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UI Researchers: A little bit of nature, a little bit of nurture

BY ALINA RUBEZHOVA | JULY 22, 2009 7:15 AM

Plato said our traits are determined by nature. Aristotle said nurture. And UI scientists now say a single explanation is impossible.

Six UI researchers found genetic influences and experience are essentially intertwined in creating behavioral traits. Two UI psychology professors — John Spencer and Mark Blumberg — will discuss their study at 10 a.m. on Iowa Public Radio.

“To split the world into genetic and environmental factors is the wrong way to carve out the world,” said Spencer, the lead author in the investigation.

The authors of the paper have worked on the topic for decades. But the “nature-nurture” debate dates all the way back to discussions between Plato and Aristotle 2,300 years ago, and has seen centuries of studies.

Spencer noted researchers have conducted similar studies regarding developmental systems — or why people exhibit certain traits. It illustrated phenomena typically attributed to “nature or nurture” may be surprising.

A 2004 and 2007 two-part study at the University of California-San Diego studied why babies have a tendency to look at faces. Using a robotic baby, “Einstein,” they found that adults spontaneously put their faces close to a baby’s when picking it up.

“Einstein” learned to focus on faces in six minutes of experience.

“That’s all you need to learn a bias toward faces,” Spencer said.

What’s unique about the UI study is it included researchers from different fields — including animal behavior, human behavior and psychology — and tried to bridge the gap between different factors.

Bob McMurray, a UI assistant professor of psychology and a coauthor of the paper, believes the “nature-nurture” debate ignores the component of time and interactivity.

“What we really need to be focusing on is the process by which the properties of child interact with the properties of the environment,” he said. “And that changes the child, which changes the environment.” It is a continual process, he emphasized.

The study appeared in the July 20 issue of *Child Development Perspectives*. The authors are all members of the Delta Center, a UI research center that consists of faculty in the departments of psychology and communication sciences and disorders.

The center is funded by the Spelman-Rockefeller fund through the UI Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, and also by the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

This collaboration looks at such areas as perception cognition, language, psycho-biological approaches, and process modeling — emphasized by the interactive nature of learning and development — according to its website.


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