Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Team Nature or Team Nurture? Disillusionment with the Great Debate

Many of you have no doubt experienced times where you’ve reevaluated educational or career decisions and reconsidered what you hoped to have gained through your devotion to a particular field in hindsight. For me, this time came – a principle reason why I’ve slowed down on the blogging and why this post will be a bit different. Having spent time thinking about my own decisions and what I’d hoped to gain by acquiring a professional degree and training in psychology, I’ll address the problems with the “specialist” model of work, team vs. team mentality, and professional culture-fit in this field. Hence, what I have to share may especially be of value to those who’re considering the field of psychology. I hope that aspiring professionals can help change the troubling trends I’ll describe.

It often surprises people that there is a rather clean divide between those who specialize in a branch of psychology that is devoted to biological underpinnings of behavior and those who specialize in a branch of psychology that is devoted to social and environmental forces shaping behavior. This divide is, of course, even perpetuated among those who choose “applied” work. To me, this was unexpected as I value intellectual freedom and always had an interest in both nature and nurture. I generally expected those with an interest in psychology to do so as well. Due to the area of psychology I’d chosen though, I found myself traveling along in life amid a network of peers and colleagues who’re in “team nurture” (i.e., those who believe that environmental and social influences exert a greater influence over people’s development than biology).

When I spent enough time exploring environmental and social influences on behavior and personality, I naturally wanted to peek over the other side of the fence and explore the contributions of genetics, hormones, etc. This is when I discovered how limiting it is to live in a system that splits everyone into specialized one-sided teams. A number of my peers reacted uncomfortably once I began bringing biology into our discussions. Some even make disapproving noises when work of the “opposing team” was brought up. Yes, social determinism (as explained here) exists in some professional circles.

In this kind of environment it’s harder to critique your peers, and I often want to point out, for example, when members of “team nurture” don’t sufficiently account for different outcomes of socialization (e.g., Why does one girl conform to gender norms while the other doesn’t? Could there be something inherently different governing their different responses to social rewards/punishment?). Likewise, in explaining gender differences, there has been a lack of understanding or denial of how, as researchers Alice H. Eagley and Wendy Wood (2013) put it, “even small differences can be important. The cumulative impact of small effects that occur repeatedly over occasions and situations can be considerable and is often masked by single-shot studies that capture only a small slice of behavior (e.g., Abelson, 1985)” (p.4).

You might be asking why the nature-nurture debate is a big deal and why people in either camp get into heated debates about which is stronger, after all it is tough, if not impossible, to quantify the contributions of each as 80:20, 50:50, or 25:75 (and this is further complicated given what the field of epigenetics has to say about environmental influences on genes). It is because this question is intertwined with political ideology and has implications for the efficacy and legitimacy of social policy. For a comprehensive understanding of the historical context behind the “team vs. team” mentality with respect to understanding of gender, read The Nature–Nurture Debates: 25 Years of Challenges in Understanding the Psychology of Gender by Eagly and Wood. I’ll share some of the key points below (in case it’ll pique your curiosity enough to read it!):

  1. …typically, researchers focus on one type of potential causal mechanism without outlining a clear role for the other type. Thus, theories of genetic and hormonal influences often do not consider the social context in which these processes function, whereas social construction theories often do not recognize the biology that is being construed. (pp 9-10)

  2. Without a more integrative stance, psychology provides little clear basis for public reasoning about gender issues… The diversity of psychology’s theories and findings allows lay people to select freely from them on the basis of their own ideology. (p 12)

  3. As seen in research on biases in judgment and decision making, scientists are clever about setting up tests and conducting analyses to favor their own theories and are highly critical of findings that challenge their ideas (Mahoney, 1977; Wagenmakers, Wetzels, Borsboom, van der Maas, & Kievit, 2012). (p 12)

The weakness of the “specialist” approach (and this occurs in many fields, not just psychology) is that it silos like-minded professionals together, creating optimum conditions for ingroup biases to go unchecked. By moving towards a more integrated approach, we can address more interesting questions.

What if these views aren’t mutually exclusive? That is, what if we actually live in a world where the contributions of nature and nurture might vary across individuals (i.e., It may be 40:60 for one person but 60:40 for another)? In other words, what if some individuals are more susceptible to being shaped by socialization than others?

What I’m proposing, has already been suggested by the Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis (as explained here) and backed by discoveries about genes, such as DRD4 (as explained here), that modulate sensitivity to the environment. The rationale behind the Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis is as follows:

Because the future is and always has been inherently uncertain, ancestral parents, just like parents today, could not have known (consciously or unconsciously) what childrearing practices would prove most successful in promoting the reproductive fitness of offspring—and thus their own inclusive fitness. As a result, and as a fitness optimizing strategy involving bet hedging,[6] natural selection would have shaped parents to bear children varying in plasticity.[7] This way, if an effect of parenting had proven counterproductive in fitnessterms, those children not affected by parenting would not have incurred the cost of developing in ways that ultimately proved “misguided”. Importantly, in light of inclusive-fitness considerations, these less malleable children’s “resistance” to parental influence would not only have benefited themselves directly, but even their more malleable sibs—indirectly, given that sibs, like parents and children, have 50% of their genes in common. By the same token, had parenting influenced children in ways that enhanced fitness, then not only would more plastic offspring have benefited directly by following parental leads, but so, too, would their parents and even their less malleable sibs who did not benefit from the parenting they received, again for inclusive-fitness reasons.
This line of evolutionary argument leads to the prediction that children should vary in their susceptibility to parental rearing and perhaps to environmental influences more generally…


It’s just a shame that innovative ways of reconciling the nature-nurture contributions don’t receive as much attention as the back-and-forth,  black-and-white dialogue which asserts that one side has more influence than another for everyone in a uniform way. Change will be fraught with great difficulty as Nicholas Wade notes, “Synthesizers are rare animals in the academic zoo because they risk being savaged by those whose territory they invade.” However, I think we need to move in the direction of a more integrative approach in order for the field of psychology to hold more value to society.





6 responses to “Team Nature or Team Nurture? Disillusionment with the Great Debate

  1. Mike April 7, 2014 at 12:11 am

    I’m glad you’re back writing these terrific articles!

    • Lynn Patra April 7, 2014 at 12:26 am

      Yes I’m back MIke! Thank you! Incidentally, (as reported by the article I posted) people and academics tend to be more biased in favor of nurture-is-dominant type of thinking, and this is where support for social engineering comes from. I’m finding it necessary to do some soul-searching with regard to my own satisfaction with where I am now and how to put myself in a more comfortable zone in terms of work. It’s difficult (and probably also unproductive) to be the sole nay-sayer amid a swath of professionals who refuse to consider the legitimacy of the other side just because it doesn’t “feel good.” The truth isn’t always pleasant of course, however when it comes to giving the “nature” (the biology) side some consideration… I find that making such discoveries and accepting people for who they are, realizing when it can’t be helped, also fosters compassion.

      • Mike April 7, 2014 at 12:34 am

        After reading about the tolerance exhibited at Mozilla, and I imagine lots of other work places, one wonders about these organizations that lack a genuine appreciation for diversity of thought.

        • Lynn Patra April 7, 2014 at 12:48 am

          Oh geez, I just looked up what happened over at Mozilla. Someone once said, “We should be outraged by the outrage” when the outrage is directed against someone who is expressing or holding an unpopular thought. I totally agree with this. It’s dangerous for intellectual freedom and progress to be shutting individuals down (and this has happened a lot in academia) for saying something just because it doesn’t sit well with you, you know?

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