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Nature Vs Nurture And Its Impact On Socioemotional Development

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The argument of nature vs nurture is one that has been long debated and will continue to be a topic of discussion for years to come. This paper will be focusing on socioemotional development and those who have influenced both sides of the argument. John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory will start off the case for nature looking at the biological need for connection and how that influences the crucial development of attachment. Sliding down the scale we will also cover Harry Harlow’s Attachment Theory and Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual Stage Theory which both at times straddle the fence of nature and nurture and how both may work together rather than against. Finally, we will end with Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stage Theory representing the position of nurture where our environment and interactions with those closest to us shape and develop who we become. To further support each argument, we will also be looking at several case studies documenting the importance of nature’s impact on the development of identical twins who despite being raised separately, shared many similarities and characteristics in adulthood. Then examining the story of Beth Thomas, the “child of rage”, who was a prime example of how nurture failed her as a child turning her into a dark and disturbing product of her environment.

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Emotions are a part of our DNA; the very makeup of who we are. They flow through our veins and without being taught we naturally express them. They say everything about how we are feeling without uttering a word. In infancy babies cry, smile and laugh.

Some experts on infant socioemotional development, such as Jerome Kagan, concluded that the structural immaturity of the infant brain makes it unlikely that emotions which require thought-such as guilt, pride, despair, shame, empathy, and jealousy- can be experienced during the first year (Santrock, 2017, page 174).

Clearly the foundation of our emotional being is biological and reactive requiring no conscious decision. However, as we grow and further develop, our interactions with and reactions from others play a vital role in our emotional development. Our social relationships and cultural experiences shape us like a rock in a riverbed constantly being molded and reshaped by the rushing water. Certain emotions can only be evoked from the responses we are given from those around us. How would we ever learn jealousy, pride or guilt if there were not a social status quo surrounding us? Our parents are our earliest interaction and have a profound effect on our later lives. They teach us how to respond to situations by their own responses as well as their reactions to how we react. We learn what is “appropriate” or not and carry that into our friendships and working relationships where we further engage in emotional exchange.

The expression “like second nature” implies something comes easily to you; so easily that it is instinctual. The idea that emotions are a biological phenomenon is a widely adopted position by many in the scientific community. John Bowlby developed a theory of attachment centered on the principle “that children come into the world biologically preprogrammed to form attachments with others” (McLeod, 2009, paragraph 2) based on the need for survival. He suggested that all emotion given by an infant is with the intent of gaining the attention and care from their mother. Every cry, coo and movement is a look-at-me moment designed to promote the connection. The bond created becomes the basis for which all other relationships are modeled after and what Bowlby referred to as the internal working model. Bowlby divided this process into four stages that span from birth to 24 months and on. If there is a failure in creation of that bond, Bowlby stated that the consequences could be severe including possible depression, delinquency, increased aggression and even psychopathy (McLeod, 2009).

Harry Harlow had a similar understanding of nature’s hand in socioemotional development when he conducted an experiment involving baby monkeys who had been separated from their biological mothers and replaced by two options: 1. A mesh wire providing only food or 2. A softer cloth version that offered warmth and comfort. His findings were that regardless of feeding capabilities, the majority of the time was spent with the cuddly “mom”. Harlow further pushed his theory by startling and scaring the young monkeys testing them to see if any attachment was made outside of fulfilling hunger needs. Still his results backed up his original results further demonstrating that the cloth mother was strongly preferred for comfort and security (Harlow, 1959). Bowlby used Harlow’s study to support his claims because obviously the biological need for food and for survival was outweighed by the inherent need for warmth and a physical connection. What this experiment also shows us is that even when the infant monkey’s basic needs were being met, that a more well-adjusted monkey was the result of having access to the comforting feel of the cloth towel mommy. From that we can begin to see how nurture may have an important part in socioemotional development. The environment that was provided to the monkey had the greatest effect on the outcome of overall adjustment.

As Harlow dabbles in both the nature and nurture pools, we also see the work of Sigmund Freud and his Psychosexual Stage Theory. Freud believed that every choice we make in life centers around our early life experiences; some from so early on that we may not even remember having experienced them. He narrowed the most influential points down to a total of five stages starting with oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital (Santrock, 2017). Freud did state that much of our actions are the result of unconscious thought which would suggest more of a nature stance since unconscious action is not deliberate or purposeful but a biological, chemical reaction. However, he places the bulk of his theory on the way that we resolve each conflicting stage which then would be based on nurture exhibited by our environment and actions in response to each phase.

Freud laid the groundwork for many others to pick up where he left off and elaborate on his original ideas. Erik Erikson is one who took a less sexual tone than Sigmund Freud and created the Theory of Psychosocial Stages of Development. Erikson also agreed that life was built up of several stages that snowballed one on top of the other. Successful completion of each phase would allow for healthy growth and development while a negative experience or failure to navigate through a phase would set the individual up for complications in each successive stage leading to deviations from the desired model of a “normal”, well-adjusted person (McLeod, 2013). Erikson also believed that we go through a total of eight stages as opposed to Freud’s five because in Erikson’s mind, development and evolution of ourselves is continuous and happens both in early childhood and late adulthood. Each phase is based on interaction and experience. We learn to either trust or mistrust depending on how our primary caregivers responded to us in infancy. We learn to become independent or to remain quite and follow the lead of others. We learn to be giving of ourselves and comfortable sharing with others or we instead have difficulty forming relationships and fear inadequacy. “Based on Erikson’s ideas, psychology has reconceptualized the way the later periods of life are viewed. Middle and late adulthood are no longer viewed as irrelevant, because of Erikson, they are now considered active and significant times of personal growth” (McLeod, 2013, paragraph 65). Erikson was a definite supporter of nurture in his proposal of socioemotional development through our lifelong experiences and environmental factors.

Twin Studies

The significance of nature in socioemotional development can be best seen through identical twins. They share the exact same genetic makeup making them ideal for seeing the inescapable influence that nature has on this subject. In the Minnesota Twin Family Study, 81 sets of identical twins were observed for over a 20-year time span. “A 1986 study that was part of the larger Minnesota study found that genetics plays a larger role on personality than previously thought” (Lewis, 2014, paragraph 10). It was found that genetics had contributed to IQ, religious interests and overall happiness and satisfaction. Dr. Nancy Segal, founder and director of the Twin Study Center, has dedicated her life’s work to the study of twins. From years of research on both identical and fraternal twins Dr. Segal has found that identical twins are consistently more likely to be alike in every aspect including personality due to the fact that they share the exact same genetic material and therefore proving that all traits, even emotional ones, share to some degree a genetic link (Beach TV CSULB, 2016).

Beth Thomas, “Child of Rage”

Beth Thomas was a six-year-old little girl who was the subject of a disturbing documentary in which she details how she desires to hurt everyone around her. She doesn’t like others and often had violent intentions towards them. She was the young victim of severe abuse and even by the early age of nineteen months, Beth had begun displaying aggressive behavior. She would repeatedly hurt her brother and family pets. She had to be locked in her room at night for fear she would hurt those around her. When asked about it Beth emotionlessly explained that it was because she wanted them to die (Ruiz, 2012). Due to such extreme neglect in her infancy, Beth was a victim of her horrific environment transformed into an empty shell unable to attach or care for anyone. However, what seemed like a hopeless situation actually turned out to be transformative. The little girl known for her cold-blooded demeanor grew up to be a nurse working with children similar to herself. Beth is “no longer a child of rage but an award winning registered nurse and an amazing speaker” (Gritt, 2017, paragraph 16). Although an extreme example, Beth’s story is a heart-breaking account of how the environment can override any genetic predisposition sometimes for the worse.

“Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others” (California Department of Education, 2018, paragraph 1). As you can see, neither nature nor nurture can singularly claim this developmental process. It relies heavily on both working hand in hand just as they do in any other arena of life. “It is impossible to separate the two influences as well as illogical as nature and nurture do not operate in a separate way but interact in a complex manner”.

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