It was Watson (1930) who, as a response on eugenics - a commonly held belief at the time – made a bold statement. He claimed that, if given twelve random healthy infants, he could train any one of them into any type of specialist, regardless of their race or background. He admitted, however, that he did not have any concrete evidence to support his claim. Todd & Morris (1994) consider him to be an archetypical example of a strongly convinced behaviourist. Since the cognitive revolution of the ’50s and the advancement of neuropsychology, radical claims such as Watson’s have been nuanced somewhat. As Moore (2002), among others, points out, both nature and nurture have been shown to influence a person’s thoughts, behaviour, and very being. Yet, this has not stopped fiction and non-fiction alike from discussing this (false) dichotomy. In fact, halfway the 20th century, a widespread belief in the nature side of the debate was partially responsible for the millions of deaths during the second world war, as it caused many people to be branded as inherently inferior. The nurture side of the debate is, for that matter, far more optimistic. The idea that everybody starts off with a sort of tabula rasa, or blank slate, as the 17th century English philosopher John Locke called it, is appealing for it means that things that we have control over and can actively influence are the most important determinant of skill and success. The contrast with people being branded as irredeemably worthless could not have been greater. So how relevant is this optimistic worldview nowadays? In the next part of this essay, I will discuss a number of papers that have delved deeper into this matter.


First and foremost, Petrill, Plomin and DeFries et al. (2014) analysed data from the Colorado Adoption Project. They studied the transition to early adolescence with a number of adopted children. They concluded that genetic traits were to a large degree responsible for variance in cognitive ability. The impact of the children’s environment was comparatively much lower. They also found that memory recall and recognition ability were also largely determined by genetics.

Behaviour problems, however, are more of a mixed bag. Petrill, Plomin and DeFries et al. also point out that scientific literature disagrees on whether nature on nurture has a greater impact on behaviour problems, but that they, in their study, found little evidence for the influence of genetics on behaviour problems. When it came to mood and temperament, their results varied once more, although a variety of environmental factors seem to be a greater determinant of general mental welfare than genetics overall.

Furthermore, they suggest that although the shared environment (e.g. home situation and family) is important in childhood, it decreases in importance as children grow older and their non-shared environment becomes more influential.

The authors present a more dynamic view of the nature/nurture debate, stating that although the environment and genetics both influence many of the previously mentioned factors, the main issue is that the child is not a passive receptor to the environment and has innate preferences on how to respond and deal with their situation and environment.

Burdman (2003) did a study on the effects of Palestinian state propaganda on Palestinian children and concluded that their campaign has been highly successful. It has resulted in a lot of children sacrificing themselves as martyrs and participating in activities directed against Jews and Israel. About one-third of Palestinian children suffer from psycho-social problems as a result of constant indoctrination by their environment at large. Burdman cites many people who are concerned about the long-term effects of this indoctrination, considering that even well into adulthood anti-social behaviour persists in some cases. It are not only children that have been affected by this omnipresent propaganda, however. The study also concludes that Palestinian adults, many of which have known nothing but conflict with Israel, actively encourage children’s martyrdom as they consider it to be their direct ticket to Heaven and an honourable sacrifice in name of their people. This shows just how deep ideology and culture can be ingrained in humans, which has consequences which in some cases last a lifetime.

Perhaps a more infamous example of rigid indoctrination is the Hitler Youth. Fox (2016) examined the rate of success of the postwar re-education of former Hitler Youth members. In multiple interviews with former Hitler Youth members, it became apparent that when they were children, they did not see nor understand the underlying ideological agenda behind the organization and were naively having fun doing outdoor activities. After the war, the former members were disoriented and disillusioned about the defeat of the Nazi state, something they did not readily accept as having occurred. It took years before they accepted the Holocaust and decades before they accepted (partial) responsibility for what happened. Although the former members were indeed successfully “denazified”, it took a very long time for that process to complete.

Discussion & Conclusion

Overall, contemporary science seems to agree that the influence of genetics is far too great to allow the wonderful dream of every child having the same potential as any other to be true. Especially where it comes to cognitive abilities, genetic differences seem to account for a large number of individual differences. It is therefore unlikely that Watson’s dozen healthy infants all have the same potential to become a doctor or lawyer. That said, children are malleable on a social and ideological level, as witnessed by the effectiveness of Palestinian propaganda and the time it took for former Hitler Youth members to accept a democratic Germany. Moreover, the study by Petrill, Plomin and DeFries et al. (2014) supports this, as it concludes that the environment has a major impact on mood, temperament, and behaviour. Historically, this fact has been abused to do the bidding of great evil. We may not be able to make infants into anything we want, but the truth does not appear to be far off.


Burdman, D. (2003).Education, indoctrination, and incitement: Palestinian children on their way to martyrdom. Terrorism and Political Violence, 15(1), 96-123. doi:10.1080/09546550312331292977

Fox, E. 2017. Rebuilding Germany's Children: The Nazi Indoctrination and Postwar Reeducation of the Hitler Youth. Furman Humanities Review, 27(4).

Moore, D. S. (2002).The dependent gene: The fallacy of "nature vs. nurture".New York: Holt.

Petrill, S. A., Plomin, R., & DeFries, J. C. (2014). Nature, Nurture, and the Transition to Early Adolescence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reisberg, D. (2016). Cognition: Exploring the science of the mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Todd, J. T., & Morris, E. K. (1994). Modern perspectives on John B. Watson and classical behaviorism. Westport: CT: Greenwood Press.

Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism (Revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.