Are Personality Traits Caused by Genes or Environment?

Is Personality Genetic? How Environmental And Hereditary Factors Influence Personality

Are Personality Traits Caused by Genes or Environment?

Humans are complex beings, with their personalities and behavioral patterns being perhaps their most intricate aspects. The fascination with this aspect of human behavior can be seen in popular debates such as Nature v.s.

Nurture, or in social theories such as the Bouchard Twin Study.

Social psychology scientists have long studied human behavior and whether we are the result of our biology or our environment, aiming to answer the question «Is personality genetic?».

If our personalities result from genetics, then we develop them early on and will remain the same throughout our lifetime.

However, if they are a result of our environment, then our personalities may evolve throughout our lifetime, and our experiences will have a more significant effect on them.

Studies have concluded that human personalities and temperaments are shaped by both genetics and our environment; while we may be born with certain personality traits, there still is the possibility to develop others as we experience life.

Is personality genetic?

Often, a person might seemingly inherit their parent’s short temper or perfectionist tendencies. That same child may inherit their parent’s big blue eyes and thick curly hair.

While it may be clear that the physical characteristics are genetic correlations, it is difficult to know whether the behavioral traits result from genetics or learned thanks to years of exposure throughout childhood.

Personality traits openness to experience or intimacy seem to be shaped by a child’s upbringing. In contrast, more stable characteristics distractability or agreeableness seem to be rooted within a child’s DNA. You may wish to take a personality traits test to determine your personality type and behavioral characteristics.

Specific characteristics are associated with different genomes, making them reliant on genetics, and other features may be developed later on due to external factors.

While it is understandable to assume that personality is the result of genetics, it is important to consider that personalities are hereditary and a result of environment or other factors.  


Multiple variables shape our traits, genetics being one of them. In fact, a study found that 20%-60% of our temperament is determined by genetics.

They also found that specific primary genes are involved in the communication of cells within the brain, which directly affect someones' personality and behaviors.

Possessing certain genes can significantly impact sociability, predisposition to anxiety or depression, self-control, and more.

The same study suggested that while our personality traits may evolve as we grow into adulthood thanks to life experiences and events, our core temperament generally remains the same. This suggests that at our core temperament, we are made up of specific traits that have genetic components. 

Temperament is usually associated with heritability and includes common behavioral traits that influence how we do things—such as being persistent or shy. Subsequently, personality is generally associated with why we do things— openness to experience or agreeableness— and is shaped by our genetics and upbringing.


If genetic variants comprise only 20%-60% of our personality, where does the other portion come from? Environmental factors, such as upbringing, culture, geographic location, and life experiences, greatly influence our personality.

For example, a child raised in a harmonious environment may have a more positive or calm outlook and disposition. In contrast, a child raised in a turbulent household may be more inclined to develop aggression or other adverse traits.

Proving this theory further is the famous Minnesota Study of Twins. From 1979 to 1999, researchers studied both identical and fraternal twins separated at birth to determine the effects of genes and environment on their personalities as they aged.

This study found that identical twins shared about 50% of the same traits, whereas fraternal twins shared about 20%.

The study also found 70% of the variance in IQ was linked to genetic variations, while the remaining 30% was due to environmental effects.

In studying different pairs of twins and their genetic differences and aspects of personality, scientists also found that while these genetic effects greatly influence personality, other factors such as leading a healthy lifestyle and engaging in intellectual activities played a great role in their overall well-being and development.

Environmental factors that influence human behavior

Here are some of the environmental influences that can affect personality characteristics and development:


Culture is defined as the shared values, customary beliefs, traditions, and social norms of a group. It is perhaps one of the most powerful drivers in individual differences and personality dimensions.

For example, someone raised in an individualistic culture may value independence or personal success.

In contrast, someone raised in a more collectivist culture may value social harmony and the group’s needs over their own.

Geographic location

Similar to culture, geographic location directly impacts human behavior. Depending on your location, you are exposed to different experiences, hardships, cultures, and more. For example, in a fascinating study, 1.5 million people across the United States were evaluated personality characteristics. The study found three distinct regional personality differences across the country:

Cluster 1: The Upper Midwest and Deep South are mainly comprised of people with a «friendly and conventional personality.”

Cluster 2: The West is mainly comprised of people who are relaxed, creative, calm, and emotionally stable.

Cluster 3: The Northeast is mainly comprised of people who are people who are exposed to more stress and therefore more ly to experience irritableness or depression


Within a geographic location and culture, smaller groups called communities form. These communities are generally people who live in the same place and share certain traits, goals, or interests. Community influences could include role models, religion, and neighborhood context.

For example, a theory conceived by RJ Sampson called «Social Disorganization Theory» suggests that when people live together in a community, emergent properties develop: characteristics that cannot be predicted from the individual characteristics of the residents.

Meaning, that personality development for a community as a whole is actually impacted by its' residents. Therefore, the link between community and personality is quite strong.


Another environmental factor that plays a role in personality characteristics is the schools people went to and their education. Studies found that various school experiences were associated with personality changes.

For example, a student who prioritizes studying and doing their homework may experience an increase in conscientiousness.

In contrast, a student exposed to a stressful or volatile school environment may increase neuroticism.

Genetic personality traits (inherited from parents)

While there are endless possibilities for how a person behaves and perceives the world, five primary traits are often measured. Personality models such as The Big Five measure agreeableness, openness, extraversion, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. From these main characteristics, a personality type can be determined.

While environment certainly plays a role in personality development, genetic influences tend to have an even more significant effect. Through family studies and genetic studies, many genes and resulting behavioral traits have been found to be directly linked to heritability.

Here are some other inherited personality traits:


Specific learning disabilities resulting from high levels of distractibility, such as ADHD, have been found to be linked to numerous inherited genes.

Unfortunately, there are no genetic tests to determine whether someone has ADHD; however, after nearly 2,000 studies, it has been found that the genes typically linked to ADHD often run in families.

Usually, if a person is easily distracted and diagnosed with a condition such as ADHD, another blood-relative or parent also having it is very ly.


In a newer study, specific inherited DNA sequences were found to correlate with leadership abilities. In this study, a particular genotype was found associated with passing leadership abilities down through generations. While leadership may still be thought of as a skill to have or develop, it is important to note the role behavioral genetics plays.


During the Minnesota twin studies, scientists found that certain traits, including neuroticism, were inheritable.

People with this trait are more vulnerable to stress and are often seen as more nervous and sensitive to stimuli, while those without may have a more positive and calm demeanor.

Doctors theorized that people with higher levels of this trait could potentially benefit from therapy, although a life of low stress would be most beneficial.


The environment in which a child is raised can influence their level of patience and reaction to stressors.

A study measuring the patience of children abroad found that those residing in more remote and rural locations tended to be more patient than those living in more industrialized city locations.

The ability to be patient and tolerant of uncertainty varied significantly the location, suggesting that the environment greatly influenced this trait.


Another trait measured during the Minnesota twin studies is the need for intimacy, which seems to be more the environment rather than genetics. Researchers found that two-thirds of this personality trait depended on past experiences.

Someone raised in an unloving or individualistic environment may have low amounts of this trait- meaning they tend to keep to themselves and do not have a strong desire to be in emotionally intense relationships or situations.

Doctors also stated that this gene, in particular, can be greatly strengthened through quality interactions with family; this trait will develop more in children exposed to emotional and physical intimacy during adolescence.


People within different communities or cultures will have contrasting practices when it comes to manners and etiquette. A polite person who practices good manners typically will have had a different upbringing than a person who acts oppositely.

Certain standards of decorum, acceptable behaviors, and morality result in a learned expression of how a person behaves in different settings. For example, in American culture, it is polite to say «please» and «thank you» and to send «thank you» letters after receiving a gift. In Spain, it is polite to greet others with a kiss.

Etiquette varies depending on culture and therefore has differing effects on personality development.

Genetics and personality: Key takeaways

The common debate, nature-vs-nurture, questions whether humans are a result of their genetics or their environment.

Various studies have found that the multiple aspects of personality result from specific genes and environmental effects.

Although many of our personality traits may evolve as we grow and experience life, our core temperaments and characteristics remain relatively consistent.

While environmental influences undoubtedly play a role in shaping our personality, how we behave is primarily determined by genetics. Learning about your own personality type can help you better understand your inner workings and behavioral patterns.

 Get started with a free personality traits test today!


The Role of the Environment in Shaping Personality

Are Personality Traits Caused by Genes or Environment?
(Image: Studio Romantic/Shutterstock)

Before delving into the role of the environment on human personality, think of someone such as Mozart.

Where did that level of musical genius come from? Yes, there were some musicians in his family, but none of them came even close to his level.

By the time he was five years old, Mozart was competent on the violin and keyboard, and he was already composing music. His sister was also a skilled musician at a young age, but she never showed much skill at composition.

Portrait of six-year-old Mozart painted by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1763) on commission from Leopold Mozart. (Image: Unknown/Mozarteum, Salzburg)

Being a musical prodigy requires many characteristics to align just right. Many people might have part of the pattern, but it all came together for Mozart. His genius wasn’t all genetics of course.

His father was a minor composer and a music teacher, and having a music teacher in the house certainly got Mozart started. If his father had been a blacksmith, and Mozart had never had an opportunity to learn music, his genius probably wouldn’t have developed.

Mozart must have had some special combination of genes that his parents and siblings didn’t, even though they shared 50 percent of the same genes.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

Some researchers think that charisma is also this sort of emergenic trait. Charisma is hard to define, but we can all think of people who have a certain amount of charisma—that special magic or charm that draws people to them, seen in many entertainers.

Charisma requires many characteristics to align just right. For example, ithelps if you are physically attractive; it’s hard to think of many charismaticpeople who are really unattractive.

You also need to be at least moderatelyextraverted and sociable, and to have certain interpersonal skills and anability to relate to people.

Throw in some self-confidence, along with somegood verbal ability.

Charisma requires many characteristics to align just right. For example, it helps if you are physically attractive, at least moderately extraverted, sociable, have certain interpersonal skills, the ability to relate to people, self-confidence, as well as some good verbal ability.

Charisma requires a combination of a high level of all of these things, each of which has some genetic basis. If you don’t have them all, you’re probably not highly charismatic. It’s possible then, for one child in a family to have the right combination of genes and exude charisma, while his brother or sister is, comparatively, introverted or less sociable.

Learn more about intelligence and genius over the lifespan

The Role of the Environment

Personality often depends on particular combinations of genes that brothers and sisters don’t necessarily share, but what about the environmental influences on personality? Consider the impact of the parents and the family environment on personality. One might expect children who are raised by the same parents in the same way in the same home ought to turn out similar, but this fact isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true that environmental influences, including parenting, affect personality. genetic data, researchers have concluded that environment accounts for approximately 50 to 70 percent of personality.

But researchers have also found the environments that children from the same family share with each other exert a much weaker influence on their personalities than the environments that each child experiences individually.

There are certain activities that kids in a family share—they all went together on a family vacation last year and they all had dinner with the family last night. But many experiences happen to just one child—two different second-grade teachers or one sibling plays in a band while the other does not.

Shared experiences that are common to all children in a family don’t make their personalities as similar to each other (Image: Pavel Vinnik/Shutterstock)

Research shows that shared experiences that are common to all children in a family affect their personalities far less than unshared environmental influences that each child experiences separately. The common environments and experiences that children in a family share don’t make them as similar to each other as we might expect.

Learn more about the integration of experience in psychology

Adopted Children: Unshared Influences

One of the strongest pieces of evidence for the idea that the shared family environment does not cause children to be a stems from research with adopted children.

If the shared family environment made children similar to each other, then children with different biological parents who are adopted into the same family should have personalities that are more similar than two unrelated people who grew up in different homes. According to the latest research, they are not.

Identical twins have similar psychology due to genetics and not family environment (Image: JGA/Shutterstock)

When researchers analyzed why identical twins were so similar psychologically, they found that the similarity was due almost entirely to genetics, not to the fact that they grew up in the same environment. The fact that sharing a particular environment growing up does not lead siblings to be similar surprises most people.

Shared influences are variables that are common to all children in a family—the house and town they live in, the number of TV sets and books in the house, their parents’ attitudes and values, whether the family attends church, the family’s financial situation, the relatives who visit, the family pet, family vacations, and so on.

Learn more about the development of the human brain

Unshared influences are things that children in the same family don’t share. For example, the kids probably have different sets of friends and different teachers in school. Their parents probably treat them a bit differently as well, both because each child is different, and because the parents themselves change as they have more children.

The family’s finances may change when different children are different ages, and the parents’ marriage may have different ups and downs along the way so that some children may see more conflict between the parents. Brothers and sisters in the same family also have different personal experiences, different illnesses, and different injuries.

Even children growing up in the same family have many different, unshared experiences—and these differences help explain some of the variations in personality. Research has shown that unshared parts of children’s environments exert a stronger influence on personality development than the shared parts.

In some studies, the shared environment exerts little or no discernible impact on personality. For example, once we control for the genetic similarity among brothers and sisters, they are barely any more similar to one another than randomly selected people—even though they grew up in the same family.

Common Questions About Environment and Human Personality

Q: Is personality genetic or environmental?

Both genetics and environment influence personality.

Twin studies have found that genetics play a larger role than parental influences when it comes to behavioral outcomes, but non-shared environmental factors play an even bigger role.

For instance, if one twin falls in with a bad crowd at school, that will have a huge influence on his or her behavior.

Q: What factors influence human behavior?

Many factors influence human behavior, including the environment in which one is raised, genetics, culture, and community, which includes teachers and classmates.

Q: What are two environmental influences on personality?

One environmental influence on personality is culture. For instance, some cultures dictate that children should be reserved and speak only when spoken to. Another environmental influence is school.

Since children spend the majority of their time in school, this can have a huge influence on their personality.

If they go to a school where violence and drug abuse proliferates, they are more ly to engage in these behaviors themselves as peer pressure can be very powerful.

Keep Reading
Evolution and Behavior: Fear, Aggression, and Overeating
How Evolutionary Psychology Informs Behavior
Unpacking Human Behavior: The Gene-Environment Correlation


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