Nurture vs. Nature? As a Practical Matter, It’s Nurture

The once ubiquitous debates about nature vs. nurture have become much less common. Instead, it has become apparent that both our genetic nature and our environments affect our behavior. So, the answer is not one or the other: it is both. But if the issue underlying this controversy is whether we can and should build a society that does more to nurture wellbeing, then please come down on the side of nurturance.

There is no question that humans vary in their genetic capacities to learn, to be pro or antisocial, and to be healthy. But as a practical matter, if you want a society full of productive, caring people, focus on nurturing.

The evidence is overwhelming that we can create conditions that nurture the prosocial behavior that society’s wellbeing requires (Biglan, 2015). If we assume that the outcomes of human development are out of our control, we will allow the problems of human behavior that have plagued us for centuries to continue. That would be tragic, given the rising level of threats to human wellbeing and the availability of unprecedented knowledge about how to nurture human prosociality.

The evidence is in. We not only know how to help parents and teachers become more nurturing, we also have solid evidence that this nurturing affects children’s behavior. In The Nurture Effect (link is external), I describe numerous family and school programs that help parents and teachers nurture children’s skills and prevent them from developing problems as diverse as delinquency, depression, academic failure, and drug abuse.

One program, the Nurse Family Partnership (link is external), provides support to poor, first-time mothers during their pregnancy and through the first two years of the baby’s life. It helps them give birth to healthy infants, become skilled and patient with their children, get more education and better jobs, and raise children with more social and emotional skills. In the first study evaluating the Nurse Family Partnership, children whose mothers had received the program ended up at age 15 exhibiting half the level of delinquency as children whose mothers did not receive the program.

The Good Behavior Game (link is external)helps elementary school students develop self-regulation and cooperation skills that nurture their social and academic success even into adulthood. Small teams of children earn simple rewards for working cooperatively in class. What kinds of rewards? Brief, fun things kids love to do, like making silly sounds for ten seconds. One study showed that children who played the game merely in first or second grade were less likely to smoke or get arrested by middle school. By young adulthood they had fewer problems with drugs, criminal behavior, or suicide and were more likely to graduate high school and attend college.

Tested and effective family and school programs like this exist to help children and adolescents at every age. If we can help to encourage adoption of these nurturing programs widely and effectively, we will have lower levels of crime, academic failure, and mental illness than we have ever seen.

And, exciting new evidence shows the benefits of taking a nurturing stance toward ourselves. A study by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan (2008) found that people randomly assigned to a program that taught them to do brief loving-kindness meditations about themselves and others experienced increased positive emotions and increased positive psychological resources such as a greater sense of purpose in life, more social support, and decreased illness. These increased personal resources were associated with more life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. In another study, Fredrickson and colleagues showed that people who express wellbeing associated with “striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification” showed lower levels of the expression of pro-inflammatory genes that are implicated in “…cardiovascular, neurodegenerative, and neoplastic diseases” (Fredrickson et al., 2013, p. 13684).

To sum up, there is growing evidence that we can nurture human wellbeing. Our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us will flourish if we cultivate self-acceptance and kindness toward ourselves and kindness and caring toward others.


Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. Oakland, CA US: Sage Publications.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M. G., Ma, J. & Cole, S. M. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110, 13684-13689.

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