The Nurture Assumption

I’ve just finished The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris (1998, Bloomsbury). Fantastic book – and I think it says something about psychology that something so seminal can be published by a writer of textbooks rather than professional academic. Or perhaps, like Nicol suggested, it would take a writer of textbooks to be able to synthesise across fields without the blinkers of disciplinary indoctrination which are normally acquired by specialist professionals. I’d love to know more about the profressional response to the book. She must have really annoyed some people.

I put my notes online. The take-home message is this: It is a cultural myth that parenting style influences how children turn out. The nature-nurture dichotomy is a false one, because it suggests that aside from nature/genetics it is only parents who have an influence on how children develop (thank Freud for that one). Genetics makes children similar to parents. Being socialised by a peer group with the same values as the parents makes children similar to parents. Parents don’t make children similar to parents.

Think language: the children of immigrants take on the language of their host country as their native tongue, not the language of their parents.

Think twin-studies: we all know the stories about twins reared-apart who in adulthood are amazinginly similar. You don’t hear the flip side mentioned so often. Twins reared together are no more similar. Having the same parental up-bringing doesn’t add anything to the existing effect of genetics.

There is no scientific evidence that parents have any affect beyond providing genes and a socio-economic peer group which is most likely congruent with their own socialisation.

That’s the important thing, I think. No scientific evidence. We have to remember that what is real isn’t the same as what is scientifically demonstrable. But if psychology wants to be a science it needs to rely on the scientifically demonstrable and I think Judith Rich Harris shows that the discipline has spent too long chasing confirmation of a folk myth, rather than doing properly controlled stuides. ‘Group Socialisation Theory’, as JRH calls the alternative hypothesis that peers are more influential than parents, is another good example of the use of using evolutionary theory as an integrative framework within psychology. Not that you should naively apply evolutionary theory to all aspects of psychology, but that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. And psychology is ultimately biological, and you need to use the same principles – ie trying to work out function – to understand either.

2 replies on “The Nurture Assumption”

Fascinating. . .but does anyone really read the “nurture” in “nature/nurture” debates to refer narrowly to parental influence? I always thought it was just an alliterative stand-in for “the environment,” i.e. everything else in the world, besides its own genotype, that influences the development of the organism.

I fear some do use it in that way. Or at least, maybe no one would defend that use if you asked them explicitly, but they carry out research as if this were true (for details see the book). And that’s the great thing about language – we can think we agree when actually we mean very different things. Your nurture (everything non genetic) is another researcher’s nurture (solely parental influence). Blame Freud!

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