What shapes us into the people we are today?
The nature versus nurture debate is a huge one in psychology.
Although we often think of babies being born into the world as a blank canvas, it’s not true.
Part of who we are is pre-programmed into us.
In fact, way before you were even born your parents passed on genes that went on to shape your personality. And you will do the same with your kids.
This article looks at six personality traits we inherit from our folks — and I think some are certainly going to surprise you.
Can personalities be inherited by parents?
In part, yes they can.
But personality is complex. Experts say that our personality is a so-called ‘multifactorial trait’.
In essence, that means lots of things contribute to it. So both your genetics and your environment have a hand in shaping you.
Plus no one gene is thought to be responsible for any specific traits. Instead, it’s believed every trait is determined by a large number of genes combined.
That means a naturally fearful parent can still have a happy-go lucky child. Just like short parents may have a tall child. In short: genetic inheritance is complicated.
Having said that, biology is undoubtedly a big deal.
Although your personality is far from fully formed, even as a baby parts of it already exists — as child psychologist, Dr. Jessica Mysak explains:
“Children are born with some early signs of their personality, called temperament. These are usually evident in the first few days to weeks of life. It’s estimated that 20-60% of temperament is due to genetics. There are three types of temperament: easy, difficult, or slow-to-warm-up.”
Temperament is one thing, but it’s not exactly your personality traits.
So what about those?
Well, one research study has found certain personality traits are more likely to be genetic than others.
Identical twins separated at birth have striking resemblances
Two identical twins who were separated just a few weeks into their lives. Raised apart, they only reunite for the first time at the age of 39.
But despite being brought up in totally different environments, there remained striking similarities.
- They both fell foul of tension headaches
- Both had a tendency to bite their nails
- They both smoked the same brand of cigarettes
- They both drove the same type of car
- They both went on vacation to the same beach in Florida
A spooky coincidence?
Believe it or not, even the smallest of similarities can all be traced back to their genes.
They both inherited traits within their genetics that went on to influence them in the same way.
This example is a real example of two twins from a big study that took place from 1979 to 1999.
It was a groundbreaking look into how much of personality is linked to genetics.
The twins were so similar in personality when it came to things like how tolerant and how flexible they were, along with their tendency towards conformity.
During the study, researchers got participants to do a series of personality tests.
What they concluded was quite remarkable:
For most of the traits measured, more than half the variation between the twins was based on genetics.
So what are those traits?
Let’s take a look at the parts of your personality that are more likely to be handed down in your DNA.
What personality traits are inherited?
Although it might bring up negative connotations, neuroticism is actually considered one of the main personality types.
Truth is, we’re all neurotic to a certain extent.
But how neurotic you are depends on how much you experience life as distressing, threatening and unsafe.
This affects your personality in significant ways as it can dictate whether you’re an anxious person.
If you’re low in neuroticism you’re likely to have a higher threshold for dealing with stress.
Scientists say how anxious you are is linked to several genes, and so can be passed down from one (or both) of your parents.
If you’re more genetically programmed to be neurotic you’re more prone to being:
- Uneasy with yourself
- Easily overstimulated
Meanwhile if you rate low in neuroticism you’re likely to be more naturally resilient and have a more positive view of yourself.
Have you ever met someone who seems almost born to lead?
Well, this could be the case.
It might seem surprising to think of leadership as a personality trait you’re born with.
After all, we often think of it as a skill.
It certainly can be learnt, and it definitely needs to be honed. But it seems it’s also something you can naturally be more inclined towards.
Research from University College London found that genetic differences are significantly associated with the likelihood that people take on managerial responsibilities.
Lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve said:
“We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations.
“Although leadership should still be thought of predominantly as a skill to be developed, genetics – in particular the rs4950 genotype – can also play a significant role in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles.”
Some people get a real kick out of jumping out of aeroplanes. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.
Maybe I’m just not hard-wired for risky behavior.
Because to what extent we enjoy and seek out risk is yet another personality trait with genetic links.
Although it’s not as though there is one “risk gene” that you either have or don’t have.
In fact, one study identified as many as 124 genetic variants associated with a person’s willingness to take risks.
Plus, how impulsive or cautious you are was also found to be greatly influenced by your environment too.
Nevertheless, if you seemed to be born with an inclination for fast living and throwing caution to the wind — now you know why.
A sense of well-being and zest for life
In the twin study that we talked about earlier, it was concluded that up to 50% of overall life satisfaction is down to genetics.
How about the rest?
Well, 10% is about what happens to us that is totally out of our control — aka external events.
Meanwhile, experts say the remaining 40% is down to our own choices — aka intentional activities.
I guess the good news is that your outlook and take on life is still heavily within your own control.
Nevertheless, up to half could come from your genes.
Respect for authority
Do you have a rebellious nature and refuse to play by the rules?
Or perhaps do you hate stepping out of line and prefer to do things by the book?
Of all the personality traits on our list, this is perhaps one of the most surprising.
As David Lykken, a psychologist in the twin study explains:
”One would not expect the tendency to believe in traditional values and the strict enforcement of rules to be more an inherited than learned trait. ‘But we found that, in some mysterious way, it is one of traits with the strongest genetic influence.”
It might be that rule breaking is simply in your blood.
I’ve often envied those people who seem incredibly driven.
They know what they want, and they go for it. They have big dreams and they turn those into goals they’re determined to reach.
That’s just not me.
Whilst I’d say I’m a passionate person, I wouldn’t say I’m particularly ambitious.
Turns out, this could be another part of our personalities that is genetically influenced.
That’s because your drive to achieve has also been identified as a part of your DNA makeup.
If you’re ambitious, there is a good chance that your parents have passed this on to you.
Researchers found that ambition is about 50% genetics and 50% life experience.
So either way, your folks could have a hand in your ambition through genetics, or by the environment you were raised in.
To conclude: Genetics is only part of our personality
It’s fascinating to learn about how our genes might shape who we are. But it certainly doesn’t mean who we turn into is determined before birth.
Like I’ve said, lots of genes are involved in creating your character traits.
Plus, whether certain genes are even activated or not often comes down to your environment.
For example, chemist Dr. Samantha Radford says certain genes are turned “on” or “off” by chemical changes called methylation:
“Recently, we have been learning more and more about how methylation of specific genes can happen. For example, exposure to certain pesticides can cause methylation of genes related to depression. These exposures have the biggest effect on people when they are young children (or even still in the womb!) and still developing.”
The complexity of personality traits ultimately means that despite your DNA, genetics alone certainly don’t dictate the person you will be.