The characteristics of learned behavior & inherited traits

Updated April 17, 2017

Learnt behaviours are the result of life experiences. Inherited traits, on the other hand, are the result of biology. Physical traits, such as hair or eye colour, are easier to understand as being inherited since there is a usually a clear genetic explanation. Other more abstract inherited traits such as personality quirks or tics may also have a biological basis.

Conditioned Response

A conditioned response (CR) is an inherent reaction that transforms to learnt behaviour because of an outside occurrence or stimulus. In the classic example of CR developed by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, a dog was conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. While salivating in itself is an inherent and natural characteristic that occurs with the stimulus of hunger and the scent of food, it does not normally occur when a bell sounds. However, by pairing the bell with the natural cause of salivation, i.e. the food, the dog eventually salivates when he hears the bell without any food in sight. Sometimes the CR will occur purposely as in this example, and other times it happens by chance.


Experiences in life unintentionally cause conditioned responses. For example, coincidentally getting an upset stomach while a cake is baking in the oven may in the future provoke sickness when the scent of cake is in the air. Even though there is no direct connection and most people do not feel sick from the scent of a freshly baked cake, the negative experience inadvertently creates an association that causes the learnt behaviour. Conditioning can overcome these experience-based responses, such as repeatedly pairing the scent of cake with positive experiences.

Physical Traits

Unlike learnt behaviours, physical traits are genetically inherited. People cannot choose the natural colour of their hair or eyes, nor can inherited physical traits change permanently through conditioning or some other method. Physical traits are part of the the genetic components of a human being and are why a person has his mother's eyes or grandfather's birthmark.

Personality Traits

Similar to physical traits, there are certain elements of personality that have a genetic basis. Certain emotional reactions or moods, level of intelligence and the social nature of a person are all traits that are passed down genetically. Nature Genetics reported the results of a study in 2009 that offered evidence supporting a genetic basis to personality traits.


No human being is entirely full of either learnt behaviours or inherited traits. In fact, every person is composed of a combination of traits from each of these categories. Some traits are easy to link to genetics, while others are obviously learnt behaviours. It is the traits that fall somewhere in between, such as abstract concepts like racism or religion, which are harder to distinguish and which researchers, such as those in 2005 at the University of Minnesota, are attempting to explain.

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About the Author

Rebecca DeLuccia-Reinstein has been a freelance writer since 2004. She is a native New Yorker based in Pennsylvania. Her writing includes books, manuals, training guides and articles published as a ghostwriter and she has covered topics such as education, sales, art and psychology. She received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the State University of New York at Albany.