Genetic and Environmental Influences of Personality

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"Genetic and Environmental Influences of Personality"
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                                                                    Genetic and Environmental Influence on Personality

After a semester of Personality theories - Freud and Jung, Rogers, Bandura and so on, students often ask, once again,” isn't there one theory we can trust and use with confidence? Can't we narrow it down a bit? Tell us, what is right and what is not!

Well, unfortunately, Personality is not yet consdered to be a science, at least not in the sense that Biology or Chemistry are. In those fields, although there is disagreement about details and the latest findings, there is a common body of knowledge that few people in the field argue about. Not so obviously, in Personality.

However, there are slowly emerging ideas that seem to pop up again and again in different theories, often with different names, but there none-the-less.  Sometimes they occur in theories that are otherwise quite different, or that come from a different perspective, such as clinical versus experimental versus factor analysis versus phenomenological.  Perhaps the field will indeed become a science, perhaps not too far in the future!

Here, I help to bring forth the various theories, views, and components currently being used in order to help describe how Personality is created and influenced through both Genetic and Environmental factors.  Here we go.

Consciousness and the Unconscious

This, of course, is Freud's greatest contribution.awhile he didn't originate the terms, he certainly was responsible for popularizing them!  Many theories postulate some sort of unconscious, not as a place where our worst fears bubble and boil, but as a way of accounting for the many things that influence us without our full awareness. This concept was discussed and elaborated further by Jung’s “Collective Unconscious.”

Three aspects of the Unconscious

First, is biological. We come into this life with something like Freud's id or Jung's collective unconscious in place.  It is likely composed of whatever instincts remain a part of our human nature, plus our temperament or inborn personality, and perhaps the preprogramming for stages of life. As for possible instincts, I would nominate four “complexes” of them:  A mating complex, an assertive complex, a social complex, and a nurturing complex.

Second, is the social unconscious, which interestingly resembles Freud’s superego more than Freud's id. It might include our language, social taboos, cultural habits, and so on.  It includes all the cultural things we were surrounded with in our childhood and have learned so well that they have become "second nature" to us!  The negative aspects of the social unconscious with Rogers’ idea of conditions of worth.

Third, there is the personal unconscious (to borrow Jung’s term), perhaps understood as the unconscious aspect of the ego.  It is composed of our idiosyncratic habits, the more personal things we have learned so well we no longer need to be conscious of them in order to enact them - like knowing how to drive so well that we can comb our hair, talk on a cell phone, light a cigarette, and notice the attractive person in the rear view mirror all at the same time (at least until you run off the road into a tree).

Included among those well-learned things might be the defense mechanisms.  With these we ignore, with habitual efficiency, uncomfortable realities in order to save our sense of self-worth.  More a little later....

But let's not get overly enthusiastic about the unconscious!  Few psychologists today view it as the location of our true selves, the answer to all our problems, or some deep psychic well that connects us with the universe or God!  It is where the more-or-less automatic processes of instinct and the well-learned do their thing.

All this is in contrast to (in fact defined in contrast to) consciousness or awareness.  Other than instincts and (perhaps) a few associations learned by classical conditioning, it seems that all things going into or out of our psyches pass through awareness.

What consciousness is will be a question for a good while longer. It's not terribly available to traditional research methods!  But for now, we can see it as the ability to experience reality (outer and inner) together with its meaning or relevance to ourselves (as biological, social, and even individual organisms).  Phew!  I would add that it may be consciousness that also provides us with the freedom to choose among the choices available to us - i.e. free will or at least self-determination.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about consciousness is that it is personal.  It is yours and yours alone.  And it is within this personal consciousness that all of your "psychology" takes place.  Everything you feel, perceive, think, and do is based on your subjective view of reality, which may be significantly different from mine!  Therefore, in order to understand people, we need to understand them from the inside.  This little fact is what makes psychology so much more difficult than the physical sciences!

Cognitive and Developmental Stages

Stages are something most personality theorists shy away from.  Freud and Erickson are the obvious exceptions, as is the  Piaget.  And yet there is a very biological basis for the idea  .We can, on pure biology, separate out at least three stages:  the fetus, the child, and the adult.  This is, in fact, completely parallel to the egg, caterpillar, butterfly example we learned in high school biology!

In addition, we can see three transitional stages: Infancy, Adolescence, and Senescence.

Infancy is not, actually, found in more primitive animals, and is greatly exaggerated in humans.  We are, in a sense, all born prematurely.  It lets the infant soak up information much earlier, and in a different way. It would seem that for the first 6 to 12 months, our neural development is as yet incomplete.  As we learn, we actually create certain neural paths, rather than just tightening synapses as we do later in life.  Furthermore, while our brains contain about 10 billion neurons at birth, they quickly adapt to external and environmental stimuli, resulting in a neural “pruning effect” to occur.  Here, neurons that are being utilized or stimulated will continue to develop and make additional neural connections. Neurons that are not stimulated for whatever reasons generally do not receive the nourishment for continued growth and eventually get “pruned” for lack of use. Thus, use it or lose it!

Adolescence also qualifies, I believe, as a stage.  The transition from child to adult involves rather massive hormonal changes accompanied by a growth spurt like you hadn't seen since you were two! It is hard for me to conceive of these changes not having some effect on us psychologically.

Late Stage Geriatric (Senescence), is the last year or so of a full life, during which time the organs begin to deteriorate and shut down.  We don't usually see this as a stage, and in fact most people never reach It (accidents and diseases usually beat senescence to the punch).  But socially speaking, in our culture we certainly prepare ourselves for this inevitability, and that might constitute a social stage, if not a biological one.

To venture a guess as to the psychological side of these biological stages:

The fetus focuses on biological development, which is transformed by the presence of others in the infant into ego development in the child. In turn, the ego development of the child is transformed by the advent of sexuality in adolescence into the trans-ego or social development of the adult. Another way I look at it is this:

In the fetal and infancy stages, we lay the groundwork and develop our temperaments (founded in hormones and neurotransmitters). In the child stage, we develop a personality. This is genetically hardwired into us; some is by environmental experience, conditioning, and adaptability. These are (founded in habits). In adolescence, continuing into adulthood, we develop character (based on conscious decision-making).

Plasticity of Temperament:

Temperament is built into us genetically and is a large part of our personalities or character.  Consequentially, although there is always a degree of flexibility allowed, to a large extent we "are" our temperaments for our whole lives.  Temperament is very “in” right now, and justifiably so.  Most therapists know and agree that two dimensions of personality are established before birth, probably genetically:

a). emotional stability

b). extroversion-introversion

Three more seem to have popular approval:

a). conscientiousness ( judging-perceiving)

b). agreeableness (warmth, thinking, and feeling)

c).openness (culture, intuiting-sensing).


With the exception of Skinner, Bandura, Kelly, and a few others, learning is rather taken for granted by most personality theorists.  But I suspect it shouldn't be.we can postulate at least three kinds of learning: environmental, social, and verbal.

Environmental learning includes the behaviorist Pavlovian and Skinnerian conditioning, as importantly of course, is getting feedback from your environment. This provides a “gauge” to test and measure from. It also includes the latent learning that E. C. Tolman talked about: that we learn about our environment just by being in it! We learn to differentiate one thing from another on the basis of the consequences.  Either way, behaviorist or gestalt, this kind of learning requires little in the way of consciousness.

There is also environmental learning that involves other people. When”little Johnny” does something that mom or dad does not approve of, he may be punished in some fashion.  Likewise, he may be rewarded when he does something right for a change.  This is also usually called conditioning, but the fact that it involves others means it is also social learning, and so fraught with extra difficulties.

Social learning includes vicarious learning (noticing and recalling the kinds of environmental feedback and social conditioning other people get) and imitation (Bandura’s modeling).  This kind of learning is probably the most significant for the development of personality. It can be either conscious, as when we are watching an artist to learn their technique, or unconscious, as when we grow up to be disconcertingly like our parents.

Verbal learning occurs not from the environment or the behavior of others, but from words.  Most of the learning we do in our many years of schooling is verbal.  And yet we don’t know that much about it at all!


Emotions or feelings have always been a key point of interest in personality theories. At the lowest level, we have pain and pleasure, which are really more like sensations than feelings. There is also psychological pain and pleasure, also called distress and delight. Distress is what we feel when the events of the world are more than we can handle. Delight is what we feel when we discover that we can handle them after all!

Anxiety is a favorite topic in personality theories.  Although many definitions have been proposed for anxiety, they tend to revolve around unnecessary or inappropriate fear. Not just fear, but the feeling of “not knowing” the outcome of a potential threat, or a fearful situation, can cause anxiety.  Fear, in turn, is usually understood as involving the perception of imminent harm, physical or psychological. These definitions serve well for most circumstances.

Guilt is another key emotion. Related to shame, it is usually understood as the feelings aroused when we internalized moral or social rules.  The old saying, “suppression, repression, leads to depression,” maybe correct! The Existentialists view suggests that guilt is closely related to the sense of regret, or opportunities not taken.

Sadness is the experience of the world not being as it should be, with the added notion that we have no power to alter the situation.  Instead, there is a need to alter ourselves; this is something we are innately reluctant to do!

Anger is similar to sadness: We find that the world is not as described in our early school books. But from our ideals and schema's we have developed, we might at times feel compelled to “empower” ourselves to change the situation. When we act on our anger, it becomes aggression.  Anger and aggression are not necessarily bad.  In general, it is often from our anger at social injustices that often leads to aggressive action to correct the situation for positive social change! Rage, or any type of anger that we hang onto, just leads to unwarranted hostility.


Now here's a more difficult one:  Motivation is central to most theories of personality, and the variety seems unending!  But perhaps a little organization will help.

First, there are the biological motivations, mostly instinctual (although addictions are acquired).  “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” covers much of this, such as our need for air, water, food.  There is the need for pain-avoidance.  There is the need for pleasure:  pleasant touch, comforting, sex.  We may want to add the instinct complexes mentioned earlier:  mating, assertiveness, and nurturance.  All theories accept these, although they differ wildly about their importance relative to each other as well as to other kinds of motivation.

Second, there are the social motivations.  They may build on the biological motivations, especially the instinct complexes, but they vary enormously depending upon culture and even individual social situations and learning.  Because they are so well and early learned, again, we could borrow Maslow’s term and call them instinctual.  Social motivation includes the need for acceptance, attention, and approval (Rogers’ positive regard), as well as those forms of self-esteem that are based on such approval.

Third, there are the more personal motivations, ones that are based on the experiences of the individual, especially our habits (good and bad), those nasty defense mechanisms (see below), and our personality "styles."

Last, but not least, there are higher motivations.  These are conscious and we perceive them as providing our lives with meaning. There appear to be two broad kinds:

The first, competence motivation, includes such motives as desire to learn, attain competence and mastery, even the desire to be creative.  Adler would call it striving for perfection.

The second, altruistic motivation includes social concern, compassion, and love.   Whether they are simply derivatives of the lower needs or are indeed something more, will remain a point of discussion for many years into the future!


For many people, the difficulties begin with their childhood experiences. This could include forms of abuse, neglect, sickness, poverty, divorce, cognitive or physical deformities, psychological problems, etc.  Sometimes, we are strong enough, or have enough support, to weather these storms.  More often, we find that these experiences leave us with an on-going anxiety about life.  We end up distressed from anxiety, guilt, sadness, anger, etc...., not just from the experience, but from the lack of trust or faith we may be feeling.

Children that are provided structure, values, morals, by loving parents or relatives, and compassionate relations from teachers, peers, friends, generally develop the coping skills to better handle perceived or real problems.  When a child or even an adult learns to believe in themselves and confronts the difficulties facing them, they learn coping skills. These skills become part of their defense mechanism, allowing one to protect sensitive egos by denial and repression, and also by distortion and rationalization.  

Denial and repression attempt to block the offending experiences directly, from the environment and memory respectively, at the cost of emotional exhaustion.  Denial applies to information from outside us, repression to the things we already know (way deep inside).

Distortion and rationalization are more sophisticated and less exhausting and deal with the offending information by working around it.  Distortion is the manipulation of information from the outside, rationalization is the manipulation of information we already own.  Either way, they are either “little white lies” we tell ourselves and others in order to minimize the impact of that incongruence between our need for love and security and what is afforded to us.  We use these lies because they help, actually.  But they are only bandages for the “wound” and usually serve as a “quick fix,” often leading to rationalizing our statements or actions to ourselves and others.

 Coping strategies:

As just mentioned, people create coping skills or “strategies” in order to protect against psychological discomfort. When experiencing or concerned by neuroses, people may also find themselves attracted to certain patterns of living that play a “supportive/defensive” role. People may develop “neurotic themes” become alcoholics, work-aholics, display “obsessive compulsive traits” or behaviors (cleanliness or ritualistic behavior), or health, etc.  These patterns can involve unusual behaviors, emotional attachments, obsessive thoughts, etc. 


When discussing Personality Theories, the idea of balance also generally surfaces.  We hear there must be “balance between work and family,” or “friends and family,” or “work and play.” The examples go on and on and on. Both Freud and Jung spoke in great lengths of “balance” in life. For example, Carl Jung's entire theory discusses and revolves around balance, between anima and animus and between the ego and the unconscious. Freud felt that a “crises” needed to be met or addressed at a “Midway” point of two extremes.  Other terms such as “individuality” and “community;”  “I” or “team,” etc… Whatever the words used, the balance to be accomplished is between the impulse to serve oneself and develop into all one can be and the impulse to serve others.  But serve only yourself, and you end up alone; serve only others, and you lose your own identity.  One ought to serve oneself in order to serve others well, and serve others in order to best serve oneself.


Both genetic expression and environmental factors both play crucial roles in the cognitive development of personality.   Although we are to a degree “genetically hardwired,” and possess certain “predispositions” which may influence how we turn out as individuals, an environmental “plasticity” still exists within each of us. Still, environmental experiences do have direct influence on developing behavior. For example, take the scenario of baking Gingerbread men.  The “biological factor“or “genes,” can be viewed as the ingredients or the mix. The mix is then placed into the oven. This can be thought of as the environment.  Contributing variables, such as temperature, the time exposed to the heat, how close it is to the heat source, all contribute to how the Gingerbread men turn out.

Sometime later, we removed our cake and it came out just fine.  The environment it was exposed to was constant and controlled.  However, people are much more complex than the making of our Gingerbread men.  We each have various ingredients and experiences that make each of us unique. If not, life would be one dull bakery!

More about this author: Severio Costello

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