Nature via Nurture and the Origin of Bad Behavior

October 28, 2014
by Jennifer Anderson

Why do some kids lie or shoplift and not others?  Is it the neighborhood?  The influences of friends, parents or siblings?  Other environmental triggers?

Associate Professor of Psychology S. Alexandra Burt, at Michigan State University, is studying how the environment may activate or deactivate genetic and biological risk factors related to behavior.  It’s not nature vs. nurture, she explained.  “It’s nature via nurture—how the two work together.”

As co-director of Michigan’s Twin Registry, Burt is recruiting young children who are identical or fraternal twins to look at genotype-environment interplay of the development of a range of behavioral problems in children, from lying to assault.  She focuses on children to understand behavioral problems as they are getting started.

More than 1,000 families with twins from throughout Michigan have participated in laboratory assessments since the experiment was launched in 2008, Burt said.  Twins are ideal subjects, she said, because while they share genes and family environments, often they are treated differently by their parents, do not always overlap in peer groups and may have different classroom teachers.

The similarities in genetics and environment are evaluated alongside each other to tease apart the joint contributions of nature and nurture.

Assessments of parent-child interactions are videotaped and generally take about four hours.  An example of a task involves the classic Etch a Sketch Magic Screen, where you make a picture by turning two knobs at the bottom of the screen.

Parent and child pairs are given a drawing and asked to copy it using the Etch a Sketch.  The parent uses one knob and the child uses the other—allowing Burt and her staff to observe both the child’s behavior during a mildly frustrating task and the parent’s response to the child’s behavior.  Some kids may try to pull the screen towards themselves or get angry at the parent because the sketch does not look right.

Staff also assesses the degree to which parents direct the children’s behavior and approach the children with warmth and praise.

Census data and social and demographic indicators from the families’ neighborhoods also are assessed, Burt said.  Questionnaires about the dynamics of the neighborhood give an overall sense of social processes.

Eventually Burt said she hopes the data can be used to identify treatments for children at risk of engaging in misbehavior.

“Our goal is to figure out which experiences interact with the child’s temperament to produce these behaviors,” she said.   “Then we can tailor treatments accordingly and do so at earlier ages when the behaviors are more malleable.”


S. Alexandra Burt was honored with the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (FABBS) Foundation Early Career Impact Award during the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Psychopathology in September, 2014, in Evanston, IL.