Insights into Psychology

What Is… an Innate vs. Acquired Characteristic

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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 is apparently 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. In the video in yesterday’s post demonstrating Steven Pinker’s fabulous 80s hair, he happened to take the same position.

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 determined by practice; it was something you had or you 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 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.

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?

Sources

  • Howe, M. J., Davidson, J. W., & Sloboda, J. A. (1998). Innate talents: Reality or myth?. Behavioral and brain sciences21(3), 399-407.
  • Mameli, M., & Bateson, P. (2011). An evaluation of the concept of innatenessPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences366(1563), 436-443.
  • Samuels, R. (2004). Innateness in cognitive science. Trends in Cognitive Sciences8(3), 136-141.
  • ScienceDaily: Facial Expressions Of Emotion Are Innate, Not Learned
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Distinction Between Innate and Acquired Characteristics
The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with s a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

33 thoughts on “What Is… an Innate vs. Acquired Characteristic”

  1. I love your brain. The bits about music jumped out at me. They say Tori Amos walked up to a piano at 2 years old and started making up little songs with song structure clearly in place, albeit basic. But, supporting your point about practice… she also spent countless hours practicing and building her skill.
    I sure as hell could not fingerpick when I picked up a guitar. In my youth I practiced up to 5 hours a day rather consistently. Nowadays, whatever else may be said about me – I can fingerpick like a mufuckah.

  2. Ooo definitely an interesting one. I’m more on the fence with believing the argument for a mix of nature/nurture, though it does seem to me that some elements of ‘talent’ are more innate. Someone can just be ‘better’ at drawing or singing without practice. I wonder what would be said about those that claim to wake up from some kind of trauma or surgery to suddenly be able to sing or draw amazingly well, when they couldn’t at all before..? xx

  3. Fascinating! I think there’s an odd combination within everyone of both innateness and acquired skill from practicing or study. I think I have a lot of innate musical talent, but it gets squelched by the fact that my brain works very slowly and thus I can’t play fast or complex piano. And that gets into the whole strange concept of reverse innateness, like I’m gifted at music (I took four semesters of music theory in college, I’m great at reading music, and my musical memory is downright spooky–I can start singing songs we did in middle school chorus in the late 1980s or 1990) but I have an innate barrier to being good at it. Oh, and now I have to prove it! My middle school chorus teacher composed this: “They told us lies and slaughtered our game. They killed our buffalo but took no meat, just left them lying there at our feet. This land was our land. The time has come to take a stand. This land, this land, this land…” Ending on a major chord split between soprano 1, soprano 2, and altos. I’m weirding myself out now. And the other night as I fell asleep, I started listing by name everyone who went to youth camp with me in 1992. These are all people who disappeared after that week and didn’t join the still-existing clique on social media. Okay, maybe the whole point of this is that I have a really good memory? That must be innate. You’d think. I just remember so much.

    Anyway, I think I have some innate schizophrenic mental issues including the slow-mindedness and also the way I can often take things completely literally. I mean, if someone’s sarcasm is obvious, then I won’t; but I have a history of taking people exactly at their word.

    It’s a funky topic, and there’s so much more to find out! Who knows? Very thought-compelling!

  4. I totally believe some things are innate especially in regards to epigenetic things. Take identical twins separated at birth they still have similarities in abilities with different upbringing and identical twins still have differences that are innate due to epigenetics

    1. Epigenetics is interesting, because it depends how you define innate. Epigenetic changes could happen because of childhood circumstances, so thatโ€™s certainly not voluntary or learned, but thatโ€™s not innate if you define it as present at birth.

  5. Of course a person’s talents are innate – whether they are nurtured/practiced to become skills is another story. Are they genetic, sure in some cases. I have a certain “talent” that is shared by the women in my maternal line but only practice makes me really good with it. I love music but could never make the connection between notes on a page and an instrument but I have a great sense of rhythm. If that had been nurtured then my love of dance might have become something more than “Hey, you can really dance!” But my sense of rhythm comes into play in that my first writing style was poetry. My mother was a talented dancer – inherited? genetic? innate? Math? always a big bug-a-boo for me and yet I earned my living as a bookkeeper – neat and tidy math I’m good with, algebra not so much. (And I thought geometry was just a stupid waste of time – it wasn’t hard to learn, just stupid and boring.) You can learn a boatload of stuff but never be really good at it – adequate. Adequate is good enough. To be really good at something you have to have been born with that innate talent and then you gotta practice –

  6. This is all so interesting! I love it and believe that our brains are neuroplastic, but I also believe that things like some talents definitely are innate. Still, I suppose the fact that one person was born with some ability or it developed in them extremely early on, doesn’t mean that another person can’t acquire it, or that the person with the innate ability won’t lose it when they won’t practice it, although I think there are traits that are difficult to learn.
    Like, a lot of linguistic folks say there’s no such thing as a talent for languages, it’s all about learning, but that some people have more and some less skill in terms of phonetics, accents or specific language prosody because some of that stuff is quite subtle and difficult to learn when you simply don’t hear it or can’t imitate it. I suppose I must have that skill then, because, while I am really interested in all things accents, dialects and phonetics, I believe picking up such things usually comes to me quite easily without any dramatic efforts, I often find it a lot easier than grammar and people have told me that I’m good at it. But I had a friend who was extremely fluent in their second, third and fourth language, in speaking, listening, reading and writing, also knew some other languages on a lower level, but you could tell from a kilometre’s distance what his native language was even if you didn’t know, regardless of which language he was speaking because he had such a strong accent it can sound quite jarring if you care about such things.
    I’ve always envied people from multilingual families/countries or generally multilingual from a very early age as I’ve often heard that learning more than one language at an early age makes it easier to learn another language later. Even if that isn’t the case, which I’m not 100% sure of, I love how multilingual people can switch languages so effortlessly. I mean, I can do that to an extend now, but not always as smoothly. My envy is all the greater that I actually could be bilingual from an early age, because my Dad is Kashubian, but he isn’t fluent in the Kashubian language and never used it as much as Polish, so we were not raised with it and I don’t really have a connection with it at all.
    I once had a time when I was really interested in perfect pitch for some reason, don’t really know why, perhaps because I mingled with a lot of people at school who had it, even though I do not. I like brains who think in weird ways and I guess it was fascinating for me that anyone would care about/notice what key someone has just coughed in, or stuff like that. I hate stereotypes like that blind people are great at music and should do it, go to music school, play an instrument etc. Despite I hate it, I have an impression (which is just that – my impression) that there seriously may be some correlation between congenital blindness/significant visual impairment and perfect pitch, that it’s more common in visually impaired people than the general population. Of course, just like with sighted people, there are blind people who have great musical skills, those who cannot sing a single sound in tune and those in between, but I know loads of blind people who have perfect pitch, and only a handful of sighted people who do. I’ve once heard about a link between perfect pitch and autism, don’t know how true that actually is, but there definitely is a strong link between autism and blindness as they often occur together, and even when they do not, there’s a lot of overlap anyway (for example stimming in autism vs so called blindisms).
    As for the expression of emotion, there was once a person who asked me how did I learn to smile, and at the time I thought that was just so infinitely daft, but some time later realised that it’s actually quite an interesting question, because not all of my facial expressions/body language are innate, I had to consciously learn most of it and still don’t know a lot and find what I know super confusing so most often don’t even bother with using it overly, because it’s exhausting when you not only have to socialise but also focus on the body language, and it apparently hardly ever looks natural. A lot of blind people can master it quite well, and I think for me the problem is also largely due to my peopling problems and suppressing emotions, not just blindness. Even when I smile, people who know me very well can tell quite easily whether it’s spontaneous or not because when it’s not it apparently looks a lot different and I too sometimes feel that something is off about it but don’t know what so can’t change it. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. It sounds like researchers are pretty sure that a few basic emotional expressions are hardwired into it, because even in very isolated cultural groups, they use those expressions the same way.

      I’ve heard the same thing about learning another language while young. I don’t think language learning was valued as much in the older generations. My mom’s dad and his siblings were spoken to in Arabic by their parents, but they never learned to speak it. My dad’s dad was born in Denmark, but didn’t teach my dad or any of his siblings Danish. It’s too bad. It would have been nice to be exposed to another language early on.

      1. Yes, it’s certainly true about the very basic emotional expressions like that smiling thing. And I believe you’re very right about that language learning was less valued before than it is now. I’d imagine that the difference must have been even stronger in the English-speaking world!

  7. I remember the first song I played by ear was, “Those Were The Days” (theme of “All in The family”. Now, I admit on my maternal side there are lots of musicians.
    I learned and honed my ability to play by ear was in my home church. Someone would start a song and I would find the key and would start playing it. At first it was rather crude, but with much practice I became quite quick of doing those things.
    I have always had a love for music, basically Gospel, but nonetheless I love music.
    I do not know if that would be innate.

    1. I think the biggest problem comes when people without intelligence assume that they can do things that require intelligence, or vice versa.

  8. Wow, I finally learned why I’m horrible with directions. I always thought it’s yet another proof of my stupidity.

    I take the same routes all the time because 1 change completely screws me over. Really poor ability to generate mental maps. Even with Google Maps and City Mapper, I get all confused so I need the little arrow which correspond to what I’m facing.

      1. Yep! And given how dense buildings are in my area, sometimes GPS struggles or simply gets blocked, and then it makes finding my way a real pain. ๐Ÿ˜†

  9. There is something to be said for innateness. Like I just cannot draw — at all — my sons won’t have me on their Pictionary Team cos I’m so bad. But they’ve been really arty since they were small. They’re also very unusually athletic and they don’t get that from me ๐Ÿ™

    1. My brother is very athletic and that didn’t come from either of my parents. My mom and her dad had artistic talent, but I’m completely useless.

  10. Interesting post. I think there’s a lot to be said for innate ability. I think I’m a decent writer, but I’ll never be James Joyce or Hemingway. I think some people, though they have to work at it, are just born with amazing genius or talent. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have prodigies like Miles Davis or in sports like Michael Jordan or Lebron James.

  11. I like that you mention Noam Chomsky. As a communication disorders undergraduate we studied is view on language acquisition quite a bit. I was never bought on transformational grammar though. I tend to be a bit too objective.

    Years later I spent time in deep meditation and reached a point where I had thoughts and feelings without words. It made me think, โ€œIs this what he meant?โ€ Is this the universal state that underlies language?

    Who Noams? ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

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