More Mental Health Matters: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


“If you were a troublemaker as a kid, then your kids will be too, ” Wayne told Frank. “Personalities and behavior are determined by genetics just like whether they get blue or brown eyes.” “I don’t believe that at all,” Frank replied. “If you treat a child with love and respect it has to influence his behavior ~ just look at the psychological damage child abuse inflicts! It’s environment, not genes that make the difference.”


As our national awareness of mental health increases, the question of nature versus nurture often arises. Are psychological difficulties, like anxiety and depression, inherited, or are they largely due to environmental factors, such as early childhood or other significant experiences?

The answer to this question is, it’s probably both. That is,

• nature and nurture—genetics and environment—are inextricably intertwined.

Both play a necessary role in the development of psychological disturbances and most medical illness, too.

Here is an example that may help to illustrate this idea: Henry and Harry are identical twins basically the same genetically. Both inherited a stomach condition that affords less protection against stomach acids than most people. Henry is an English professor who likes his job and has good health habits, such as getting regular exercise, eating low fat foods, and avoiding too much alcohol. Harry, an air traffic controller, finds his job very demanding, eats lots of fast foods, often takes aspirin, and drinks plenty of alcohol. This, as you probably guessed, is the environmental side of the equation. Not surprisingly, although both have the same sensitive stomach, stressed out Harry developed severe gastritis while easy going Henry had no stomach trouble at all.

This same idea helps to explain some psychological problems, such as clinical depression. Just as Harry’s sensitive stomach responded to his stressful lifestyle, somebody else’s genetic predisposition toward a specific neurochemical imbalance in the brain can be triggered by stressful environmental circumstances, resulting in the symptoms of depression.

So, is it nature or is it nurture?  We believe it’s 100 percent of both!


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus and Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy


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