Features, Genetics, Must Reads, Spotlight

Why Parenting May Not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research is Probably Wrong

I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person. Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood. Pause for a minute and let that heresy wash across your synapses. It flies in the face of common sense, does it not? In fact, it’s the type of claim that is unwise to make unless you have some compelling evidence to back it up. Even then it will elicit the ire of many. Psychologists especially get touchy about this subject. I do have evidence, though, and by the time we’ve strolled through the menagerie of reasons to doubt parenting effects, I think another point will also become evident: the problems with parenting research are just a symptom of a larger malady plaguing the social and health sciences. A malady that needs to be dealt with.

In terms of compelling evidence, let’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years. For some background, behavior genetics is the field devoted to studying human differences, and let’s be honest, whether you are a scientist or not you are interested in why people are different from one another. Besides being inherently fascinating, the reality of those differences impacts your life daily. The knowledge that some people are more trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive than others is essential to navigating life. It’s simply not a good personal policy to assume that everyone you stumble upon in life has your best interest at heart.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a behavioral scientist or a plumber; we’re all theorists about these differences. People speculate about human variability in their free time constantly (think about how often you’ve wondered why your boss is such a huge…source of inspiration). Parenting effects usually play some role in our conception of why some people behave differently than others. Behavior genetics, luckily, provides us with meaningful insight regarding the sources of human differences in the population (unfortunately I can’t say anything about your boss specifically). So what about the results of that massive review of twin research? Genetic factors were consistently relevant, differentiating humans on a range of health and psychological outcomes (in technical parlance, human differences are heritable). The environment, not surprisingly, was also clearly and convincingly implicated, but interestingly it wasn’t the “environment” you might have anticipated.

Before progressing, I should note that behavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components.1,2,3,4 Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other.3 The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another. Another way of thinking about non-shared environments is that they represent the parts of your life story that are unique from the rest of your family. Importantly, this also includes all of the randomness and pure happenstance that life tends to hurl in our direction from time to time. Returning to the review of twin research, the shared environment just didn’t matter all that much (that’s on average, of course, for some traits it mattered more than others). The non-shared environment mattered consistently.

The pattern of findings mentioned above is nothing new.1,2,3,4,5 The importance of genetics and the non-shared environment (and the relatively minor importance of the shared environment) was already so entrenched in behavior genetics that years before the Polderman study was published it had been enshrined as a set of “laws.”2 The BG laws, though, are based largely (but certainly not completely) on twin studies, the meta-analysis by Polderman et al. was comprised of twin studies, and if you pay attention to this sort of thing you’ve probably heard some nasty things about twin studies lately.3 You’ve read that twin studies contain an insidious flaw that causes them to underestimate shared environmental effects (making it seem like parents matter less than they do). The assumptions of twin research, however, have been meticulously studied. The methods of twin researchers have been around for decades and have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and (perhaps most importantly) cross validated with other techniques that rely on different assumptions entirely.3,4 They work, and they work with impressive precision.

Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think. Regarding the cross-validation that I mentioned, studies examining identical twins separated at birth and reared apart have repeatedly revealed (in shocking ways) the same thing: these individuals are remarkably similar when in fact they should be utterly different (they have completely different environments, but the same genes).3 Alternatively, non-biologically related adopted children (who have no genetic commonalities) raised together are utterly dissimilar to each other—despite in many cases having decades of exposure to the same parents and home environments.3

One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption (an absolute must read). 6 As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group (a fascinating topic, but one that merits its own separate discussion).

Now, the astute critic will respond with their own research in hand, papers centering on the deleterious impact of child abuse and severe neglect. There is a wealth of evidence linking child abuse with all sorts of developmental delays, and Harris fully acknowledges this. Mercifully, child abuse is not pervasive in the population, meaning that most kids don’t experience it and it is unlikely that it explains large swaths of why some kids are more extroverted or intelligent than others.6 That said, consider an analogy shared with me by the psychologist Steven Pinker: dropping your iPhone from six floors up is guaranteed to ruin it—iPhones don’t bounce. The impending destruction awaiting your phone as it plummets toward the Earth is assured, and the fact that you played no part in designing or building your phone will not atone for your slippery fingers. The same analogy applies to parenting, in some respects. It is possible for parents to wreck something that they did not construct (i.e., their child’s healthy development, language growth, cognitive ability, etc.) if their parenting style is harsh enough. Hopefully it is evident that this type of “parenting” is not the topic at hand.6

So why mount a frontal assault on parenting? I love my parents deeply, so it has nothing to do with some latent Freudian bitterness traceable back to the first few years of my life. The lack of parenting effects happens to represent an effective avenue for making a larger point about most social science research. It cannot be fully trusted. Brian Nosek’s incredible work on reproducibility in psychology (along with a cadre of collaborators) makes this point in one very powerful respect.7 However, I want to look at the issue from a slightly different vantage point.

The vast majority of research in the social sciences involves non-experimental observational research. What this means is that researchers collect data on individuals. The data collection might start early, perhaps shortly after birth.3 The researchers will usually want to know something about the parenting strategies used with the child (it’s usually the entire point of the study), and they will probably collect data on a host of other topics. All of the information is compiled into a large database that researchers can then analyze. With age, researchers can ask children directly about their behavior, while also collecting personality inventories and any other bit of information that they deem important. In some cases, researchers have collected data for so many years that they can use the personality traits of children to predict their behaviors decades later. This is fantastic but the problem is that you just can’t fully interpret what it means. It doesn’t matter if you collect data from a kid every year from the day they are born to the day they die, if you only gather data from one child per family you cannot pull out the genetic effects that we know are there (I would be remiss not to mention that newer techniques permit estimating genetic influences in the absence of twin subjects, using genetic data from very large samples of unrelated individuals).3 It really doesn’t matter if you show that maternal withdrawal experienced at age 3 predicts poor psychological adjustment when the child is 50, it would be impossible to make a concrete interpretation about the finding.

You must remember that parents share genes with their children and that overlap must be accounted for in research design. As psychologists pointed out years ago5, because parents pass along two things to their kids: genes and an environment, it shocks virtually no one that the two would be correlated. It is not surprising, based on shared genetics, that children resemble their parents, not only in appearance, but also in temperament, behavior, intellect, athletic prowess, etc. The environments that parents construct for their children when they are young, moreover, tend to mirror their natural inclinations (bright parents provide enriched environments). So if you’re wondering whether parents might selectively foster certain preexisting skill sets (i.e., buying an instrument for a child interested in music) the answer is, sure.6 In that case, parents might also shape things further by deciding on the type of instrument (guitar over drums, etc.).6 However, when you introduce controls for that genetic overlap in studies probing the impact of parenting on some outcome more generally, the effects that we often see can vanish.

I’ll give you a concrete example to mull over. Children who are spanked (not abused, but spanked) often experience a host of other problems in life, including psychological maladjustment and behavioral problems.8 In a study led by my colleague J.C. Barnes, we probed this issue in more detail and found some evidence suggesting that spanking increased the occurrence of overt bad behavior in children.8 We could have stopped there. Yet, we went one step further and attempted to inspect the genetic influences that were rampant across the measures included in our study. What we found was that much of the association between the two variables (spanking and behavior) was attributable to genetic effects that they had in common. The correlation between spanking and behavior appeared to reflect the presence of shared genetic influences cutting across both traits.

What about studies not directly devoted to examining parenting effects? Let’s say you’re interested in whether one trait in an individual predicts some other trait in that individual. For instance, let’s assume you think that novelty seeking predicts a higher likelihood of experimenting with drugs, or that eating fatty foods increases your body mass index (BMI). Simple enough: measure novelty seeking and measure drug experimentation; or eating habits and BMI. Then see if the two correlate. Let’s say that they do. Fantastic, write it up, publish it, get famous. But there’s a problem, what if there are genetic effects on novelty seeking and drug experimentation (or eating habits and BMI)? Even more troublesome, what if some of the same genes that predict novelty seeking also predict drug use, and the same genes that predict eating habits, also predict BMI? This means that the traits are correlated at the genetic level, just like in our study that I described above.

My colleagues and I have tried to quantify just how irksome genetic correlations might be for studies that cannot account for them.9 What we found is that in some cases a genetic correlation can render a phenotypic correlation (the correlation between two outwardly observable traits) nonexistent. For some studies it might “look like” personality trait A correlates with behavior B, but it could simply be that the same genes influence both traits, thus explaining why the two outcomes are correlated to begin with. So, why should you care? Could this just be overly technical, nerdish handwringing? Not even close. This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.

Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics. Lest someone put words into my mouth later, this does not mean that every correlation reported by social scientists is the result of correlated genetic influences. The point, however, is that we have spent decades churning out correlations and we have no idea whether the findings were polluted by unmeasured genetic factors. That’s frightening, especially since public policies have been built on some of these potentially illusory correlations. The standard way of doing business in the social sciences ignores genetic influences, and has for years. Be careful which findings you cling to. Most social science research can only reveal associations; which is important, no doubt, but I presume you want to know something about causality also (i.e., if you eat bacon everyday what’s the chance that it’ll cause you to get cancer; that sort of thing). To even begin approximating causality (assuming you cannot do an experiment, which you can’t with most social science research), you must account for all confounding factors—genes included.

Let’s return then to the overarching theme of our discussion, parenting. Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is. In line with the phrase often trotted out by my ilk: “it’s an empirical question.” The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors. What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children. So, why the dogmatic adherence to the idea that parents are the “puppet masters” in our lives? The are many reasons, some of which are explicitly religious (the whole “spare the rod spoil the child” bit) and some are more secular, rooted in dubious research, but we should nevertheless let them all go.

Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass; does it actually point north or just spin like a washing machine (see Pinker’s work for this same point made more eloquently10)? If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids.10 Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into. I think it’s fitting to let Judith Rich Harris6 have the last word. Here is  a short poem from The Nurture Assumption:

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth

To hear your child make such a fuss.

It isn’t fair—it’s not the truth—

He’s fucked up, yes, but not by us.


Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter: @fsnole1



1. Polderman, T. J., Benyamin, B., de Leeuw, C. A., Sullivan, P. F., van Bochoven, A., Visscher, P. M., & Posthuma, D. (2015). Meta-analysis of the heritability of   human traits based on fifty years of twin studies. Nature genetics, 47, 702–70.

2. Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5), 160-164.

3. Barnes, J. C., Wright, J. P., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, J. L., & Beaver, K. M. (2014). Demonstrating the validity of twin research in criminology. Criminology, 52(4), 588-626.

4. Wright, J. P., Barnes, J. C., Boutwell, B. B., Schwartz, J. A., Connolly, E. J., Nedelec, J. L., & Beaver, K. M. (2015). Mathematical proof is not minutiae and irreducible complexity is not a theory: a final response to Burt and Simons and a call to criminologists. Criminology, 53(1), 113-120.

5. Scarr, S., & McCartney, K. (1983). How people make their own environments: A theory of genotype→ environment effects. Child development, 424-435.

6. Harris, J.R. (1998). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out The Way They Do. London: Bloomsbury.

7. Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251), aac4716.

8. Barnes, J. C., Boutwell, B. B., Beaver, K. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2013). Analyzing the origins of childhood externalizing behavioral problems. Developmental psychology, 49(12), 2272.

9. Barnes, J. C., Boutwell, B. B., Beaver, K. M., Gibson, C. L., & Wright, J. P. (2014). On the consequences of ignoring genetic influences in criminological research. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(6), 471-482.

10. Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.

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Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. His research interests include the biological evolution of human traits, genetic and environmental underpinnings of human violence, and general intelligence. His published articles have appeared in PLOS One, Behavior Genetics, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Criminology, and Social Science and Medicine as well as others. He was also a coeditor of The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Sage).


  1. noblegas says

    Most reared apart twin research isn’t twin research where twins are truly reared apart at all since twin separated often had contact with each other througout their youth, often are raised in a similar environment and often are raised by other relatives. Twins who are seperated at birth are more likely to share a similar environment than people picked randomly in a population. Rare are the instances where one identical twin is raised Saudi Arabia and other other twin is raised in San Francisco California. Therefore, seperated at birth twin studies are simply disengenous.

    The problem with twin research in general is that twin researchers have not properly seperated the environment from genetic factors that coexist. Same sex fraternal twins are less likely to be raised in a similar environment thatn identical twins because identical twins are more likly to share the same bedroom, are more likely to share the same clotes, are more likely to share the same friends. Not to mention that identical twins will already share a similar environment regardless of how they are raised by their parents because the moment they are conceived twins are more likely to share the same prenatal environment fraternal twins are not..

    • hate to tell you, that’s not it, the analysis was probably very good. I do think, for a similar phenotype, genes AND environment should match, and I do think the twin studies sort of prove that all modern, civilized childhoods are pretty much identical environments, at least within adoption-sharing societies. Or the result (phenotype, sort of) wouldn’t be the same.

      Something though, I hope a holdout Parenting Matters Person might like, is that this article’s interpretation is sort of upside-down. The fact (sorry) that we can’t improve our kids means that the limiting of abuse and harm is the only game that matters, and that’s parents who do that. People don’t lose the argument every time ‘nurture’ does. What it shows is positive influences are basic requirements, not a force to improve, and it’s only abuse that has power. That give parents all the power and all the responsibility, the opposite of speeches like this article, even though the science was good, the interpretation seems to lend to meanness, and that’s not right. Abuse is everything, so parenting is. Just not rough parenting.

      • As Harris herself says in her book: be nice to your children when they’re young so they’ll be nice to you when you’re old.

        • or you could be mean to them and convince them it was really the best thing you could do for them. That works too, always has . . .


    • Arnold says

      DZ twin pairs that were incorrectly assumed by their families to be MZ pairs are no more similar to one another than ordinary DZ twins. This suggests family treatment of twin types does not bias heritability estimates.

    • All of your critiques have been addressed and refuted many times over.

      For example, Tom Bouchard and colleagues tested the hypothesis that environmental similarity and frequency of contact between reared-apart twins in the Minnesota study caused the twins to be more similar. No such effects were found beyond chance levels.

      The equal environments assumption between MZ and DZ pairs has been tested in dozens of studies with different designs, and there is little evidence of it being violated, and even if it sometimes is, this has little influence on parameter estimates. Even if MZ twins are more likely to, say, use similar clothes, this is immaterial, because sharing the same clothes has no known effect on any behavioral variable. Only causally efficacious environmental differences violate the equal environments assumption.

      The effect of the prenatal environment on twin differences was tested in a recent study of 66 traits. It was found that monochorionic MZ twins and dichorionic MZ twins were equally concordant for 56 traits. (MZ twins are usually monochorionic, DZ twins are almost always dichorionic.) For 10 traits, mainly related to BMI, there were some differences but these were very small and tended to dissipate with age. Thus the argument about prenatal environments is moot, too. Link: https://www.genepi.qimr.edu.au/contents/p/staff/vanBeijsterveldtChorion_BehGenetOct2015EPUB.pdf

      • noblegas says

        “Even if MZ twins are more likely to, say, use similar clothes, this is immaterial, because sharing the same clothes has no known effect on any behavioral variable. Only causally efficacious environmental differences violate the equal environments assumption.”

        It could be a reflection of the fact that the parents treat them the same way and one of the examples of parents treating their kids the same way is dressing identical twins more similarly than nonidentical twins. And of course it isn’t just the parents who treat their identical twins the same way, it can also be people in their surrounding environment.

        With the Bouchard studies there were many flaws with that study. The researchers of the studies didn’t allow independent researchers to review the case histories of the reared apart twins in that study, many other researchers pointed out that the assumptions of the original researchers were “questionable” even the authors themselves admitted this.

        “o think the twin studies sort of prove that all modern, civilized childhoods are pretty much identical environments, ”

        But all childhood environments are not the same in “modern civilized societies” , certainly not in the US. In general, the children of uneducated single parents(who had their first child in their teens) growing up in an environment like Camden New Jersey is not the same as children who grew up in a middle class/upper middle class environment in Riverside California, where one of the parents has enough money for the other parent to not work at all and be a stay at home mom.

        Ill read that Chorionicity twin paper and see if their are other papers like it.

        • still, same expectations of kids, same sorts of ways to get them to comply, rich or poor. So, same in terms of any possible abuse from from discipline-related things.

        • Whether MZ twins who are dressed in similar clothes, share friends, attend the same classes, etc. are more similar than those who don’t is something that can be empirically tested. Studies show that such environmental similarities do not make twin pairs more concordant.

          Bouchard et al. have not shared all the raw data from their studies because that’s the standard practice in science, applying to 99.9% of research. Certainly, it would be nice if more data were publicly available, privacy issues permitting, but this is a general problem in science, not something limited to Bouchard’s research.

          What are the “questionable assumptions” you are referring to?

          The basic conclusions elucidated by Boutwell in his article are not dependent on the correctness of this or that individual study. The conclusions flow from a large body of research using different study designs relying on different assumptions. To make all that research compatible with a non-hereditarian outlook one must toss out Occam’s razor and start wielding Occam’s butterknife.

          • not relevant, I know, but I saw something the other day made me think it was “Ockham’s Razor . . . “

  2. shinobi42 says

    So, Uh, Correlation STILL does not imply causation? Glad we cleared that up. I am glad to see an article like this though, it is frustrating as a statistician to constantly see poorly explained research with minimal controls reported as fact. Especially when it comes to BMI, research in that particular area is fraught with ignoring underlying genetic factors. (i.e. my whole genetic family is overweight, and they all have hypertension, but the blame is on their weight not that my grandfather had multiple heart attacks.)

    I think it is possible that the ways in which our parents influence us are not the things we are measuring in most of these social science studies. Personality and intelligence are vast and complex. But if you look at more concrete behaviors, how certain types of praise, or certain types of rewards/punishments influence immediate and long term behaviors on the part of children, you might be able to see more significant results. (Especially because they are more testable than observational studies.)

  3. Well, saying that “parenting doesn’t matter” is obvious hyperbole meant to grab attention.

    I think this is long been understood. It is what I’ve always assumed anyway. Basically, parenting doesn’t do much, if anything, to shape your child’s aptitudes or personality.

    But obviously it can and does do a lot to shape specific ideas and skills that people acquire as children. Basically, your parenting can’t make a child athletic, but your parenting can cause your child to develop their aptitude in baseball or soccer or football, etc. You can’t make a child musical, but you can influence if they take up guitar vs piano vs flute, etc.

    Likewise, you can’t make your child smart, but obviously you can influence what knowledge they gain. If not we wouldn’t have schools.

    So yeah, parentage obviously matters. It doesn’t do a lot to shape the basic attributes of a person, but it does have a lot of influence on the specific development of those attributes.

    • Well, saying that “parenting doesn’t matter” is obvious hyperbole meant to grab attention.

      Not really.

      I think this is long been understood. It is what I’ve always assumed anyway. Basically, parenting doesn’t do much, if anything, to shape your child’s aptitudes or personality.

      Check out some of the comments here.

    • Michael Houst says

      If parenting doesn’t matter, then neither does education of any sort; for parenting is merely education by the primary caregivers/guardians of the child. Since such a statement is patently false, then so is the statement that parenting doesn’t matter.

      Genetics is important. Genetics is influential. However, genetics does not mean you are guaranteed to be x, y or z. Environment (i.e. parenting) supplies (or denies) triggers. And parenting is only 100% influential in the first couple of years, peer and social influence begin dominating after that, and the school environment takes over from about 5 to 18 years. That school environment is 3 times more significant than parenting simply do to the amount of time children are immersed in it.

  4. respectfully suggest that you’ve taken the issue of abuse and declared it a minority issue, when if, as Pinker says, we cannot enhance or improve our kids. This inability means abuse and the limiting of it are all that’s left for us to do for our kids, keeping them safe and trying to minimize any damaging negative experience. Now, consider this that I never see: social forces do not act up to a defined line of definition and not beyond; abuse and its ill effects will act on a gradient. That is where this science will be going, and that negative experience should be viewed all along its spectrum, from extreme, all the way to the everyday. “Abuse” is hardly a scientific term, the way we use it, and the definitions certainly aren’t constant from time to time or place to place, so a better measure, one that shows the gradient that must be there, would be perhaps only “abuse” in the strictest sense of ‘bad treatment’ of any sort, in any measure, and for any purpose, the operative force is something like that – basically anything we do for the specific reason that the other person won’t like it.

  5. liked everything else, though! We gotta throw out all that stuff, that’s really possible! Maybe not though, maybe we can mine it better later . . .

  6. How great to see Harris get credit for her landmark insights. In fact, there’s not much in this piece that she didn’t cover more thoroughly (and more wittily) in The Nurture Assumption. People hate her book because it challenges so many cherished assumptions—OF COURSE parenting matters!—but the facts are on her side. Absolute must read.

    • Harris’s book is very good, but to be fair, it’s more of a popularization and a synthesis than a really original work. The book reflects the views that had already been widely accepted by behavioral geneticists years earlier.

      • yeah, this is all just people – I do it too, I’ve just read the Blank Slate and I’m on to How the Mind Works – re-writing the Blank Slate with their idea of what it means. This bugs me a little – every time Nurture loses a point in the argument, liberals see the Nazis coming over the hill – because there’s a huge mis-read going on, which I will write about soon. Parenting doesn’t matter, but abuse, well that matters – as though they are unrelated things. As if “parenting” has only positive, live giving properties and abuse is rare, or something. I’ll fix this little brainfart for us.

        Of course the folks that want to line up behind a banner that reads Parenting Doesn’t Matter are likely to be ones who are rationalizing their own parents, their own parenting, or usually both.

        • Sorry, I meant ” – every time Nurture loses a point in the argument, liberals LIKE ME see the Nazis coming over the hill – “

          • Nurture doesn’t lose any points. It’s still about half of personality formation. It’s just not parents nurturance that forms us, it’s peers (or something else).

      • In an earlier work Judith Ruth Harris makes it clear how upsetting to psychological orthodoxy her meta-analysis was at the time. I refer to “No Two Alike.” I was taken by her discussion of an alternative theory of personality development in that book, the half that is not genetic that is. To wit: It’s peer interactions.

    • I’ve ordered it. Sounds like an essential read to me – but I’ll no doubt come up with my own version of it.

  7. Boutwell mentions only in passing Harris’s contention that the primary socializers of children are their peer group. But this has an important implication for parents: the single best thing you can do for your children is provide them with a high-quality peer group. And it’s a real tragedy for poor children forced to grow up in impoverished, crime-ridden, dysfunctional neighborhoods.

    • yeah, but the middle class and rich folks are dysfunctional enough, the buncha alcoholic, warmongering, status-quo voting, sports-obsessed freaks that we are. Our friends aren’t doing that much better of a job raising us than theirs are raising them in the ghetto! If it’s such an advantage, I’d expect to see a wider spread, no?


    • hey, I’ve been pondering this stuff intensely for two weeks now, and it just struck me – to say “those five year-olds were doing a terrible job raising my five year-old, so I put him in a better school. Those five year-olds will do a better job!” is hilarious, right? There must be more to it than that, right?


  8. The overlooked factor is the extraordinary ‘Specificity of Our Genetic Inheritance’ That specificity may be seen in almost everything that distinguishes us from others. It is rather spooky that our choice of scarf, our gesture, preferred vocabulary, and even our dreams are written in our genes.

    If you want to know more, I have started to write it out in an long essay entitled, ‘Origins of Belief and Behaviour’

  9. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Twin Discoveries

  10. Well said NeighSayer. I agree. Article says:
    “The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors.” It’s this and a few other statements that nearly undermine the entire article. I have found a wealth of information, knowledge and practical advice in the parenting research. Even more alarming is how the article seems to breeze over abuse. Child abuse and neglect are not minor issues. Over 70-80% of American parents still use physical punishment. Of course, I would agree genes play a strong role. One deeply abused kid will turn psychopath, another will turn out fine depending upon certain genes. I agree. But what about the feelings of that child? This article completely ignores children’s feelings about how they are parented. Sure, the abused kid with fortunate genes might not turn psycho, but this doesn’t mean his life hasn’t been negatively effected because of his parents. Even on a smaller level this holds true. Reading to your kid a bit more might not make him smarter, but what about the quality time you just gave to your child? Do we think that this doesn’t somehow manifest into happiness or psychological health? His parents choices may not effect his abilities or mind as much as his genetics, but what about his emotional life, his feelings, his ability for self-compassion and love? Parenting research matters deeply.

    I think the author would agree with the above. I just think the article tried to make a point too hard.

    • yeah, it’s a little depressing, innit? So much good science destroyed by a pedestrian denial of abuse (” . . . spanking, not abuse . . . “) that we could find anywhere among the completely uneducated. Nothing seems to touch that stuff.


  11. Love Judith Rich Harris! Found her via Pinker’s Blank Slate. And yes, I get so frustrated reading most social research and its lack of control for genetic factors.

    Agree with the commenter above, that the conclusion of the article might just as easily have been that parents’ utility lies in their ability to reduce harm and abuse of their kids. We often joke in our household that our job is to keep our kids alive until it’s time for them to leave home.

    I also wonder whether the idea that, as parents, we shape our kids (personalities, intelligence etc) is now a bit dated. I can see that it was probably current when blank slate thinking was at its peak in the 70s. When I look around at the parents in our milieu, there seems be acceptance that these traits are pretty much given at birth, especially for those of us whose children could not be more different.

    In terms of people seeking out parenting styles and guides, I would say this is more existential than goal-oriented i.e. parents are trying to manage the every day, rather than shape who their children are. Or finding ways to match the way of their kids with the way of the world.

  12. Just in case anybody’s reading, I don’t deny the science, won’t argue with Pinker about it. But I still think the interpretation needs some work and I think by taking one step up and back from it, we’ll see that no ability to enhance is obvious and logical, but also that the powerful ability to damage is exactly what makes parenting so important.

    To repeat: the twin study data is real and true, but it’s an illogical leap to say parenting doesn’t matter. It may however, be true to say that Positive Parenting doesn’t matter, in fact that seems to really be it. Negative parenting, though – THAT matters.


    • To be precise, Harris doesn’t exactly say that “parenting doesn’t matter”. Obviously, if you don’t nourish your kids properly, or you abuse them, that matters. What she says (this is from memory, so with that caveat…) is that durable features of the adult personality are about 50% due to genes, with the other half due to something else, which is definitely NOT parenting. Her very plausible hypothesis is that this other 50% comes from the child’s peer group.

      To get the full flavor, you’ll have to read her book (and be sure to get the revised edition).

      • Oh, I got all that from The Blank Slate, 50% genetic, 40-45% individual experience (and our reactions to it), 5-10% parenting, and Pinker says that was almost certainly way too generous . . . and I can’t argue, it’s gotta be real. But I think even Pinker said something like it doesn’t matter. Again, though, he was talking about playing Mozart to your foetus, not limiting abuse or anything.

    • My wife and I have a ‘saw’ regarding our son. “We got a good one and didn’t mess him up.” However, I really don’t believe we did much more, beyond genetics, than live in an environment filled with good peers. And maybe he got more effect from my wife’s genes than mine.

      • no replies where you busted me above, so – yes, I’m an idiot. Sorry.
        For this comment, good for you . Well done. I think I can say that’s what we did too, mostly, and that’s my whole theory, don’t mess ’em up. I like to say, neglect is the best thing many parents have to offer – not all joking.

  13. Of all things to consider, it would be easier to consider that getting more accurate with the correlations will only emphasize the same error. More correlations will not take away the fact that the author disregards the meaning of “be good to your kids”, whereby he implicitly acknowledges the primacy of the parent-child relationship and validates everything he went about to deny (leave alone the etymology of the word “kid”). It is parents, together with society, that validate the ownership of the children, and it is that ownership that shapes the child and sets the order of responsibility, which is what matters in development, not traits.

  14. Color me unimpressed; a great deal of stating obvious, virtual truisms, with little additional nuance or insight.

    I won’t claim to have read the studies, but the overall thesis of this piece seems to be self-refuting. Yes, social science is incredibly difficult and often uninformative, but the overwhelming complexity runs both ways. Absent true experimental conditions, I just don’t see how one can reliably adjust for the confounding conditions that are present in even the most scrupulous genetic studies. And that’s not even touching all of the ways in which measuring something like personality is a hopelessly daunting task, mired in all manner of relativity and value judgments.

    I haven’t read Judith Rich Harris, but if her skill as a poet is at all correlated with her skill as a writer on science, I’m not missing anything.

    • I won’t claim to have read the studies, but the overall thesis of this piece seems to be self-refuting. Yes, social science is incredibly difficult and often uninformative, but the overwhelming complexity runs both ways.

      Tackling that problem is exactly why twin and adoption studies were invented. And they work well towards that end.

      • As far as I can tell, you can’t start talking meaningfully about genetics at all until you do twin and adoption studies.

        That said, I don’t see that the complexities are significantly reduced. Even if you think you can effectively control for subtle similarities and differences between families in different communities, say, there’s still the small question of societal tendencies – trends in parenting, economic conditions, technological changes, media exposure, etc. My sense is that carving away these factors, if it’s even possible, eventually leads to a sample size that is way too small to be statistically meaningful.

        Thus the central paradox remains: social science is really, really hard, but occasionally the genetic determinists sweep in with a new argument claiming that they have discovered the one weird trick to make it work. It’s (mostly) fantasy.

        • uh . . . not so sure. I kinda think all kids share an environment where it’s still to some degree or other that children should be seen and not heard, and where they really don’t get choices. The few normal parenting books I read taught how to fool your kid with phony “choices.” They say ‘Don’t say “we’re doing this and then we’re doing this,” that would be authoritarian. Say “Which one of these two things do you wanna do first, Honey?” OK?’
          And even when it’s not supposed to be corporal punishment, imposing any punishment often results in a physical fight. So what’s the difference, especially for the kid?

          So how many adoptive families’ kids don’t have these two situations or worse going on? Same proportion as the rest of us? Like, none?

        • Even if you think you can effectively control for subtle similarities and differences between families in different communities, say, there’s still the small question of societal tendencies – trends in parenting, economic conditions, technological changes, media exposure, etc. My sense is that carving away these factors, if it’s even possible, eventually leads to a sample size that is way too small to be statistically meaningful.

          Well, if you control for all the massive variation between families within a cohort – even if that doesn’t tell you about what’s going on between cohorts, it does tell you a whole lot about what’s going on within cohorts.

          It’s meaningful to know that parenting is the source of the variation we see at any given time.

        • weird, I wanna argue with all your reasons and agree with your conclusions.
          I’ll pick one argument, my favourite: ‘trends in parenting.’ I gotta say, from where I stand ond from my POV, there haven’t been trends, at least nothing meaningful. Near as i could see, the parents around me while I was raising my kids hadn’t changed the basic game since my own childhood, corporal punishment isn’t going away. Maybe folks are quieter about it. There are trends, of course, but nothing that has replaced that, not for a minute.

  15. Really depends on how you define “parenting” doesn’t it?

    Is moving to a nice neighborhood, thus decreasing the chance of bad influence, not “parenting”?

    Is choosing a mate with good genes to decrease the chance of the child having bad traits not “parenting”?

    Is exposing children to a wide array of knowledge, information and experiences not “parenting”?

    Is getting the child’s personality assessed in order to make better decisions on how to positively influence them not “parenting”?

    A lot of “nature” will be either the result of, or heavily influenced by the parent’s decisions. If you only define parenting in the narrow scope of direct interaction with the children, then of course you can come to the conclusion that such direct interaction does not have “deep, meaningful effect”.

    • Actually, no, at least not in the sense that I think most people understand the word “parenting”. And making “better decisions on how to positively influence them” begs the question: basically, you CAN’T influence them in any lasting way. That’s the whole point of this discussion! We parents have to get over ourselves.

      As Harris says (in paraphrase) at the beginning of The Nurture Assumption: “Everyone believes that parenting matters. You believe it. I used to believe it until I took a hard look at the research and found that most of it was worthless.”

      Seriously, read the book.

  16. Elaine says

    The points about parenting not mattering as much as we might like to think are important, but the conclusion that research in social sciences is all flawed because of that is overblown. Of course correlation does not equal causation. Does that mean that correlational findings are irrelevant and not informative? Hardly.

  17. Very amusing timing of this article. Within the last few weeks, I actually started uploading various videos concerning Harris’s theory to youtube ( https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6Eo9YHcR0sHcIl-IsLDz1Q ) as a tribute to her and in an effort to make her ideas more accessible and known.

    One of the comments mentioned one of the greatest practical points to take away from Harris’s insights are that one of the best things parents can do to affect the trajectory of their child’s life course is to select the spectrum of peers a child is exposed to. Of course, this may be done indirectly, by school choice and neighborhood selection.

    As an unrelated personal aside, I was also excited to see the author’s academic affiliations (SLU, I currently reside is St Louis) and I was also thrilled to find out we share the same alma mater. However, I must admit I am a bit stunned that the author’s department hosted one of the most polarizing figures in the social sciences, Charles Murray, yesterday as a part of their speaker series (had I known about this earlier, I would’ve attended, if only to witness the potential fireworks, if any). In any case, I sincerely hope Murray’s speaking engagement isn’t reflective of either the author’s, or his institution’s, driving conceptual paradigm when it comes to behavioral genetics as applied more broadly to the social sciences.

    • just the fact that nobodies like me can even join the conversation sort of suggests that the OP isn’t writing at his own level of knowledge, so yeah, maybe not his own level of perspective either . . . he’s not sharing his whole mind about it. So yes, we should always wonder what a pundit is trying to accomplish when he or she talks, I guess. Always the spectre of evil in the N VS N conversation . . .

  18. Balanced Democracy says

    It seems to me that the author is suggesting the following:
    1. There are multiple factors that could result in specific outcomes in behavior e.g. nurture, environment, peer group.
    2. One such factor that is ignored, in controls in most of the experiments, is genetics.
    3. A lot of outcomes could be attributed to genetics, but this has not been verified/ruled out in most research.
    4. This means that most such research may not be very valid.

    I have a doubt.

    As an example, let’s suppose that, pollution levels (or diet or levels of chlorine in water, your choice) may be another factor that influences behavioral outcomes. This has not been factored in and verified or ruled out in most studies as well, to the best of our knowledge. Thus, Can we come to a similar conclusion and suggest that most of the existing studies on outcomes are not valid?

  19. Adam Perkins says

    Twin studies indicate that the shared/family environment has almost no effect on personality, but randomised controlled trials of the effects of intensive preschool tutoring suggest that a disadvantaged family environment damages personality development. How can this contradiction be reconciled? One plausible explanation is provided by the observation that disadvantaged families rarely participate in twin studies (Turkheimer et al., 2003). Conversely, preschool studies do not recruit participants from middle- class families because the focus of this type of research is to understand disadvantage (Heckman, 2006). This difference in participant type between the two types of research is important because parental effectiveness differs between families at different levels of the socio-economic ladder (Lykken, 1998). Briefly stated, in affluent middle-class families there is relatively little variance in parental effectiveness: the vast majority of affluent middle-class children will have the opportunity to express whatever genetic tendencies they possess. For example, almost all children in affluent middle- class households will be taught to read, will learn mathematics, study science, take music lessons, play sport, debate the day’s news over dinner and so on. Overall, this will tend to exaggerate the influence upon subsequent behaviour of genetic factors and unique (non-shared) experiences, but downplay the effects of the shared (family) environment. In contrast, children who grow up in disadvantaged households tend to have a much more uneven exposure to these important developmental stimuli: some will be taught to read, some won’t. Some will have access to a musical instrument, some won’t. Some will get coached in sport, some won’t. Some will be given a computer, some won’t. This greater variation in parental effectiveness in disadvantaged households (relative to middle-class households) hypothetically means that individual differences in psychological characteristics are more strongly influenced by the specific family environment in children raised in disadvantaged households than in children raised in affluent, middle- class households. This hypothesis is backed up by studies that show shared environmental experiences play a larger role in the variations in IQ in lower socio-economic status (SES) children than in high SES children (for example, Turkheimer et al., 2003; Hanscombe, etal., 2012). The issue of SES modification has not been as widely studied with regard to personality, but results thus far are supportive. For example, Tuvblad, Grann and Lichtenstein (2006) investigated the moderating effect of SES on the family environment’s capacity to develop antisocial traits in 1,133 Swedish twin pairs, aged 16–17 years. This study found that the more disadvantaged the family, the stronger the influence of the family environment on antisocial behaviour in the offspring. We would thus expect that family/shared environmental effects on personality would be minimal in twin studies but highly pronounced in the preschool studies, which is what we find.

    • totally fits my theory, between you and I, we got this. The secret is, “good parenting” doesn’t matter, meaning we can’t create improvements in our kids, and it’s unpleasantness that matters, discipline, punishments, abuse, all these things hurt us, and nothing enhances us. Mystery solved. Poor folks have more unpleasantnesses generally, and I think maybe because the inner city folks see their kids at such risk, they’re even harder on them, hoping discipline will save them.

      Personally, I think it’s the opposite. I think discipline is most of the unpleasantness in all kids’ lives, and I think that’s the operative thing, not our hopes that it will steer anybody right.

  20. Adam Perkins says

    You’re welcome Neighsayer, I recommend reading David Lykken’s work. The man was a genius. If you want a quick overview of his contributions, see Chapters 7 and 8 of my new book, The Welfare Trait.

    • I’m about a quarter of the way into How the Mind Works, and after The Blank Slate and only starting this really, I’m not planning the next thing just yet, maybe something light, like the Old Testament (which is on my list for research also) . . . thank God there’s still TV for a break!

      I’ve captured your recommendations and emailed them to myself, thanks.

      Hey though, it doesn’t really invalidate the basic proportions, does it, 50% random/individual, 45% genetic (the other way around?), and something less than 5% parenting/shared environment, or if it does, what percentages in that would you think would move and how? I guess “nurturists” (I’m getting better) want to see the 5% take some of the individual? Can’t change genetics’ numbers, can it?



  21. Adam Perkins says

    You’re welcome Jeff. Personality characteristics are approximately 30% heritable and 70% environmental. That 70% would be almost completely attributed to non-shared environment in twin studies yet the Perry Preschool study shows, for example, that by the age of 40 about 28% of the tutored children had served at least one prison sentence whereas about 52% of the untutored children had been incarcerated at least once. James Heckman and colleagues show that about half that difference in criminality can be attributed to experimentally induced personality changes. So the shared environment (in this case attending preschool tutoring) does seem to be affecting personality in a significant way.

  22. Simon Darragh says

    ‘I love my parents deeply, so it has nothing to do with some latent Freudian bitterness traceable back to the first few years of my life.’
    Hmm… I think perhaps you should talk to a psychologist or psychoanalyst about that.

  23. Whi label this article as “social science” topic when this only refutes psicological theory?

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  25. wrong assumptions says

    The research on epigenetics shows the exact opposite of what you’ve expressed here. Stressful experiences in childhood caused by poor parenting, have been shown to effect people’s mental and physical health long term by altering their DNA.

    Modern parenting practices such as leaving young babies alone to cry to “teach them to sleep independently” (and which has been shown to flood the babies brains with cortisol) ensures that the majority do not receive optimal responsive parenting and do experience high stress levels.

    • as I’m expressing everywhere right now, I think the secret is, no ‘positive’ power, but plenty of power to damage . . . separate it like that and it’s simple. Who decided that influence and susceptibility to it would necessarily be fair and equal across the positive and negative influences and effects?

      Who decided that since we can’t create little Mozarts that no sort of influence could matter?

    • salticid says

      I posted a comment below regarding epigenetic & genetic opposite results, before I saw yours. But seriously, this article reads like – hey social science research is wrong because *I* don’t understand biology. Tinbergen got the Nobel prize for work he conducted in the 50’s regarding the importance of environment interplay and *developmental* biology of behavior. Effectively *all* of “nature VS. nurture” has occurred in an echo chamber of the social sciences alone and in ignorance of mainstream biological understanding that was well established (!) long before the pseudo-debate was even born. This reeks of the same tradition of biological ignorance, only that the argument is being waged from the other side of the pendulum now, I guess. *Sigh*

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  27. Charles Black says

    This piece and comments will be a good reference as I learn more about this topic.

    I love this sentence: “Pause for a minute and let that heresy wash across your synapses.” I laughed out loud.

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  30. John Ohno says

    Isn’t targeting parenting a bit of a strawman? I was taught that parenting (outside of extreme situations) had minimal effects on socialization and personality formation because of how little time children spent with parents versus teachers and peers — and I was taught this, years ago, in an intro to psychology course with the understanding that this was the generally accepted position in the social sciences. If this is not the generally accepted interpretation, then my professor (who seemed a bit dim) may have been much more intelligent than I thought; if it is the generally accepted interpretation, then attacking social sciences on the basis of not accepting it is comparable to attacking the physical sciences on the basis of a belief in phlogiston.

    • yeah, I guess it is. Strawman, I mean. The whole discussion has a tendency to slip sideways all the time.

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  32. Steve J says

    Parents give their children opportunities (or lack thereof). In that respect parenting matters even more than genetics. Whether or not you spank matters much less than whether or not you can afford to go to college.

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  34. Vladimir says

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but what’s all the fuzz about? Psychological traits (say intelligence) is well-known to be hereditary by 0.4-0.8 (APA official statement from the 90’s). In this new meta-analysis, cognitive abilities of monozygotic twins are correlated 0.77 (equals variance eta=0.6) – so 40% of intellectual capacity is still determined by environment – do I understand it correctly?

    Btw, why are the correlations lower for increasing age? Shouldn’t e.g. hereditary aspect of IQ be more prominent with age (APA states 0.45 in childhood, to 0.75 to senior years)?

  35. Brian, regarding the conflation of punishment and abuse:

    1. I know, I seem to be in a very small group of people who think the two aren’t very different.
    2. Do you have some science that says they’re not the same, some science that says, scientifically, where one ends and one begins? Because one man’s treasure . . .
    3. Isn’t the definition of punishment ‘abuse in an attempt to change a behaviour’? Wouldn’t the definition of abuse in that statement be a more meaningful unit of measure for negative influences than the other, popular PC definition?

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  38. salticid says

    This is a grossly simplistic outlook on the field of biology, behavior, and genetics. We know the environment can activate genetic activity and the field of epigenetics is booming today, albeit it is still in its infancy overall. Feedback loops and cascades can be triggered and experiences can be etched into the genome and expressed across generations. For example, if you tickle a mouse this not only releases oxytocin in that individual but those that are in the vicinity (neighbor effects) and this mechanistically impacts the parenting behavior including bonding that then triggers gene activity in developing offspring that can impact a whole suite of traits, including suckling behavior and recognition of individuals. These traits can then impact nutrition and development of cognition and social skills that can further set off a cascade of the expression of a whole ‘nother suite of traits such as mate choice, foraging skills, and social rank. Developmental environment matters and it matters a lot. Biologically.

    One has to be very careful regarding the specific traits measured by twin studies before making sweeping generalizations and one cannot equate heritability with genes. As many lay folk are wont to do. The heritability for say, having five digits, is close to zero. This doesn’t mean that the trait isn’t due to genes, it means quite the opposite. Five digits are highly conserved, genetically. Because they *matter*. Most traits that are under strong selection have very low heritability scores. So when you see find scores of say .5 or more, that suggests that selection for that *specific* trait is fairly weak, or that genetic variation may be maintained by frequency dependent selection. The higher the score, the more genetic variation there is. So most traits that are alleged/touted as having a a strong genetic basis from these studies, in reality just means there are more genetic *alternatives* floating around in the population – because a single genetic solution has not been unilaterally favored & fixed by natural selection. I’ve not read the works that I saw mentioned here, but if they’ve made this common comprehension error, the conclusions echoed here as the title suggests – have things backassward regarding what matters.

    • Brian says he’ll be posting soon, talking the epigenetics part, so we’ll see . . . as for your conclusions, a lot of us are there with you. Personally, it looks to me like like our inability to enhance our kids beyond nature’s intentions has been stretched to say NOTHING we do matters, although abuse and negative effects seem pretty well established.

  39. of course, this is the paragraph that pushes the buttons of the namby pamby types:

    “Now, the astute critic will respond with their own research in hand, papers centering on the deleterious impact of child abuse and severe neglect. There is a wealth of evidence linking child abuse with all sorts of developmental delays, and Harris fully acknowledges this. Mercifully, child abuse is not pervasive in the population, meaning that most kids don’t experience it and it is unlikely that it explains large swaths of why some kids are more extroverted or intelligent than others.6 That said, consider an analogy shared with me by the psychologist Steven Pinker: dropping your iPhone from six floors up is guaranteed to ruin it—iPhones don’t bounce. The impending destruction awaiting your phone as it plummets toward the Earth is assured, and the fact that you played no part in designing or building your phone will not atone for your slippery fingers. The same analogy applies to parenting, in some respects. It is possible for parents to wreck something that they did not construct (i.e., their child’s healthy development, language growth, cognitive ability, etc.) if their parenting style is harsh enough. Hopefully it is evident that this type of “parenting” is not the topic at hand.6”

    I wanna go through it line by line, but I’ll resist. I think abuse is experienced on a gradient and affects probably everybody on a gradient – we know we’re talking about a gradient of effects, all possible amounts of damage, so it must result from randomness and some sort of one of nature’s gradients. A line in the sand definition of “abuse” isn’t helpful. Plus, like I have to say it – sometimes you push your iPhone off of your desk and it gets hurt really bad. It’s not really up to an iPhone user to decide for himself exactly how much abuse won’t hurt his iPhone. Take it to the geniuses and tell them you were only testing dropping it from a few feet, I dare you.

  40. PLUS – damn, I cannot leave this argument, even when everyone else has! – social attitudes, parenting attitudes, everything in our culture around child-rearing, the systems of authority at school and everywhere, these are all the same attitudes, all the same influence. It’s VERY specious to suggest that the 90% of the influence parents don’t win is unrelated to parenting and attitudes and culture around children generally. If we share the attitudes and learning of our peers, it’s BECAUSE they aren’t our parents and caregivers, so it’s very directly related. It’s not that these are two unconnected streams of learning that exist unaware of each other. If we are negating our own knowledge somehow and driving our kids to learn from their equally inexperienced peers, then that’s not “not parenting.” It could still very much be parenting causing it all.

    Do the BG folks have their evolutionary explanation why we are wired not to listen to our parents? Because that would be counter-intuitive to all of us, wouldn’t it, on both sides of this talk?

      • I read your blog.

        Here are some writings by Judith Rich Harris that directly address your inquiries:




        I admire your ardent skepticism though. I think you should be skeptical. I wasn’t familiar with this blog site when I first posted. Nor was I familiar with the author. But after minimal research and looking at the other articles on this site, it’s clear both have a distinctly political agenda to push (although they’d probably characterize it as “an agenda to push back against”).

        Harris is amazing, though. Someone said earlier that,

        “Harris’s book is very good, but to be fair, it’s more of a popularization and a synthesis than a really original work. The book reflects the views that had already been widely accepted by behavioral geneticists years earlier.”

        I disagree.

        She cogently and coherently combined behavioral genetics findings with Turner’s self-categorization theory. And yet, to this day, it seems, both research enterprises within psychology largely ignore each other and operate in completely independent silos.

        The author of this article uses her name to target environment-only social science, but her ideas can just as easily be used against BG.

        What would happen if BG took her ideas seriously?

        Well, for one, the “shared environment” would no longer (simply) be the family environment. It would instead be the peer group culture. And more sociometric measures and peer-specific psychometric measures (eg, GPA of peers, for instance) would be marshaled to ensure one was appropriately quantifying the effects of the primary socializing agent in a child’s life on developmental outcome indices such as IQ (the peer group!).

        Currently, probably mostly for practical reasons, BG largely ignores the peer group culture, allowing it to systematically inflate heritability estimates in twin studies (secondary to not controlling for its effects). I suspect this is what largely accounts for the missing heritability problem in behavioral genetics, given:

        (1) the most salient active gene-environment correlation (active rGE) would be the child’s selection of peers, and given this is based on observable traits (foremost) and shared subculture (secondarily), AND given Western societies have high population stratification, one would EXPECT this to result in a high genetic-similarity-shared-culture correlation

        (2) the most salient evocative gene-environment correlation (evocative rGE) would be the children’s peer group enforcing normative subculture conformity and membership criteria based on shared visible traits (eg, “actin’ white” phenomenon in black children peer groups in integrated schools)

        (3) passive gene-environment correlations would be expected to follow from (1) and (2) and the additional “group contrast effects” predicted by Harris’s GST (and Turner’s SCT): ie, an almost seemingly intractable racial achievement/IQ gap, etc

        In fact, in so many words, Harris (less formally) makes this argument in http://judithrichharris.info/tna/devpsyjh.htm and Chapter 11 of her book, The Nurture Assumption.

        However, since the publication of her book, I’m not aware of any BG study that tries to account for the peer group subculture in the extensive way necessary to account for its effects.


        Doesn’t stop HBD’ers, apparently … (some of whom have showed up in the comment section of this page)…

        • thanks George. Yeah, it’s making me sad, the apparent political agenda and the fact that Pinker is tweeting it. Solid points all. Do you happen to know the answer to this one – Do the BG folks have their evolutionary explanation why we are wired not to listen to our parents? Because that would be counter-intuitive to all of us, wouldn’t it, on both sides of this talk?

        • OK – 23,000 and 10,000 words, those links . . . sometimes this is the world’s most boring hobby . . . thanks, I’ll start on them.

        • George (and BDS if you’re still watching), I’ve read the two Harris articles you gave me (us), and they were good, it really is important to get back to the source, isn’t it? I’ve collected my comments from them into a post – http://abusewithanexcuse.com/2016/01/01/a-little-perspective-zero-parental-influence-part-41/ – but the upshot is, parents don’t affect their kids privately, we’re social critters, we’ve socialized child-rearing. Of course it’s a bait and switch to say parenting doesn’t matter, this thing means group parenting matters, and therefore everybody’s parenting matters.

          Hey, thanks for the links.

          Anybody else with an interest in this thread might want to follow those links too . . .

        • Hey George, don’t know if you’ll get notified, but just in case – I’ve solved it, answered the “Parenting Might Not Matter” challenge and proved why it does. I’ll be blogging it, drip-style on abusewithanexcuse.com, posts starting as of February 23rd., 2017. I’ll come back here to say when I think the argument there is complete.
          Please come and continue the conversation . . .
          Mar. 2, 2017
          Jeff McGuire

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  43. His view misses the point.

    He mentions Judith Rich Harris while conveniently not pointing out that Harris’ analysis of vast data undermines his beliefs. It’s almost funny. Also, as I recall, Harris does show that parental influence can have immense impact under certain conditions, i.e., ethnically homogeneous tight-knit communities.

    Anyway, it is unsurprising in Western societies where public schools separate children from parents that peers will have greater influence. But little research has been done on traditional societies where children aren’t separated from parents and extended family.

    Then there is the predictable use of some of the worst research around, that done on twins. Harris even wrote a book about the problems of twin research.

    Harris’ work is the most powerful case ever made for the power of environments in shaping the lives of children. Another powerful case is made by Steven Pinker who is also mentioned in the article. Both these authors prove how immensely we’ve underestimated the ‘nurture’ side of the equation, whether nurture by family or peers, communities or the larger society.

    Here is a real gem:

    “The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors. What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children.”

    That is plain stupid. We already know that genes have no influence at all separately from how they are manifested according to environmental and epigenetic factors. In fact, genes are part of the material world, not some kind of karmic determinism. All of the material world is by definition part of the ‘environment’. Genes are just one of many expressions of environment. Genes don’t just manifest the human body and mind, ex nihilo.

    There has been a ton of genetic research done. Even when many genetic correlations are found, we still can’t explain much of anything, except in rare genetic diseases. For example, something like 60 genes have been correlated to obesity and combined they still only explain about 2% of obesity. Environmental factors, on the other hand, have been proven to have causal links to all kinds of results. Just try to explain toxicity and malnutrition according to genetics. This guy is an idiot.

    I wish people like this would take their own arguments serious enough to make a quality argument.

    • LOL – well done. Just a few things:

      ” . . . ethnically homogeneous tight-knit communities.”

      – and maybe to the degree that a whole society is homogeneous and tight-knit? I think child-rearing is where we’re all the most alike. Sure there are millions of versions, but all sort of versions of the same thing, authoritative, the difference that might have mattered most.

      • “I think child-rearing is where we’re all the most alike.”

        That is a good point. In any given country, the differences between parenting styles will likely be minimal.

        To see the actual results of parenting styles, researchers would have to find societies that have extremely different parenting styles and somehow control for all the confounding factors (i.e., everything else that was also different). That would be nearly impossible research to do, as the confounding factors would be immense.

        Yet if such research were ever done, I bet they’d find parenting styles can have immense impact on children. This impact, however, gets hidden in our society. We have no way of disentangling it from all the other causal and contributing factors.

    • oh, wait – this: Do the BG folks have their evolutionary explanation why we are wired not to listen to our parents? Because that would be counter-intuitive to all of us, wouldn’t it, on both sides of this talk?

      • It is counter-intuitive to an extreme degree. When something flies in the face of common sense, it requires an explanation for why common sense is wrong. Why are humans evolved to expend so much energy on parenting, if it serves no practical purpose? It makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective.

        • thanks. Yeah. It’s really crazy, the more I look at the sort of concepts we’ve thrown around, the assumptions around parenting that they had . . . and then working backwards from their results to analyse what they’ve found. They can make declarations that would have you sure they aren’t parents themselves. Honestly, though, I’m quickly losing interest in genetics’ gains in whatever what used to be called the nature vs nurture debate. I think now, just like parents’ influence on their kids, psychology is losing to the biologists in the fight over their combined 5 – 10% success rate in analyzing parenting and childhood. If we can get the basics of the social side of the house right, or at least organized, that may change. It’s hard to imagine things in the future otherwise than that genetic testing supports all sorts of life sciences, but you’d think the sciences of human behaviour would be the last ones it would replace altogether. (Sorry – writing another one right now, it’s leaked into this comment . . . )

        • we are certainly wired not ONLY to listen to our parents, “it takes a village” also means “a village can do it,” right? But I think the real problems are in the wording and the poor understanding of social concepts. Do we have traits because we listened to someone about it? Rhetorical of course, the only weapon at my disposal, but the point is aren’t traits optional by nature or we’d all have them all, other than by genetic filter? Like whether a man holds his drink in his dominant hand or not – genetic, likely, but environmental how? Not because Dad taught him to, but because his basketball team told him to? That’s better? Better than that it’s a conscious decision to have fewer spills and accidents?

  44. nobody wants to answer my questions and objections on these threads, it’s OK with me. I’ll just declare victory and retweet.


    (not you, BDS. Thanks for your responses.)

    • You’d think that if anyone here actually cared about knowledge and truth they’d have responded. It’s a worthy discussion to be had. That is the problem with people who think they already have the answer. People like you and I want to follow the evidence where it leads, but such an attitude isn’t as common as would be preferable.

      • I want to, but like I say – a boring hobby, and I’m so far behind . . .

        I’m a little over halfway through the longer Harris link, What is the Child’s Environment . . . sorry, I have questions . . . when I’m done

        • I only read about this kind of thing on occasion. I have a general interest about human nature and society. But for much of this we are still lacking data to come to meaningful far-reaching conclusions, especially in terms of genetics. It seems some people are unwilling to admit how little we know at present because the uncertainty makes them uncomfortable. Some of the social science research is far more interesting. Advances in our knowledge have been significant. It will just take a while for us to fully make sense of most of it.

  45. OK, George Miller here gave us some links to Judith Harris, the source, and I can happily say now this article is bait and switch crap. “Parenting might not matter” – all it means is individual parenting doesn’t transmit culture. Parents set rules and responses as a group, and parenting is done at the group, or social level. Parenting methods still matter, it’s only even more important that we all get it right, nothing will change until we all change, the whole group.

    • I’d retract this one now. Sorry for the rudeness, and although I’m not sure this idea was not true, it’s not the important thing to me.


  46. skeptic dude says

    I still have to come to grasp on how it’s significantly more than “parents don’t exert as much control over their children’s behavior and personality as they’d like to think”, versus “it’s everything in the genes; so-called cultural differences between countries, regions and decades are just phenotypic fluctuations of different arrangements of the gene pool, and nothing that has anything to do with so called learned of so called values or any other so called environmental influence. And those quintuplets with different life outcomes, they were just a hoax or just pretending in order to fake a left-wing paradigm”.

    It’s probably far safer to “err” on the side of good parenting versus “not taking good care of the phone”, even if it doesn’t mean dropping it from far high.

    If things like preferring the same sorts of clothes, shaking the head to the sound of elevator music in the elevator, are “genetically” relevant commonalities in twins, are they also relevant in non-twins, unrelated persons? I think that MZ twins are in a way a poor proxy for genetic analysis, just because they’re nearly perfect physiological copies of one another. So it’s not surprising that two nearly-identical brains behave so similarly. They probably would even if they were somehow produced by different, but convergent genes, or even with some degree of genetic therapy that wasn’t reasonably well targeted at something known to affect behavior. Of more genetic relevance would be if we could have MZ twins with KOed genes or track behavioral differences in to genes that turned out to be different early in the development of MZ twins.

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  49. John Smithson says

    Excellent article. I’m not an expert in the area, but I do think from my own experience (as both child and parent) and reading that parenting indeed doesn’t matter much.

    But the poem that ended this article reminded me of another poem by Philip Larkin:

    This Be The Verse

    They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    • John Smithson says

      I should have read the book The Nurture Assumption before writing my post above. The author Judith Harris wrote her poem in response to Philip Larkin’s poem. Thus the resemblance.

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  51. Denise says

    I agree with most of what you said. I disagree with your assumption that most kids don’t experience abuse of some sort. I believe a lot of it doesn’t get reported, or is viewed by society as sort of a parental “no man’s land.” One in which parents treat their kids badly, other people know, and no one says or does anything. Although we talk about psychological abuse. It is not actually addressed as much as it should be. It would seem that these factors of parenting would significantly influence behavior. I know from experience of raiding 6 kids from 2 different generations that they have some similarities, but also have significant differences. For example, both play basketball, but only one has a true drive. But in their 4 older “siblings”‘ only one was athletic. The one common trait for all is exceptional creativity, which is not something either of the parents shared with them and was in fact intentionally stifled by my parents.

  52. Jude says

    This is Rubish. Have you been a parent? I have. I’ve also coached many kids for 35 years and many professionals as a 3-time CEO. My wife is also a psychodynamic therapist. You might have studied it, but we’ve lived it, and I can promise you that parenting matters more than anything. Period. I hope your work isn’t funded by my tax dollars.

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  54. I buy that genes matter a lot, but travelling from one country to another makes it clear that culture does, too (and imagine how time-travel would reinforce the point). The degree to which parenting mediates inculturation is obviously in turn culturally contingent. My home-schooled kids, by preference, spend literally zero time with others without me, and of the many other people they spend time with along with me, few are peers. They choose to spend the vast majority of their time with just me, playing in a garden created by me, reading books chosen from a selection made by me, listening to my music collection. I might well not be able to adjust their IQs by much, but it’s not credible that I’m not going to have any input into the people they become. If your kids spend more time not with you than with you, you just aren’t doing most of the parenting

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  58. Frank says

    |Just found this post and have a comment that’s always bugged me, as a student of Criminology and Psychology/Sociology. I’ll try to keep it brief and to the point while still explaining the idea:

    This notion of 50-0-50 and the lack of effect for parenting on the personality (and often consequently the behavior) of individuals relates heavily to Edwin Sutherland’s theory of differential association for deviance. For those who don’t know it, it basically states that delinquent behavior is most strongly learned and affected by association with delinquent peers. However, this theory has always had a little bit of trouble with a rabbit hole, specifically, who was the “original” delinquent peer? It had to start somewhere…and the findings that Harris presents in her work would strongly imply that those traits of delinquency probably have a genetic basis. However, if they are purely genetic, then we are assuming that delinquency is basically a genetic quality, which has serious implications for how we treat those who display deviant behavior. I would assume that Harris does not endorse this wholly deterministic view, and would probably hold that negative parentage was a root cause of delinquency as well. So, we sort of have two options here, combining these similarly-developed theories: On the one hand, if delinquency is primarily caused by the personality and behavioral influences of peers, which are in turn caused mostly by genes, then we have some very serious questions to address with how we apply the principals of a humane criminal justice system. On the other, if the personality and behavior of those “original delinquent peers” (and by extension, all societal deviance) is primarily caused by bad parentage, then parentage clearly does matter, has a huge effect on our society, and the title of this post is quite misleading. Is it just me, or does this pose a bit of a conundrum? Thanks for any thoughts!

  59. CNewall says

    Goodness, you had me worried there. You nearly convinced me that my lives’ work in child development amounted to nothing. I had a look at the original article by Polderman and you are correct – the genetic contribution to traits is startling. The one that nearly killed me was this:

    “Roughly two-thirds of traits show a pattern of monozygotic and dizygotic twin correlations that is consistent with a simple model whereby trait resemblance is solely due to additive genetic variation.” (p. 708).

    I didn’t like them apples. So why bother examining child development at all? Or parenting? Or relationships? Or generally, all of social science? I guess in part because traits and physical health, which were the target variables for this study, are not the ONLY outcomes we measure. Traits are about enduring characteristics in a person. However, even with these traits and individual differences, people can still behave differently because of the environment, regardless of genetic make-up. In social science research, beyond traits, many of us are interested in how people behave in a given situation.

    You make a great case about the over-reliance on associative research – I also find it annoying when the media treat longitudinal research as though they explain causality between variables. However, I think in many ways, you are wrong about the lack of experimental research on parenting. I think some of the best work done in parenting was by the hugely controversial Harry Harlow in the 60s and 70s on rhesus monkeys showing the trans-generational effects of lack of parenting (the monkeys raised without parents were abusive to their infants). There are also terrific experimental studies on cross-fostering in rodent models (hence removing genetic elements). We recently manipulated parenting responses to see if it impacted on the child’s perfectionistic attributes. While clearly history and genetics play a role, we also found a clear main effect of experimental manipulation, which can’t be easily explained away through genetics.

    Finally, Polderman didn’t measure some important outcomes that shape a person’s life beyond their traits such as employment, criminal record, financial security, occupation, attachment, relationship satisfaction, community engagement, and general contentment. I imagine that parenting may play a role in these matters. Clearly, genes will as well but I suspect that having a parent that discourages you from breaking the law, treating people with kindness and respect …. all those things, they matter. They matter not in terms of traits but the community we actually live in.

    That final outcome is not just in the child’s success but the broader context of the society we live in, the culture we proliferate, and in the community we develop.

    That said, I LOVED this post. You made me pause for a moment to really think through why parenting matters (or doesn’t matter). Those are the best moments in life as a scientist. Great work and please keep at it. Controversy that challenges our thinking and communicating it with the public is a terrific service. Thank you.

    • Brian says

      Thanks so much for your wonderfully thoughtful comment. I’m very pleased you liked the article, and I thought you raised some excellent points. Please feel free to keep in touch, I’d love to hear more about the work you’re doing.

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  61. “Spanking” is abuse. Twins separated at birth have as a result been hugely impacted by parenting before they go any further. Of course genetics plays a huge part ( how big..?) as does environment and nurture/parents…so how parents treat their children is of paramount importance given that they can’t do much about the genetics and to a lesser degree, often not much about the environment…even if parenting only accounts for a small contribution to the development of children.

  62. I don’t suppose anyone’s reading this post anymore, but just in case – I’ve solved it, answered the “Parenting Might Not Matter” challenge and proved why it does. I’ll be blogging it, drip-style on abusewithanexcuse.com, posts starting as of February 23rd., 2017. I’ll come back here to say when I think the argument there is complete.

    Please come and continue the conversation . . .

    Mar. 2, 2017

    Jeff McGuire

  63. Brian, if you’re still watching, getting notifications – I don’t suppose anyone’s going to like what I came up with but, I want to thank you for setting the challenge. I mean I know it wasn’t like that and certainly not a personal challenge, but for me, your title was a throw-down – and I couldn’t help but try. It’s the puzzle I’ve been at my whole life. I think it was someone here pushed me to read The Nurture Assumption and in the middle of that my ghost in the machine mindset gave way to biology but that wasn’t right either, I had to bring the two together, and I think this is it, antisocialization theory, I’m calling it, or AST. (Antisocialization doesn’t mean having only online friends, LOL.) I wasn’t trying to put you out of business, I mean the criminal justice industry, but you know, truth. LOL again.

    Hey, despite maybe trying to invalidate you and your whole profession – you wanna write my book? You got a publisher, right? It’s ultimate clickbait, plus, maybe change the world too.

    Take care,


    for you especially, I think #4 is the heart and soul of it.

  64. twitter version is, “positive” parenting really doesn’t matter – but parenting ain’t mostly positive. “Consequences” matter, just not the way we hope.

  65. Brian, you know I’m not saying you’re wrong here, I’m not taking the stance of the paradigm…/strawman that says “parents socialize children,” right? But I think I think I’ve answered the question of what really does matter about human parenting in a scientific way, and it’s more comprehensive than simply moving the “blame” from the parents to the peer group if we don’t turn out the way our parents wanted. Of course that is simply declaring it’s not the chicken, it’s the egg, and it’s a species sort of thing, same species in both parts of life, even if they look very different. There is a real function masked by our Nurture Assumptions, or it wouldn’t be such a universal, would it?


    I came at this from a different direction. I wasn’t trying to prove parents socialize children, I was trying to understand the practice of punishment, I never liked the explanation, I always sensed that there must be something hidden in it for it to make any sort of sense. That’s what I’ve solved, to the satisfaction of my lifelong puzzlement. I don’t think we’re at any sort of odds really, not within this conversation anyways.

  66. The problem the author refers to, i.e. when two things are corelated and then you assume that one is causing the other, when in reality a third ‘unobseved’ factor is causing both simultaneously, is called endogeneity. It’s a very well known problem in data analysis, and much work has been devoted to overcome it, with some fairly succesful proposals. The fact that here is contextualized in parenting and genetics makes no difference from the general problematic, so it’s there where I suggest interested readers and researchers should go if they are intrigued by the problem posed in this article.

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