Resiliency: Nature or Nurture?

There are some professionals and researchers who believe resilience "is not a trait or something that some children simply possess" and "there is no such thing as an 'invulnerable child'"—one that is innately resilient. It is their belief that "resilience is the product of a large number of developmental processes over time that has allowed children who experience some sort of risk to continue to develop completely." (Yates)

My question to you is what do you believe? Do you believe resilience is based purely on development? Or is it solely inherited and genetic? Or some combination of both?

In Al Siebert's book, The Survivor Personality, there is a chapter called "The Roots of Resiliency." He indicates while there are many tools and resources available to children (and adults) you will not be able to utilize those resources effectively unless you also draw upon your inner resources. (TSP, pg 136). He goes on to say:

Our bodies have three major nervous systems: the autonomic, somatic, and central. The autonomic nervous system governs the state of our feelings. The somatic controls our physical actions. The central nervous system contains the cerebral cortex that makes possible our verbal, conceptual thinking and nonverbal, visual thinking.

As we grow up we develop a sense of ourselves linked to the three major nervous systems. We develop feelings about ourselves, we anticipate our ability to take effective actions, and we develop thoughts about ourselves. These external experiences of one's self are referred to self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept. (TSP, pg 137)

Siebert indicates the level of a child's ability to cope with "life adversities" is directly linked to the level of development of self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept. Did Siebert believe resilience can be learned? Absolutely — at any age. He states:

Most introductory psychology textbooks define learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior that results from experience. In a world that is constantly changing, it is important to understand that changes requires learning. The two concepts, change and learning, are inseparably linked." (TSP, pg 15)

While he truly believed any individual can learn and develop resilience, he also believed there are individuals who have the capacity for high levels of resilience already within them.

The professionals mentioned above caused me to wonder about one's genetic capacity for resilience. Is there an inherent capacity in all of us? Does everyone have the gene for resilience, is it a selective gene, or is there no gene at all? And, if everyone has the gene, what factors affect the level of capacity for resilience?

While searching online on the question, "Is resilience genetic?", I found a couple of articles on the emerging science that is researching the neurobiological basis of resilience. ( For example, it is thought that neuropeptide Y (NPY and 5-Dehydroepiandrosterone [5-DHEA]) "limits the stress response by reducing sympathetic nervous system activation and protecting the brain from the potentially harmful effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels respectively." (Charney)

Other findings in neurobiological science research in resilience include:

  1. "The relationship between social support and stress resilience is thought to be mediated by the oxytocin system's impact on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis." (Ozbay, Fitterling, Charney, Southwick).
  2. "Resilience, conceptualized as a positive bio-psychological adaptation, has proven to be a useful theoretical context for understanding variables for predicting long-term health and well-being."

These findings indicate to me that since there are protective biological responses to positivity and stress resilience, there is likely a genetic basis for the resilience response. Currently there is ongoing research to validate the hypothesis that, "like trauma, resilience is epigenetic" that is, it may be inherited.(Pember) The science behind this is preliminary.

So, back to the question, is a person's capacity to resile, to cope, and to constantly change and learn a genetic or inherited neurobiological process? Siebert indicates "we humans are born needing to learn how to survive in this world. Human children are not like insects and small animals" which are hard-wired with a "preprogrammed neurology for finding food and shelter and avoiding danger." However, the "more a creature's behavior is preprogrammed, the less its behavior can be altered through learning....We humans need to learn how to survive." (Siebert, The Resiliency Advantage, pg 92). Does this infer we all have a gene that provides the capacity for resilience?

I am intrigued with the following references which I believe support Siebert's theories:

  1. The longitudinal studies of researchers like Emmy Werner have reported characteristics in young children that are associated with "coping abilities under adverse conditions" (Werner 1995, p. 82). According to Werner, infants who are "active, affectionate, cuddly, good-natured, and easy to deal with" are more likely to be resilient in the face of adversity. Other researchers have noted that infants and toddlers who show resilience are "alert, easy to soothe, and able to elicit support from a nurturant family member" (p. 82). Resilient preschoolers' characteristics include the ability to be autonomous and to ask for help when needed-characteristics that are also predictive of resilience in later years.


  2. D. Breslin has studied children who seem to be adequately "adapting and surviving," despite the negative life events and stress they experience. She has identified four characteristics that resilient children exhibit: heightened sensory awareness, high positive expectations, a clear and developing understanding of one's strengths relating to accomplishment, and a heightened, developing sense of humor (Breslin 2005).


  3. Bonnie Benard believes in the "self-righting nature of the human organism." She states that research in resilience:
    ...validates prior research and theory in human development that has clearly established the biological imperative for growth and development that exists in the human organism — that is part of our genetic makeup — and which unfolds naturally in the presence of certain environmental attributes. We are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits commonly found in resilient survivors: social competence (responsiveness, cultural flexibility, empathy, caring, communication skills, and a sense of humor); problem-solving (planning, help-seeking, critical and creative thinking); autonomy (sense of identity, self-efficacy, self-awareness, task-mastery, and adaptive distancing from negative messages and conditions); and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future (goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness) (Benard, 1991). It is our inborn capacity for self-righting (Werner and Smith, 1992) and for transformation and change (Lifton, 1993).

I feel alignment of Al Siebert's work with Benard's agreement with the work of Werner and Breslin regarding the "self-righting nature of the human organism." Bernard's belief that "the biological imperative for growth and development...[that] unfolds naturally in the presence of certain environmental attributes" also tracks with Siebert's conclusions about resiliency being something that we develop over time depending on our individual stresses and strains, not knowing when it will be called upon. "We are all born with innate resiliency, with the capacity to develop the traits," agrees Bernard. Stated simply by A. Matson, "When adversity is relieved and basic human needs are restored, then resilience has a chance to emerge." In my mind, both thoughts provide validation of Dr. Al Siebert's research in the late twentieth century about how resiliency can be developed in anyone.

So, do you believe resilience is purely a byproduct of development and learning, purely inherited or both? It appears to me the answer is both. We humans have the genetic capacity to both develop and learn resiliency skills.

Please join our discussion forum to let us know your thoughts.



About Molly: Molly and Al Siebert were married from March, 2003, until his death in June, 2009. Molly is a champion of Al’s work and philosophy and is a huge proponent of keeping his important works on resiliency alive and and thriving. She first served as the Resiliency Center Marketing Director until she took over the reins after Al’s passing. Molly recieved a Bachelor degree in Health Information Technology Management which has served her well in the medical field. Review her profile on LinkedIn.