In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’ll look at the difference between innate and acquired characteristics.
While intuitively it would seem reasonable that there are some capacities or abilities that are innate and some that are learned, there’s fundamental disagreement within the academic community over whether innateness even exists at all. This debate seems to be centred around the fields of philosophy and cognitive psychology.
What is innate?
To decide whether innateness exists, one must first define innate, which, apparently, is a lot harder than one might think. Some of the ideas that have been considered to define innateness, although none are wholly satisfactory, include:
- not acquired
- present at birth
- the product of internal rather than external causes (although tell that to Chernobyl babies)
- genetically determined/heritable (although gene expression can make as much of a difference as what’s actually encoded in the genes)
- not learned
One member of the nativist (as in pro-innate) team is linguist Noam Chomsky. He argues that we’re born with an innate knowledge of universal grammar that allows us to learn speech with a speed and level of reliability that exceeds what would be expected from acquired knowledge. Essentially, the argument is that it couldn’t be learnable, therefore it must be innate.
Is there talent?
Going beyond simply the existence of innate characteristics is the idea that people have an innate talent that allows them to excel at certain activities. Some of the reasons put forward in support of this idea have been:
- in some children, skills appear at an unusually early age
- an individual may acquire some abilities much more quickly than others
- certain biological factors are correlated with high ability, such as left-handedness and short-sightedness
- gender differences in spatial abilities may impact mathematical performance
On the other hand, even people who are considered musically talented (an area where talent is thought to count for a lot) have to practice a significant amount to reach a high skill level, and overall, the evidence seems to point towards innate talent not actually existing.
Acquired (or not?)
One study compared facial expressions of blind and sighted athletes after winning or losing. The researchers concluded that they were far too similar to have been learned, and therefore must be innate. This goes along with the idea that there are certain basic emotions that are universally recognizable, regardless of culture.
Perfect pitch, which is the ability to recognize and reproduce a given note without having a reference pitch, appears to be innate. It’s something you either have or you don’t, but it’s not clear whether it’s influenced by the early environment or if it’s something you’re born with.
I don’t recall the name of it, but I watched a documentary that looked at navigational ability. The main determining factor in someone’s navigational skill level is the ability to construct a mental map. This didn’t appear to be determined by practice; it was something you either had or didn’t have. I’m a very good navigator, which has come in very handy when I used to travel. I don’t think of it as a skill that I’ve developed, though; my brain just generates that mental map with no interference on my part. I’m lousy at giving directions though; that internal map works to orient me, but I can’t extract from it in a way that’s useful for others.
Intelligence seems to be partially genetic, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into other abilities. I think society tends to inflate the value of intelligence. It’s a good ability to have, but it’s not an all-purpose tool for excellence. There are many abilities that are useful in this world, and probably what matters most is having the ability that’s best suited to the goal that needs to be achieved.
When it comes to math, it appears that there may be certain innate abilities as well as acquired skills, but no one seems to know for sure. I took math and physics in high school and then in first-year university, and I got through the more advanced bits mostly by memorization because conceptualizing the material in more abstract terms was beyond me. However, had I chosen a math or physics major, I feel like that lack of ability would eventually have put up a roadblock that I wouldn’t have been able to climb over.
More questions than answers
What about things like gender identity and sexual orientation? I have no doubt that they happen in the same kind of way for cis/hetero and non-cis/hetero people, but when and how does it happen? Is it determined at conception? In utero? After birth? Science hasn’t figured it out yet, but it’s interesting to contemplate.
After what I read, I had far more questions than I had going in. I wonder if science will ever get to the point where it can clearly identify what’s nature, what’s nurture, and what happens in between. It seems like it’s at least within the realm of possibility.
What do you think of the idea of innate abilities?
- Howe, M. J., Davidson, J. W., & Sloboda, J. A. (1998). Innate talents: Reality or myth? Behavioral and brain sciences, 21(3), 399-407.
- Mameli, M., & Bateson, P. (2011). An evaluation of the concept of innateness. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1563), 436-443.
- Samuels, R. (2004). Innateness in cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(3), 136-141.
- San Francisco State University. (2008). Facial expressions of emotion are innate, not learned. ScienceDaily.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Distinction Between Innate and Acquired Characteristics
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.