This question has formed one of the most interesting and ongoing debates over time. It has been posed over a number of years, in various forms, however in essence is based around the nature versus nurture debate. In other words are we born with certain characteristics, or are we like sponges and acquire them throughout our lives? Carlson and Buskist (1997) neatly summarise this debate, whilst also pointing out that, as with the various other aspects of psychology, what initially appear to be clear-cut distinctions are in fact rather blurred. They pose the questions of whether personality is caused by biological or social factors', innate or learned', or as a result of hereditary or cultural influences'? However, most modern psychologists consider the nature-nurture issue to be a relic of the past. That is, they believe that all behaviours, talents, and personality traits are the products of both types of factors: biological and social, hereditary and cultural, physiological and environmental. The task of the modern psychologist is not to find out which of these factors is more important but to discover the particular roles played by each of them and to determine the ways in which they interact.
Although a combination of factors need to be taken into account when considering this question; learnt behaviour sits heavily on the side of the nurture debate, and is primarily seen as a social influence. Learnt behaviour suggests that we learn through, experiences, family, friends, the media, and much more. The fact that we learn behaviour suggests that we are able to unlearn behaviour in the same way.
Social Learning Theory (SLT) is a concept that is primarily associated with the work of Albert Bandura, and suggests that behaviours of any sort may be learned by observing others. Those individuals who are observed are known as models, and whether a person will be selected as a model depends on a range of variables including their status. Furthermore, whether or not a model's behaviour will be imitated depends chiefly on the consequences of their actions, and if they are seen to be reinforced for their behaviour, then the observer is more likely to imitate them. Conversely, if the model is seen to be punished, the observer is less likely to imitate their behaviour (these processes are called vicarious reinforcement and punishment).
Learning theories suggest that individuals can change. However, this change depends on certain influences that an individual has in their lives. If they react favorably to positive models, then change may come about. However, if the react unfavourably to models, or models have little or no effect on their behaviour, change may not be achieved as a result.
When considering the opposing side of the argument, the work of Sigmund Freud has to be identified. In particular his work that highlighted the way innate desires and repressed emotions shape individual human behaviour. According to Freudian thinking, certain acts such as violent, aggressive or sexually deviant; should be seen as expressions of buried internal conflicts that are the result of traumas or deprivations experienced in early childhood. Although this idea on a surface level appears to be concerned with learning at a young age, when considered on a deeper level, it is linked to the brain, and how it functions.
Freud argued that the human mind was comprised of three provinces: the ego, the id, and the super ego. The id represents the primitive, instinctive, animalistic portion of the unconscious mind, and it is here that the primeval human desires reside, with the ultimate aim being to gratify instincts at all costs. The ego relates to the conscious mind, and acts as a sort of mediating device' between the id and super ego. Because of the conscious recognition within the individual that every act has a consequence', Freud claimed that the ego was driven by the reality principle'. Finally, the super-ego is considered to be the repository of moral values' and the seat of guilt within the individual. Perhaps the best way to perceive the super-ego is as a sort of internal nagging parent' or moral or ethical guardian. The super-ego develops as a result of a series of early social experiences, with its source being self-criticism based on the production of guilt'.
As it can be seen, early experiences in childhood can shape the way we act in certain situations. However, if those early childhood experiences are not positive ones, then this is the foundation we are stuck with when developing into adulthood. If this is the case, it makes it more difficult to change as an adult, due to the fact we would have already been exposed to certain behaviour, which to us would be the norm'. However SLT would yet again suggest that if we learnt it, we could unlearn it in the same fashion.