The Nature/Nurture Continuum

The debate about how we become who we are used to be framed in either/or terms: nature versus nurture. To take the side of nature was to argue that our personalities and behaviors are entirely the result of our genetic inheritance, already fixed in place when we’re born. To take the side of nurture was to argue that nothing of our personalities and behaviors is present at birth; we are totally at the effect of our environment, our relationships, and the myriad of influences we experience growing up.

Both extremes always seemed fairly hopeless to me, each in a different way. Fortunately, there are no longer many people arguing exclusively for either side. It’s pretty commonly accepted that who we are is a result of both nature and nurture.

They’re the opposite ends of a continuum, sort of like the male and female brain I wrote about in my previous post. I don’t know that a formula exists to say this percentage of me (or you) is a result of nature and this percentage is a result of nurture. We all come into the world with some attributes, characteristics, and preferences in place. Depending on what they are and how strong they are, they may even override some aspects of nurture. On the other hand, for someone who’s forced to deal with extremely difficult circumstances (physical, mental, or emotional) as they’re growing up, nurture could have a more powerful effect than it might on someone raised under more favorable conditions. 

The first book I read about the Myers Briggs Type Inventory was Type Talk by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen. They say that people are born with a predisposition toward a preference for, say, either Introversion or Extraversion. They then add:

You still must translate that preference within the context of your particular situation in life. Birth order, the behavior of other family members, and other environmental factors are all part of the life forces affecting that context. For example, if you are an Extravert in a family of Introverts, you may be different from how you would be if you grew up in a family of other Extraverts—where “survival of the loudest” was the rule. You’d be an Extravert in either case, but a different one.

That makes a lot of sense to me. In terms of the Enneagram, it seems logical that we are born with a predisposition to take one of the three stances (Aggressive, Withholding, or Compliant), which represent our response to threat or perceived threat (fight, flee, or submit). In Born That Way, author William Wright describes some of the results of the Minnesota Twin Study published in 1986. He uses three interesting examples to indicate behavioral traits that showed high genetic heritability:

A trait that showed one of the highest levels of heritability, .60, was traditionalism, or a willingness to yield to authority. The only one of these traits to show a higher heritability was social potency, which included such characteristics as assertiveness, drive for leadership, and a taste for attention. A surprisingly high genetic component—a .55 concordance—was found in the ability to be enthralled by an esthetic experience such as listening to a symphonic concert.

Well, that jumped right off the page at me: Compliant stance, Aggressive stance, Withdrawing stance. That’s the nature part of this non-equation. Nurture then plays a role in determining which Aggressive, Withholding, or Compliant type we develop into. Some environments might amp up the pressure on the defensive attitudes of certain types, while other environments might provide a calming or leavening influence. Theoretically:

  • Aggressive types might find less to move against in a laissez-faire environment, so they might turn out to be a little more laid back than Aggressive types reared in a more challenging or contentious environment.
  • Compliant types want to be accepted and know where they stand, so they might engage in less people-pleasing behavior if they grew up feeling secure than Compliant types raised in a contentious, withholding, or unpredictable environment.
  • Withdrawing types might be less inclined to move away from others if they grew up feeling they had enough time and space to be themselves, unlike Withdrawing types who felt pressured to comply with other people’s expectations.

I’m trying to give nurture a fair deal here, but my sense is that our environment and early circumstances contribute less to who we are than we like to believe. One of the greatest gifts the Enneagram has to offer is that it eliminates much of the need to figure out why we are the way we are. When you read a detailed type description that just nails aspects of yourself that you thought were unique to you, it takes the pressure off. You don’t have to spend so much time trying to understand what happened so you can fix yourself. You realize that everyone who has the same reactions and attitudes you do (as detailed in the description of your type) can’t possibly have had your identical experiences—experiences you may have believed caused you to be the way you are.

As the title of William Wright’s book says, to a pretty large extent we’re just born that way. How does that make you feel?


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