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5 Timeless Debates in Psychology

Even simple behaviors are complex at their core.

Key points

  • The vast majority of human behaviors do not have one simple explanation.
  • Over decades of trying to understand human behavior, psychologists often return to five core debates, with "nature vs. nurture" being perhaps the most well-known.
  • Examining any behavior through the lens of these 5 debates can help uncover possible explanations for the behavior—but its true cause may still remain elusive.
tjevans / Pixabay
Source: tjevans / Pixabay

Understanding human behavior is tricky business. We should be wary of anyone who claims to have it all figured out. To add to this complexity, note that across the history of the behavioral sciences, there have been consistent instances in which multiple explanatory concepts are completely at odds with one another. In a sense, the field of psychology is a field of contrasts. As is true with many intellectual areas, psychology is full of debate. This post is designed to put a face to five of the timeless debates in the field, to help people understand the many nuances that surround the science of psychology.

To explicate these debates, let's consider the following example:

Trevor is an average high school student who is hoping to make it into college and possibly be a pilot someday. In his biology class, he finds himself having no clue what the difference is between meiosis and mitosis. Fortunately for him, he has the definitions of these terms written on the palm of his left hand. Unfortunately for him, his teacher catches him cheating and reports him to the principal. His parents are called in and it turns into quite an ordeal.

The simple question from a behavioral science perspective is this: Why did Trevor cheat?

5 Core Psychological Debates

As summarized in my recent book Own Your Psychology Major! A Guide to Student Success, any question of behavior can be thought of through various lenses. Several of these lenses can be understood in terms of the following five long-standing debates in the field (adapted from Geher, 2019, pp. 27-28):

  • Nature vs. Nurture. This debate focuses largely on whether inherent, biological factors or developmental, “experiential” factors play the dominant role in shaping who people are and how they behave. Think about your own level of extraversion, or how outgoing you are. Someone who appeals to the "nature” side of this debate might cite evidence that genes play a role in determining levels of extraversion and argue that you were “born” to have a certain level of extraversion. Someone on the “nurture” side might point toward research on how one’s environment helps to shape levels of extraversion as well as other basic personality traits.
  • Materialism vs. Constructionism. Some academic psychologists focus on the physical (i.e., material) underpinnings of behavior, based on the idea that at the end of the day, behavior is nothing more than the result of neural activity. Constructionists, on the other hand, downplay material causes of behavior and instead focus on how psychological reality is ultimately found in the meaning that people give psychological concepts in social contexts. On this point, let’s consider the psychological attribute of emotional responsivity, or the ways that one responds to emotionally laden stimuli (Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997). A materialist might see someone’s high level of emotional responsivity as nothing more than a particular set of genes and a set of physiological structures, such as the reticular activation system, being set a certain way. On the other hand, a constructionist might see someone who is seen as highly emotionally responsive as having been shaped to behave in an emotional manner based on various social roles and social expectations in one’s community.
  • Person vs. Situation. There is often debate regarding whether factors within people themselves cause their behaviors or if situational cues play a more critical role. Dispositionists focus on internal causes of behavior, such as personality traits or emotional states. Situationists focus more on factors in situations that exert influences on behavior. For instance, suppose that Joe is watching a Little League baseball game and just yelled out that the ump doesn’t know what he’s doing. A dispositionist might look at Joe’s behavior and say that he has poor impulse control and an aggressive social style, while a situationist might ask more about the call that the ump made and about the behaviors of others in the crowd to examine how much the details of the situation may have affected Joe’s actions.
  • Consistency vs. Change Across Development. Whether people can change who they are across the life span is another hotly debated topic in psychology. Some argue that our personality becomes largely fixed during late childhood. Others argue that there is potential for change. Research into this issue is extremely intriguing, with some data suggesting that there is little change in one’s basic character across life and other data suggesting that there can be substantial change in personality over the long term.
  • Cultural Universals vs. Cultural Variability. Are people the same wherever you go? Some will say yes, and some will say no. To be sure, there are clearly ways that humans are the same across the globe. For instance, using a smile to express happiness seems to be a human universal. On the other hand, there seem to be important ways that one’s culture shapes behavior. This is why religious activities often look quite different from one another across religious groups. The question of behavioral universality vs. cultural variability is a hot one, and some of the best research being done by psychologists examines questions related to this particular debate.

So Why Did Trevor Cheat on His Biology Exam?

As you can see, answering the question of why Trevor cheated on his biology exam can become a bit complex. Here are different ways to think about this question in light of these five timeless debates:

  • Nature vs. Nurture. A nature perspective might argue that Trevor comes from a long line of cheaters and that the traits associated with cheating may actually have some heritable component. A nurture perspective might argue that Trevor has always gotten away and, in some sense, been rewarded for cheating. His environmental upbringing has encouraged and shaped such behavior.
  • Materialism vs. Constructivism. A materialist explanation of Trevor's cheating might suggest that brain mechanisms associated with impulse control are responsible. People vary on impulse control and such variability has been tied to various brain structures. On the other hand, a constructivist approach might look at the broader society surrounding Trevor. Perhaps Trevor plays video games and watches TV shows that tend to glorify cheating, thus shaping his behavior in a distal but profound sense.
  • Person vs. Situation. At his core, Trevor may just be something of a bad apple. He may score high on various dark personality traits (such as psychopathy, or having little concern about others' feelings) and cheating may simply be a standard behavior in his dispositional repertoire. On the other hand, there may have been simple situational factors that partly accounted for Trevor's cheating. Perhaps he sits in the back of the classroom behind a student with very big hair. As such, due to the particulars of the situation, he has been able to get away with cheating without getting caught all year long.
  • Consistency vs. Change Across Development. Maybe the traits that underlie cheating are learned early in life and set up a pattern of cheating that becomes deeply entrenched in one's behavior. Maybe Trevor has always been a cheater and always will be. On the other hand, maybe people really can change, and perhaps after the principal gives him a good talking to, he'll start to adapt his behavior to a more honest and hard-working approach. He is young, after all.
  • Cultural Universals vs. Cultural Variability. Perhaps Trevor identifies with a highly masculine sub-culture. And in his little world, cheating is considered highly desirable. Maybe people across any and all cultures in the world will engage in cheating behaviors under certain conditions. On the other hand, perhaps academic cheating is more encouraged in some cultures than in others. Maybe there are some cultures out there where Trevor's behavior would lead to a public flogging instead of a stern talking-to from the principal. In some ways, human behavior is the same across cultures. And in some ways, it varies quite a bit.

Bottom Line

In the field of scientific psychology, we work to develop concepts that help to explain behavior. This said, these concepts don't exist in a vacuum. Many concepts in the field can be thought of in terms of the five timeless debates that are presented here.

Any behavioral scientist who tells you that they have all the answers is necessarily wrong. Human behavior is complex and a solid education in the field comes with an understanding of the fact that our understanding of behavior itself is rooted in broad sets of assumptions, many of which are quite up for debate.

Why did Trevor cheat on that biology exam? The answer is anything but simple.

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Hupbach, A., Gomez, R. L., Bootzin, R. R., & Nadel, L. (2009). Nap-dependent learning in infants. Developmental Science, 12(6), 1007-1012.

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