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Personality traits are not strongly inherited from parents

Our society strongly believes that families pass down personality traits. We often hear phrases like “he’s just like his dad” or “she takes after her mom.” These sayings reinforce the belief that children are destined to mirror their parents’ personalities.

Yet, a recent study challenges this long-held assumption. It suggests that the direct inheritance of personality traits from parent to child may be surprisingly limited.

Parents and roots of personality

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Tartu (Estonia) embarked on a comprehensive investigation into the ways personality is passed down from parents.

The team analyzed data from over 1,000 pairs of relatives, dissecting the “big five” personality traits – the gold standard for psychological personality assessment:

Openness to experience

  • The adventurous spirit: People high in openness thrive on novelty and change. They crave new experiences, whether it’s traveling to unique destinations or immersing themselves in unfamiliar cultures.
  • Intellectual explorers: They possess a relentless curiosity, always seeking knowledge and understanding across a wide range of topics.
  • Nonconformists: They aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, embrace unconventional ideas, and think outside the box.
  • Imaginative minds: Artistic expression, vivid imagination, and a deep appreciation for beauty often characterize individuals high in openness.


  • Purposeful and driven: These individuals are goal-oriented with a strong focus on achievement. They are planners, setting clear targets and working diligently to complete tasks.
  • The reliable ones: Highly conscientious people are dependable and responsible, consistently following through on commitments and obligations.
  • Order and structure: They appreciate organization and maintain a high level of self-discipline in various aspects of life.
  • Detail-oriented: Meticulous and thorough, they value precision and accuracy in their work and interactions.


  • Social butterflies: Exuberant and energized by social interaction, extroverts flourish in lively environments and enjoy being the center of attention.
  • Bold and outgoing: They are assertive, confident in expressing their opinions, and comfortable initiating conversations.
  • People magnets: With their warmth and outgoing nature, extroverts easily draw others into their circle and excel at building relationships.
  • Positive energy: They often have an infectious enthusiasm and a positive outlook on life.


  • Compassion and empathy: High in agreeableness means a strong capacity for understanding and sharing the feelings of others.
  • Team players: Cooperative and helpful, they prioritize harmonious interactions and actively seek to find common ground.
  • Trust and forgiveness: They tend to assume the best in others, are forgiving, and focus on building trusting, supportive relationships.
  • Conflict-averse: They strive to avoid confrontation and maintain peace whenever possible.


  • Emotional reactivity: A tendency to experience negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, or anger more intensely and frequently.
  • Worry and rumination: Prone to excessive worry, self-doubt, and fixating on negative experiences.
  • Sensitive to stress: May have difficulty coping with challenging situations or perceived threats.
  • Mood fluctuations: Might see more frequent shifts in mood or emotional state, shifting between highs and lows.

It is crucial to remember that these are broad descriptions. Most individuals are a blend of these traits, falling along a spectrum within each category.

Is personality truly inherited from parents?

The study’s findings were nothing short of startling. The researchers concluded that it is “impossible to accurately predict a child’s personality traits from those of their mother or father.”

This finding goes beyond noting minor differences between parents and children. It implies that, at our core, we may be fundamentally no more alike in personality to our own parents than to a complete stranger on the street.

“There is only a small chance that people are more similar to their parents than to any random stranger,” said Dr. René Mottus of the University of Edinburgh.

The notion that personality inheritance is limited forces us to reconsider how we view ourselves and our family members. It reminds us that we aren’t simply extensions of our parents, but rather, complex individuals shaped by a multitude of factors beyond genetics alone. Even within families, where shared experiences are plentiful, unique personalities will still flourish.

Heritability of parent personalities

The study estimates the heritability of personality to hover around 40 percent. When scientists estimate that personality has a heritability of around 40 percent, it signifies a substantial genetic influence in shaping who we are.

This implies that a significant portion of the variation in our personalities – our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving – can be traced back to the DNA we inherit from our biological parents. It’s important to note that genes don’t simply translate into ready-made traits; rather, they offer a blueprint that interacts with a myriad of other factors throughout our lives.

Even with substantial genetic influence, the research suggests that our upbringing has a comparatively smaller direct impact on our core personality traits. Growing up in the same family undeniably shapes us in countless ways – our values, interests, and communication styles can all mold us, reflecting our environment.

However, this study indicates that when it comes to the fundamental elements of personality, such as openness or neuroticism, shared upbringing may not be the significant determining factor it’s often assumed to be.

“Besides, there is no evidence that the experiences that come with sharing a family would make people more similar,” said Dr. Mottus.

Challenging assumptions behind parents personality

The research illuminates the continuous, complex interplay between nature and nurture. We are a product of our genes, interacting with a lifetime of experiences, relationships, and environmental influences.

The idea that our family dynamics could heavily dictate our personalities is an assumption that is challenged by the study. This suggests that beyond the broad strokes of genetic influence, how we develop our unique personalities lies in the dynamic interplay between our inherent predispositions and the world around us.

We might notice a shared sense of humor or a common tendency toward anxiety, overlooking the unique complexities of each individual. This study calls for reassessing those everyday observations, emphasizing that our personalities are not mere copies of our parents.

These findings should not diminish the profound impact of parental influence in other aspects of our lives. However, they do highlight that when it comes to the core aspects of personality, we might have more freedom to shape our own paths than previously assumed.

The study has been released as a pre-print on the PsyArXiv server.


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