Bryan Caplan  

Behavioral Genetics and the Single Economist

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In The Limits of Family Influence, David Rowe summarizes some evidence on spousal resemblance:
[H]igh spousal correlation coefficients did not appear to be the result of social influence in the marriage; people who had been married a long time were not more alike in their attitudes than newlyweds.  Initial assortment, rather than influence, thus seems to be the cause of spousal behavioral resemblance.*
This summary inspires Rowe to eloquent wisdom:
[W]e accept quite readily the idea that our spouses are hard to influence; it is easier to avoid an area of divergent opinion than to try to get our wives or husbands to agree.  How intuitive it is that our spouses are hard to change!  Yet the great change that occurs in children does not mean that their direction of change is any more malleable to our wishes than that of our spouses, to whom we also apply pressure by social example and by levers of reward and punishment, but to little advantage.
The practical lesson of behavioral genetics for parents, in my view, is to stop trying so hard to change your kids.  The practical lesson of Rowe's evidence for singles, in contrast, seems to be that you should hold out for a very close match.  Once you accept that the person you marry is unlikely to "grow into" in the changes that you urge upon him or her, the sensible response is to rely more heavily on the power of selection.

In short, economics informed by behavioral genetics come down on the side of romantic idealism: Show the world your true self - and see who loves you just as you are.

* Incidentally, Rowe understates his case here.  If spouses with divergent attitudes were less likely to stay together, correlations would rise over time even in the absence of causal influence.


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The author at CORRUPT.org: Remaking Modern Society in a related article titled The Importance of Partner Selection writes:
    How much can we as individuals change in a relationship to fit other people's expectations of us? Turns out, not very much, if at all: [W]e accept quite readily the idea that our spouses are hard to influence; it is easier to avoid an area of divergent o [Tracked on March 29, 2009 4:44 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Greg Ransom writes:

Did you get this from Dr. Laura?

Not that there is anything wrong with that ...

Zac writes:

Another implication is that people focus too much on commonality of interests. "Chemistry" is the important element in finding a mate - if you get along, there's a good chance you can find common ground.

Extending this line of thinking to children - while you are unlikely to change their personality or behavior, a parent can certainly do much to instill values.

ajb writes:

Wrt children: Bryan confuses size of effect with subjective value of that effect. If I can change my kids by only 5% (or perhaps by 50% conditional on some rare situations), that may not show up in a regression, but that margin may be terribly important to me and to them. There are a lot of things in my life that were objectively "small" but which I consider to have been so important that I would think my life substantially better or worse had they been changed.

El Presidente writes:

I think there are really two mechanisms to consider here; persuasion and manipulation. Persuasion is often slow and difficult but effective because it relies on internal locus of control and respects the individual as an independent agent. Manipulation often breeds resentment and usually lasts only as long as the capacity for coercion or reward remains; as long as there is some dependence. So, I think that any argument about whether or not people can or will change needs to consider the degree to which they are persuaded their behaviors are optimal and the degree to which they might be open to being persuaded otherwise.

I tend to think it's alright to try to change your children, just as it would be alright to try to change yourself. But, they need to be full partners in the endeavor which means you will have to take the time to figure out what is motivating them and how to persuade them with their consent.

Steve Roth writes:

Pinker nailed this one long ago--along with most other things he touched--in The Blank Slate, the chapter on parenting:

"A parent and a child have a human relationship. No one ever asks, "So you're saying it doesn't matter how I treat my husband or wife?" even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one's spouse. Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other's personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship. Imagine being told that one cannot revamp the personality of a husband or wife and replying, "The thought that all this love I'm pouring into him (or her) counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate." So it is with parents and children."

His whole chapter on parenting bears multiple readings not only for its convincing lucidity and laugh-out-loud humor, but for its warm-hearted, embracing humanity.

This also reminds me of the saying I heard somewhere:

"Men get married hoping their wives will stay the same. Women get married hoping their husbands will change."

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"Show the world your true self - and see who loves you just as you are.

A poor man once lied to me about himself, because he felt I was too good for him and that I therefore could not be told the truth. His was a lie bourne of self-doubt.

A man of wealth once lied to me about himself, because he felt that he was too good for me and that I didn't deserve the truth. His was a lie bourne of arrogance.

Rich or poor, when someone lies, they cheat both themselves and the person to whom they lied; because they will never know with certainty what events would have transpired had they simply told the truth.

*****************************

As for trying to control the behavior of children. It is a case of both nature AND nurture. We are born with a basic temperament, and it is up to the parents to take the time to understand that temperament and to teach the child how to function with that temperament in the outside world.

Troy Camplin writes:

Steve Roth beat me to the punch with the saying that ended his comment.

Oh well.

I was finally successful at dating when I followed Nietzsche's advice to "lie like the truth." Be yourself, but not too much. Ease them into it. I was also aided by eHarmony in getting my wife.

An interesting trend I've noticed, though. My brother, who is an artist, is married to a social worker with a M.A. in counseling. My wife is a former social worker (her experience as a social worker changed her from an idealistic liberal Democrat to a libertarian Republican), and I am a poet-playwright-fiction writer. The only other couple I met who met through eHarmony was also a social worker (her) with an artist (him). My brother and his wife were introduced by a friend, but eHarmony seems to connect artists with social workers as well. Anyone else know of similar pairings? Why would an artist-social worker pairing work best for each of them?

Jason Malloy writes:

"The practical lesson of Rowe's evidence for singles, in contrast, seems to be that you should hold out for a very close match. Once you accept that the person you marry is unlikely to "grow into" in the changes that you urge upon him or her, the sensible response is to rely more heavily on the power of selection."

I wouldn't say that this is a lesson that flows from behavior genetic findings. Just the opposite.

In fact, there was an important paper (PDF) by David Lykken using twins to test major theories of why people select their spouses. In particular, the authors asked if similarity is used to choose mates. They find it is not: A) The spouses of identical twins are no more similar than the spouses of fraternal twins (or random strangers); B) Identical twins are no more attracted to the spouse of their co-twin, than fraternal twins are to the spouse of their co-twin; and C) The spouses of identical twins are no more attracted to the twin of their spouse, than the spouses of fraternal twins are to the twin of their spouse.

The conclusion is that people ultimately choose their mates by a random process of infatuation.

While this does not technically argue against the idea that people should seek mates more like themselves (obligatory "'is' does not mean 'ought'" disclaimer), it does suggest that this is not how people naturally come to select their mates, so any conscious mating effort of this type would be artificial and uncertain in its effects.

For instance, would an uninfatuated, but highly similar couple who paired up out of practical motives be more likely to dissolve than a highly dissimilar couple that nevertheless is strongly pair-bonded due to random, irrational infatuation? It sounds probable.

Steve Roth writes:

Jason Malloy: "would an uninfatuated, but highly similar couple who paired up out of practical motives be more likely to dissolve than a highly dissimilar couple that nevertheless is strongly pair-bonded due to random, irrational infatuation?"

There's certainly no evidence that (modern) infatuation-driven pairings have any more staying power than arranged ones...

See Stephanie Coontz, Marriage: A History

eccdogg writes:

It seems in pairing, there can be both similarity and complementarity.

My wife and I are similar in many ways in how we see the world, but we are also different in ways that we complement each other.

I am a big picture person, she is a detail person. I am an optomist, she is a worrier. She is outgoing, I am reserved. She is private, I am more open.

Together we tend to find a happy middle ground.

If I married someone just like me the bills would never get paid.

Jason Malloy writes:

There's certainly no evidence that (modern) infatuation-driven pairings have any more staying power than arranged ones...

I don't know where you get "certainly no evidence". Are there empirical references from the Koontz book that establish this?

The switch from arranged marriages to infatuation marriages had a significant positive impact on female marital satisfaction in China and Japan:

"Multiple regression analyses indicate that wives in Chengdu love matches are more satisfied with their marital relationships than their counterparts in arranged marriages, regardless of the length of the marriage, and that this difference cannot be attributed to the influence of other background factors that differentiate these two types of women"

Troy Camplin writes:

There's a biological reason for expecting love matches to be more satisfying than arranged marriages. Women are sensitive to the byproducts of Major Histocompatibility Factor (MHC), a highly variable immune system protein, released by men through their skin. Women are more sexually attracted to those men whose MHCs are more different from their own. Conversely, women are sexually repelled by those men whose MHCs are most like their own. In the seeking of mates through the formation of love bonds, women will be able to choose those whose MHCs are less like their own. In an arranged marriage, maybe they will, and maybe they won't.

As an interesting side note: birth control pills short-circuit MHC-sensitivity. Imagine what would happen if a woman on the pill fell in love with a man whose MHC was highly similar to her own, and then she got off the pill. Would she suddenly feel sexually repelled by her love? Could this be one factor in the high divorce rate in the U.S.?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I concur with the concept that "stop trying so hard to change your children" neglects the important parts of mental development that are not genetically related.

For example, you probably can't change a sky person into an outgoing person, but you can train them with coping skills to deal with social situations.

I am an example of someone with "different" attentional mechanisms than most people. I could never manage to clean up my room, until I moved in with my wife who taught me coping skills to approach the problem in a structured fashion and thus live in a clean environment.

Should you "change your children" to have them learn math? Of course.

I think it is dangerous when we allow the partial and statistical genetic influences to avoid training and conscious learning.

It reminds me of the people who say we don't need "me too" drugs. Drug #1 works for 95% of the people, why should we have another similar drug (which may work for the 5% of people the first drug didn't, but perhaps it is only effective for 60% of the population).

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