest within a year, followed by gender bias (preferring same-gender friends) around 3 years of age. In other words, these prejudices are, to some extent, learned. They are “nurtured” from specific social environments as well as social hierarchies and are not solely attributable to genetic predisposition.
So how are nature and nurture connected? One way to approach their duality is that “nurture” can serve to either enhance or suppress “nature.” For example, “Two recent studies have identified single genes that are respectively associated with violence and depression, but have also shown that their effects are manifested only with particular histories of stressful experience.” Although a person may have genetic predisposition to particular mental illnesses, their environment may make that mental illness easier or more difficult to deal with. A simpler example is that a person may be born tall. In theory, that gives them a “natural” advantage in basketball. But that person can only become a good basketball player if they “nurture” their abilities. As such, nature and nurture are deeply intertwined in cultivating human biases, talents, and much more to the point where it is near-impossible to examine one without analyzing the role of the other.
Of course, what do we do with this information? Humans are genetically and environmentally predisposed to certain traits, both good and bad, so how do we address the negatives? Ultimately, it comes down to choice.
It helps to think of nature and nurture as filters that influence our biases. A cisgender, asexual Black woman experiences different “filters” than a transgender, bisexual Asian man, and thus they cultivate different perspectives. Once we are more aware of our negative biases, we can choose to work against them and to do better.
One study about racial and gender preferences conducted on 3-month-old white infants revealed that exposure to different races can go a long way in shaping and changing bias, as demonstrated by this excerpt:
“[A]fter being shown videos of a white man and a Black man addressing them in a positive manner, babies still preferred the own-race face at test, but interestingly, attention to the Black face reliably increased in comparison to a no-exposure baseline group.”
In other words, active exposure to diverse environments can help combat biases. For infants and young kids, that means parents choosing to encourage their children to play with kids of different races and genders. As we get older, fighting bias becomes a task we take upon ourselves. We must choose to immerse ourselves in diversity, not for the sake of appearances, but to learn. “Nature” and “nurture” only control our biases when we ourselves choose not to address them. Psychologist Steven Pinker summarizes it well:
“Political equality, for example, does not hinge on a dogma that people are innately indistinguishable, but on a commitment to treat them as individuals in spheres such as education and the criminal justice system. Social progress does not require that the mind be free of ignoble motives, only that it have other motives (such as the emotion of empathy and cognitive faculties that can learn from history) that can counteract them.”
So let’s take some time today to examine our unconscious biases. From there, we can begin our journeys of rejecting the doctrine that nature and nurture alone control who we are. We can choose to be better.
Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.