Bryan Caplan  

Family, Pop Culture, and the Nurture Assumption

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The central message of behavioral genetics is that modern human beings systematically overestimate the effects of upbringing and systematically underestimate the effects of heredity.  Judith Harris famously called this bias "the nurture assumption."  But why are people so predisposed to the nurture assumption?

I've previously argued that first-hand parenting experience is misleading, because the short-run effects of parenting far exceed the long-run effects.  Changing kids is easy; the hard thing is preventing them from changing back!  I also suspect Social Desirability Bias plays a major role: "You can do anything if you try!" sure sounds better than "It's in the genes."

But here's a totally different explanation for popular misconceptions about nature and nurture.  Throughout most of human history, if you knew someone, you usually knew his family as well.  When you grow up in a village, you make friends; and once you make friends, you regularly interact with their relatives.

In the modern world, in contrast, we are much less likely to meet the family.  You almost never meet your co-workers' families.  And you often barely know the families of your close friends.  Perhaps strangely, most of the families that we "know" well are the fictional families of popular culture.  The Pritchetts.  The Bluths.  The Whites.  The Sopranos.  I've spent more time with the Simpson family than every family besides the Caplan family.

So what?  Well, with rare exceptions, the actors who comprise t.v. families aren't even remotely related.  Do your ancestors come from the same continent?  Then by t.v. logic, you could be brothers - and we're conditioned not to find the fictional relationships ridiculous.  Furthermore, since drama rests heavily on conflict and contrast, every family member gets a distinctive personality and social niche.  What t.v. family has three studious kids - or three class clowns?  Even a show like Shameless blends full-blown degenerates with nice people to handle damage control.

The result: We have little first-hand familiarity with actual biological families.  But popular culture fosters that illusion that we do.  Most of the biological families that we "know" are in fact adopted all the way down.  The main exception being kids' roles where two twins play the same role to ease compliance with child labor laws!

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Adam writes:

"human beings systematically overestimate the effects of upbringing and systematically underestimate the effects of heredity."

Must be genetic.

Henry writes:

I call this the "Simpson Gene" trope, after the episode of The Simpsons where there actually is a genetic explanation for why the male Simpsons family members are idiots while Lisa is a genius.

Thaomas writes:

Pretty good speculations. I'd guess that it's also a more useful explanation. If Ms Y is doing something to annoy you it's better to change her incentives to annoy than to assume that she is just genetically annoying.

Colin Barnard writes:

All this argument presents is that there is less variability within real families contra fictional families.

How does that affect our nature vs nurture assumptions? Most families are parented by their biological families. How would you go about detangling genetics from parenting just from knowing that people within families are more similar than strangers?

jc writes:

Interesting question. Interesting test too.

(1) Evidence in the opposite direction might be provided by those living in rural communities where folks may, on average, be more likely to know successive generations of entire families. If people here are more likely, on average, to believe in the power of "raising your kids right"...

(2) I wonder if a bundle of simple effects like Attribution Bias, Halo/Horns, (and yes) Social Desirability, etc., play a role too.

Other people's kids turn out poorly? "They didn't raise 'em right like I did mine", I say, as I pat my own back while simultaneously enjoying judging you.

My are angels...and if they do misbehave, well, that was just boys being boys is all.

(And if forced to admit they have horns, and that that's not colorful, *then* maybe you blame nurture...or peers...or society.)

Lawrence writes:

Maybe the rise of reality TV will affect this?

Also, perhaps the nurture assumption is itself hereditary. After all, there is not much utility in a fatalistic belief that our destiny is largely controlled by our genes.

Alex writes:

I agree with what you say but also there is the issue of scientific knowledge.
Lets go back 150 years: it was believed that cholera was transmitted through the air. They called it myasthma or something like that. Also infections were treated with blood letting. Mental illnesses with exorcisms. Its just that we are in a point of scientific knowledge where we are learning more about genetics. I predict that this will be increasingly accepted and recognized. I'm not a psychologist but my understanding is that most psychologists no longer deny the influence of genetics in behaviour, which they did for very long.

Joseph E Munson writes:

This is somewhat random but child acting has always interested me in that once a child actor gets started you could essentially give him/her the rights of an adult and see what happens. The 8 year olds would probably have some trouble, the 17 year olds I suspect would be fine.

Much is made about the pressure their put under and how they are to young to work, but the bigger issue seems to be parents that totally screw them and or spend all their money.

Lex writes:

"In the modern world, in contrast, we are much less likely to meet the family."

Wherein Bryan removes any doubt that neither he, nor his kids, ever played competitive sports.

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