What Defines Personality? Nature, Nurture, or Choice?

a child playing with sand

I doubt the existence of any living creature is so intricately complex and interesting like that of humans. We are similar in many ways, yet so different. If two people walk past you, you’ll quickly notice some variation in their appearance, from their height and skin tone to their choice of clothing. We probably can’t exhaust all the things that distinguishes us from the next person, but there is one that’s arguably the most interesting - personality.

What Does “Personality” Mean?

Personality describes how a person behaves, interacts and responds to internal and external stimuli. It covers your thoughts, feelings, moods and actions which are usually expressed during social relations.

Do you enjoy being by yourself? Are you keen to confrontations or you'd rather walk away? Are you argumentative or tend to be agreeable or can be either depending on the situation? Well, all your behavioural dispositions make up your personality.

Your personality sprinkes an extra zing to your existence giving those who encounter you a form of uniqueness they’ll probably never experience in the exact same form with someone else. Expressing your personality can be a form of reinforcement in people’s minds of character traits they love to see and those they absolutely abhor (I’m not saying you’re toxic or anything like that, but are you?).

Researchers, psychologists and social scientists continue to perform studies seeking to understand why human behaviour vary, even when they live in the same home, community or environment.

Have you ever wondered why your sibling doesn’t seem to understand your love for staying indoors? Well, they’ll probably never get it if they’re highly extroverted, requiring a daily dose of the outside world and new adventures to feel their best.

Studies on Personality and Temperament

A little back track, shall we? Ancient greek philosophers believed that a person’s personality was due to the strengths of certain body fluids or humus. Blood in excess was thought to be responsible for a saguine temperament, black bile for melancholic, yellow bile for choleric and phlegm was believed to result in a phlegmatic temperament. The book “Why You Act the Way You Do” by Tim Lahaye sheds more light on these four temperaments.

Modern psychologists believe human personality can be split into five core traits known as “The Big 5”. These five personality traits are agreeableness, extraversion, opennes, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

We also have the Myers Briggs classification that splits personalities into 16 types. It groups people based on four spectrums, extroversion (E) and introversion (I), sensing (S) and intuition (I), thinking (T) and feeling (F), judging (J) and perceiving (P). Ever heard personality types like INFJ and ENFJ? Well, there are 16 of those all coined from the four spectrums, each with distinct characteristics.

When you study each of these personality groups and traits, you may find that you identify more with one that others. There are also dozens of test available online that tell you if you score high or low on certain personality traits. People usually don’t exclusively fit into one category even though they may predominantly express a primary trait.

Here’s the big question. What determines your personality?

Nature vs Nurture (Nativists vs Empiricists)

Nature

Each person is born with a peculiar combination of genes responsible for their distinct physical appearance. This observation has triggered the belief that genes may also influence behavioural and personality differences.

Have you observed babies and toddlers within the ages of 1 to 3? Although they're unable to properly communicate with adults, they display a uniquess with their behaviour. You can find super friendly babies or toddlers who will allow anyone hug and pet them. Some will cry for their dear life if you don't bear any semblance to Mum and Dad.

You’ll also be intrigued to find toddlers who seem organised and act too mature for their age. These facts fuel the argument that humans are born with their unique personalities just like their physical characteristics. Nativists hold the opinion that genes are solely responsible for the differences in human personality. Early psychologists like Freud and Chomsky were nativists and their works reflected their convictions.

Nurture

Nurture refers to the environmental interactions and factors including relationships, parenting culture, education and religion that shape us from childhood that contributes to someone’s life experience.

Empiricists are on this end of the argument. They believe every behaviour is learned. That doesn’t exactly sound like a ludicrous thing to believe, right? We did have to learn or practice a behaviour before we confidently claimed it as something that’s a part of us.

Early philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacque Rousseeau believed that we’re born as a blank slate. Many psychologists in the twentieth centure also ran with the a similar view. They believe that the events surrounding a child’s upbringing is a bigger determinant of their personality than the makeup of their genes.

Who is the winner?

It's hard to decide which is more important as they're both like yin and yang. They compliment and complete each other. Nature isn't complete without nurture and there won’t be anything to nurture without nature.

Nurture influences the expressions of our natural tendencies. Some of our natural behaviour may be over expressed or supressed due to our upbringing. The environment we find ourselves influences how we view the world and in turn, how we respond to the external variables. For instance, an extroverted or curious child that grows up learning they shouldn’t ask too many questions may have their inquisitiveness stifled due to repetitive and harsh shunning.

Similarly, a child who was born with genes for tallness may lack access to proper diet and suffer malnourishment. Such conditions hinder the child’s growth, causing them to appear short and sickly.

Contemporary psychologists believe a human’s personality is a product of the interaction between nature and nurture.

Personal Choice

We don't have much influence over nature, neither can we change how we were nurtured. However, it’s our responsibility to be self-aware and analyse our behaviour, including our negative and positive tendencies. For instance, the curious child who always got shut down whenever they asked questions can intentionally explore their curiousity and learn to initiate productive conversations.

Our genetics are a fixed detail we can’t edit. Environmental experiences and factors that shape our behaviours to some extent are also flawed in a lot of ways and could encourage the development of unhealthy traits or coping mechanisms. In the same vein, we make decisions that influence our behaviour, passively or actively. What kind of person do you wish to become? What are your dreams, goals and aspirations? What kind of person does that require you to be?

You may have grown up as a shy person believing that it’s against your nature to start conversations with people. As you get older, you may develop an interest in sales and marketing as a career. The sales and marketing industry requires you reach out to people, persuade them and nurture relationships. You can either make the excuse of being an extreme introvert with social anxiety or practice the necessary skills to excel in the career that you’ve chosen.

It’s still safe to say that nature and nurture plays a huge role in our personalities, but we should never underplay the effect of being intentional about how we want to portray ourselves to the world. And, more importantly, the power of deciding and working towards who we wish to become.

Final Thoughts

Your personality is a sum total of your nature, nurture and personal decisions. You're unique because no one else has the exact same features, experience and abilities as you. Being self-aware about the facets of your personality will help you learn, improve and evolve to become the best version of yourself possible.

What do you think influences your personality the most. Nature? Nurture? Or Personal Choice?