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K12 LibreTexts

5.1: Personality Development

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  • Objectives

    • Analyze the main factors that affect the development of personality.
    • Explain the effects isolation in childhood affects development.
    • Discuss the debate over what most determines human behavior: “nature” or “nurture” and give evidence that best supports each position.
    • Describe why socialization is important for being fully human.

    Universal Generalizations

    • A person’s personality is influenced by nature and by nurture.
    • A person’s personality traits determine how a person adjusts to their environment and how one reacts in specific situations.
    • People’s personalities continue to develop throughout their lifetime.
    • Some personality traits remain constant throughout their lifetime, while other traits experience dramatic change.

    Guiding Questions

    • What are the main factors that affect the development of personality?
    • How does isolation in childhood affect childhood?
    • How does nature influence personality development?
    • How does nurture influence personality development?

    Nature versus Nurture

    For some social scientists, personality is a patterned body of habits, traits, attitudes and ideas of an individual as these are organized externally into roles and statuses and as they relate internally to motivation, goals and various aspects of selfhood. It is our personality that dictates how we alter our surroundings and how we react to certain situations. No two people posses the same personality. A person's personality continues to evolve throughout their life.

    Nature versus Nurture is the debate over the influence of biological versus social influences in socialization. Social scientists have long debated the question what determines personality: nature or nurture. Some scientists believe that it is heredity- the genetic transmission of genetics from parent to child. Others argue that who we are is based entirely in genetics. According to this belief, our temperaments, interests, and talents are set before birth. From this perspective, then, who we are depends on nature. On the other hand there are others who argue personality is determined by social environment. Some experts assert that who we are is a result of nurture—the relationships and caring that surround us.

    Still there are social scientists who believe personality and social behavior is the combination of genetics and the environment. Most assert that it is the environmental factors that have the greatest influence on personality development. The most influential of factors are heredity, birth order, parents and the cultural environment.


    Heredity refers to the genetic inheritance received by every individual at the time of conception.

    These genes are the real determiners of hereditary characteristics—which pass on from one generation to the other. At the time of conception, the genes from chromosomes of both the father and the mother fuse together and determine the traits of the offspring to be born.

    The physical characteristics such as height, weight, color of eye and skin, social and intellectual behavior are determined by heredity. Differences in these characteristics are due to the change in the genes transmitted.

    Heredity also plays an important role in shaping one's personality by placing limits on individuals. Inherited characteristics limit what is possible. They will not determine what a person will do.

    Additional information can be found in the following articles:

    Birth Order

    Personality is also influenced by birth order. Whether you’re the first-born or the only child, your birth order may have an influence on why you’re the way you are. Although siblings share the same genes, they have different traits and characteristics that sets them apart. In AsapTHOUGHT’s video “Does Birth Order Affect Your Personality?” hosts Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown delve into the birth order effect and how it may affect your behavior more than you think.

    Parents tend to be different with each of their children with no two children taking the same role. Firstborns are usually a mix of instinct and trial-and-error for parents. They may have a tendency to become overly neurotic which leads to a first-born’s desire to be a perfectionist. The theory behind this, according to AsapTHOUGHT, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if higher expectations are placed on you, then you’re more likely to work harder and want to live up to those expectations.

    A 2014 study from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex found there may be some truth in the birth order effect. Firstborns, especially girls, are more likely to be ambitious and successful in life due to parental investment or nurturing from parents. However, parents who have multiple children four years apart are more likely to have high achievers in the family.

    Now, when it comes to the middle child, we often think of them as the proverbial monkey in the middle. Since parental attention is usually devoted to the firstborn or the baby of the family, the middle child is more like to be a people-pleaser and have a large social circle of friends. AsapTHOUGHT says they tend to be less ambitious and competitive than their predecessors and are more relaxed towards life.

    Unlike the first-born, the youngest is the one that often gets away with things and tends to be more creative than their older siblings. They have traits such as being charming and likable. Also, unlike the firstborn and middle child, they are generally less responsible.

    Lastly, if you’re an only child, you’re more likely to be academically able, creative, and resourceful. They tend to hate disorder and like to be in control. Although being the only child means expectations are always high, you never need to fight for your parents’ attention. The only child will tend to emulate their parents with traits such as responsibility, maturity and having a very structured environment.

    While many theories exist on birth order, variables like gender, socioeconomic status, and age gap can affect this.

    Additional information can be found in the following article: The Achiever, the Peacemaker and the Life of the Party:

    Parental Characteristics

    A child's personality is also greatly influenced by parental characteristics. The age of the parents raising their children is significant. If parents are in their early twenties versus those parents in their thirties their parenting will differ greatly and thus influence the personality development of their children. Other significant parental characteristics that influence personality development is the level of education, religion, profession, economic status, and cultural background.

    A child's temperament and personality are largely biologically based and inherited. From the moment of birth, personality differences are evident. Some newborns are easygoing and a breeze to care for, while others are fussy and difficult to please. Despite the strong genetic connection to personality characteristics, environmental conditions, such as a mother's parenting style, can lead children with similar temperaments to act quite differently.

    Children who grow up in "authoritative" homes -- environments that are loving, supporting, have high standards and expectations, consistently enforce household rules and allow kids to have a say in household decisions -- experience ideal conditions. Children raised in such settings are more likely to be well-adjusted, content, likeable, self-assured and energetic. Additionally, an elementary school student whose parents promoted language development when she was a toddler may have an easier time in school and be viewed as more competent or smarter than her peers, notes the American Academy of Pediatrics. At the same time, a child raised by abusive parents or had a mom or dad who mercilessly meddled in every aspect of his life is more inclined to be hostile toward his peers.

    Parents can influence their offspring in several ways, and each interaction influences the child in one way or another. For instance, a mom commends her 4 year old for putting away her toys, a dad warns his son that his video games will be taken away if he continues to leave his bicycle on the sidewalk or a parent names an unfamiliar object such as a stained glass window in a picture book. These day-to-day events represent the rewarding of a sought-after behavior, the punishment of an unwanted act and the passing on of knowledge that has a cumulative effect. Ignoring a child who misbehaves is linked to asocial behavior, while showing a genuine interest in a child's interests and activities is associated with greater responsiveness in a child

    Personality characteristics established in childhood tend to linger and may persist with a few modifications that occur during the maturation process. The intricacies of human development are far too complex to flatly state that parental influence is solely responsible for the outcome of a child's personality. Personalty is also shaped by a child's choices and actions and the experiences he encounters as he matures into an adult.

    Parental values and the behaviors parents model have a major impact on their children's emotional state, development of self and how they act socially and in significant relationships. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, in his psychosocial developmental theory, maintains that it's essential for an adolescent to have the freedom to explore his options and make autonomous commitments to achieve his unique identity. Forcing a child to enter into a relationship or follow a particular career path will prevent a child from obtaining identity achievement, adds Erickson.

    Parents influence the personality development of their child, notes Creighton University:

    The Cultural Environment

    It has been established that one's environment can affect personality. One common environmental factor that has been shown to impact personality is culture. Culture can define which traits and behaviors are considered important, desirable, or undesirable. Culture has also been connected to gender roles and how they in turn influence personality and identity.

    A child’s cultural environment also influences personality development more directly by encouraging (i.e., socializing) certain kinds of behaviors (Mendoza-Denton & Mischel, 2007; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). For example, many children in China are raised to be shy, whereas many in Zambia and the United States are raised to smile and be outgoing (X. Chen, Rubin, & Sun, 1992; Hale-Benson, 1986; D. Y. F. Ho, 1986, 1994; Huntsinger & Jose, 2006).

    Cultural norms can dictate what traits are considered important to personality. The researcher Gordon Allport considered culture to be an important influence on traits. and defined common traits as those recognized within a culture. These may vary from culture to culture based on differing values, needs, and beliefs. Positive and negative traits can be determined by cultural expectations: what is considered a positive trait in one culture may be considered negative in another, thus resulting in different expressions of personality.

    One well-documented example of how culture can affect personality is the difference between individualistic societies and collectivist societies. Individualist cultures emphasize personal achievement regardless of the group goals, resulting in a strong sense of competition. Collectivist cultures emphasize family and group goals above individual needs or desires. The stereotypes of a "good person" in a collectivist culture is trustworthy, honest, and generous. This culture emphasizes traits that are helpful to people working in groups. A "good person" in an individualist culture is more assertive and strong, both of which are characteristics that are helpful for competing.

    Nature and nurture interact in numerous ways to shape children’s personalities (Bates & Pettit, 2007; N. A. Fox, Henderson, Rubin, Calkins, & Schmidt, 2001; Keogh, 2003). For instance, children who are temperamentally energetic and adventuresome will seek out a wider variety of experiences than those who are quiet and restrained. Children who are naturally vivacious and outgoing will have more opportunities than shy children to learn social skills and establish rewarding interpersonal relationships. When children have temperaments that clash with cultural norms or parental expectations, they are apt to evoke negative reactions in others and lead parents to use a more controlling, authoritarian parenting style (N. Eisenberg & Fabes, 1994; Maccoby, 2007; Scarr, 1993; Stice & Barrera, 1995).

    The Importance of Socialization

    We have just noted that socialization is how culture is learned, but socialization is also important for another important reason. To illustrate this importance, let’s pretend we find a 6-year-old child who has had almost no human contact since birth. After the child was born, her mother changed her diapers and fed her a minimal diet but otherwise did not interact with her. The child was left alone all day and night for years and never went outside. We now find her at age 6. How will her behavior and actions differ from those of the average 6-year-old? Take a moment and write down all the differences you would find.

    In no particular order, here is the list you probably wrote. First, the child would not be able to speak; at most, she could utter a few grunts and other sounds. Second, the child would be afraid of us and probably cower in a corner. Third, the child would not know how to play games and interact with us. If we gave her some food and utensils, she would eat with her hands and not know how to use the utensils. Fourth, the child would be unable to express a full range of emotions. For example, she might be able to cry but would not know how to laugh. Fifth, the child would be unfamiliar with, and probably afraid of, our culture’s material objects, including cell phones and televisions. In these and many other respects, this child would differ dramatically from the average 6-year-old youngster in the United States. She would look human, but she would not act human. In fact, in many ways she would act more like a frightened animal than like a young human being, and she would be less able than a typical dog to follow orders and obey commands.

    As this example indicates, socialization makes it possible for us to fully function as human beings. Without socialization, we could not have our society and culture. And without social interaction, we could not have socialization. Our example of a socially isolated child was hypothetical, but real-life examples of such children, often called feral children, have unfortunately occurred and provide poignant proof of the importance of social interaction for socialization and of socialization for our ability to function as humans.

    One of the most famous feral children was Victor of Aveyron, who was found wandering in the woods in southern France in 1797. He then escaped custody but emerged from the woods in 1800. Victor was thought to be about age 12 and to have been abandoned some years earlier by his parents; he was unable to speak and acted much more like a wild animal than a human child. Victor first lived in an institution and then in a private home. He never learned to speak, and his cognitive and social development eventually was no better than a toddler’s when he finally died at about age 40 (Lane, 1976).Lane, H. L. (1976). The wild boy of Aveyron. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    In rare cases, children have grown up in extreme isolation and end up lacking several qualities that make them fully human. This is a photo of Victor of Aveyron, who emerged from the woods in southern France in 1800 after apparently being abandoned by his parents some years earlier. He could not speak, and his cognitive and social skills never advanced beyond those of a small child before he died at the age of 40.

    Another such child, found more than about a half-century ago, was called Anna, who “had been deprived of normal contact and had received a minimum of human care for almost the whole of her first six years of life” (Davis, 1940, p. 554).Davis, K. (1940). Extreme social isolation of a child. American Journal of Sociology, 45, 554–565. After being shuttled from one residence to another for her first 5 months, Anna ended up living with her mother in her grandfather’s house and was kept in a small, airless room on the second floor because the grandfather was so dismayed by her birth out of wedlock that he hated seeing her. Because her mother worked all day and would go out at night, Anna was alone almost all the time and lived in filth, often barely alive. Her only food in all those years was milk.

    When Anna was found at age 6, she could not talk or walk or “do anything that showed intelligence” (Davis, 1940, p. 554).Davis, K. (1940). Extreme social isolation of a child. American Journal of Sociology, 45, 554–565. She was also extremely undernourished and emaciated. Two years later, she had learned to walk, understand simple commands, feed herself, and remember faces, but she could not talk and in these respects resembled a 1-year-old infant more than the 7-year-old child she really was. By the time she died of jaundice at about age 9, she had acquired the speech of a 2-year-old.

    Shortly after Anna was discovered, another girl, called Isabelle, was found in similar circumstances at age 6. She was also born out of wedlock and lived alone with her mother in a dark room isolated from the rest of the mother’s family. Because her mother was mute, Isabelle did not learn to speak, although she did communicate with her mother via some simple gestures. When she was finally found, she acted like a wild animal around strangers, and in other respects she behaved more like a child of 6 months than one of more than 6 years. When first shown a ball, she stared at it, held it in her hand, and then rubbed an adult’s face with it. Intense training afterward helped Isabelle recover, and 2 years later she had reached a normal speaking level for a child her age (Davis, 1940).Davis, K. (1940). Extreme social isolation of a child. American Journal of Sociology, 45, 554–565.

    he cases of Anna and Isabelle show that extreme isolation—or, to put it another way, lack of socialization—deprives children of the obvious and not-so-obvious qualities that make them human and in other respects retards their social, cognitive, and emotional development. A series of famous experiments by psychologists Harry and Margaret Harlow (1962)Harlow, H. F., & Harlow, M. K. (1962). Social deprivation in monkeys. Scientific American, 207, 137–146. reinforced the latter point by showing it to be true of monkeys as well. The Harlows studied rhesus monkeys that had been removed from their mothers at birth; some were raised in complete isolation, while others were given fake mothers made of cloth and wire with which to cuddle. Neither group developed normally, although the monkeys cuddling with the fake mothers fared somewhat better than those who were totally isolated. In general, the monkeys were not able to interact later with other monkeys, and female infants abused their young when they became mothers. The longer their isolation, the more the monkeys’ development suffered. By showing the dire effects of social isolation, the Harlows’ experiment reinforced the significance of social interaction for normal development. Combined with the tragic examples of feral children, their experiments remind us of the critical importance of socialization and social interaction for human society.

    Key Takeaways

    • Socialization is the process through which individuals learn their culture and become fully human.
    • Unfortunate examples of extreme human isolation illustrate the importance of socialization for children’s social and cognitive development.