The Nurture Assumption - Book Review

Posted On: Friday - August 24th 2018 9:30PM MST
In Topics: 
  Science  Books  Educational Stupidity

Peak Stupidity was supposed to have movie and book reviews as separate from our regular posting in my original envisionment, with links on the left. Our movie reviews don't usually resemble anything by Siskel & Ebert or the "trade papers" of Hollywood anyway, but we could get organized at some point on this. This post will be as close to a book review as I've written, just because I've been wanting to write about this book, and a bit about the subject for quite a while (there is also one more that really relates to this site - coming, uhhh, sometime).

The book is called The Nurture Assumption*, **, by Judith Rich Harris, and the plan was to write this a bit earlier, to follow-up from the 3-week ago post It's that time of year - THE STATE is coming for your kids.. Yeah, well, it IS and they DID.

The first thing I should state is that it's about 3 years since I read this book, and I don't have it on me. Can one write a review like this? Sure. I can't name page numbers, but since the book was interesting, I can remember the gist of what I want to write about it. For instance, to get in review-mode here, this 20 year-old book is well written and not can't-put-down interesting, but a good read. Mrs. Harris wrote the book after being a psychology doctoral student and a textbook author. I recall she mentioned that, besides being dismissed from the graduate program (a bit more on this in a bit), she took time off of the career stuff to raise her two daughters, and had major health problems. She was able to work out some psychological theories on other subjects while she was bedridden for a long time. Mrs. Harris had live examples of the nurturing of he daughters to observe in addition to citing studies of many sorts.

The very first portion of the book, the intro. or first chapter, relates to Mrs. Harris' time in graduate school doing research, and unexpectedly made me smile. It was surprising that, even though she is in the field, Mrs. Harris had lots of choice words disparaging the work of the departments of psychology in general. It's a bit up my alley, as I don't have too much respect for the researchers and research in the soft "sciences" either. (I feel a post coming about the whole business of sharing the authoring of papers and such.) That was an unexpected but very honest way to start off a book that references loads of studies in psychology to support her "Nurture Assumption" point.

Before getting to her point though, I'll explain the possibly-very-obvious business of the balance between nature and nurture causing traits and personalities in humans. It's just not something I write about much - go directly to Steve Sailer's site (look especially for the older posts) for way more. A figure of 50% of traits caused by nature's and, of course, the same for nurture's effects, is cited a lot by laymen and people in the field of psychology. That's very obviously just a number used to say "there's significant effects from both, and that's all we know". No, I'm not saying that nothing has been learned, but human traits are so various and numerous, and I don't know how you'd ever begin to categorize them all. Lots of methods have been tried to find the N vs. N cause of important human traits, and most likely the best of those are the studies of identical twins (who have the same genes) that were separated early in life, and therefore grew up in different human environments (nurturing).

The author does not dispute the 50/50 (or any other number) split. Her point involves only the nurture "half". Since the nature (genetic) side of things can't be changed after conception, psychologists, interested people, and most of all parents, want to learn everything they can to understand the best way to nurture children to end up "right". Most of us assume that means the time a child learns in the home, especially early-on when he picks up ideas like a sponge. Mrs. Harris' contention, however, is that the parents' effect is minimal and (if I remember the number correctly) 95% of the nurture effect on traits/personality comes from the child's peers. Now, you may understand why I referred back to the post about schools. The author maintains that the childhood friends and fellow students are of much more importance in forming the personality of your child than what happens at home.

Judith Harris' theory should obviously be a big blow to parents, and I'm not arguing against it just yet. Were it true, though, that means all that upbringing work by parents requires no thinking and planning, as the kid will turn out a certain way predominantly due to which type of peers he hangs out with growing up. Because this is 3 years after my reading, I can't bring up specific examples, but the author cites and explains many psychological studies throughout most of the book to back her contention. It's all very interesting and believable, but then parents with mostly-grown up children may have common-sense that tells them otherwise. I'd believe my common sense over the work of psychologists any day of the week. Parents, or maybe I should just say women, who don't have enough confidence in themselves are the ones who do lots of reading of parenting and more trashy magazines for which psychology departments have a big "in". It's probably the thing that gets these graduate students and professors up in the morning, the idea that one day their research paper, right or wrong, will be cited in Cosmopolitan as an advice article on how to raise kids better and be read all over.

The only problem with Mrs. Harris's theory (for her I mean) is that nobody's gonna publish the gist of it as advice, as the message would be "it doesn't matter what you do - don't bother reading any more of our parenting articles. What's the point?". That's not a good look for Cosmo or People!

Even if I do accept the important conclusion here, it turns out that parents will still have a major influence anyway. Why? It's because parents who do a good job with their kids are ones who help pick or at least guide who their children's peers are to begin with. This brings me to even another factor. Though one would think it's not important (per Judith Harris' theory, that is) how much time children spend at home, it still does matter because trust is built at home. That's not a personality trait, so it the book's theory doesn't cover it, right? However, the more trust in his parents built up, the more likely the kid will listen to them when he is told which kids he should hang out with, why he should get into the smart (but also, better behaved) kids' class, etc. He will also listen to the parents over his peers up to a later age. It's kind of recursive thinking here, but the author's conclusion that nurture effects on personality come from peers still results in very important input from time with the parents.

It's still a thought-provoking book, but possibly the conclusion of The Nurture Assumption, even if totally correct, is not anything that should result in parents doing anything differently after all.

PS: This is not worthy of as stand-alone post. It just didn't fit in up top, but since this IS a book review, I want to make this small criticism of a detail:

Somewhere among the studies discussed in The Nurture Assumption, I remember one (neither the title nor authors, unfortunately) about a typical type of observational study in which Mrs. Harris agreed with a conclusion that I think is simply wrong. This is one of those experiments involving "ringers", people who are not subjects themselves, but seem to be to the real subjects. It was simple. The real subjects, who were adults, BTW, were asked a bunch of knowledge questions in a verbal manner, along with the ringers. At some point, some questions would be asked that the ringers would all answer wrongly, and the test was to see how that peer pressure would influence the subject, who should have known the correct answer. Most of the time, after a while, the subject would answer wrongly too.

The erroneous conclusion of the study, which Mrs. Harris agreed with. was that this was the result of peer pressure alone. There's a plenty good alternate explanation though. At some point, if you see smart people around you answering differently, depending on exactly how well you think you know the answer, you may just feel you are having a brain fart. You're not afraid to answer in opposition, but you just don't want to be derided as senile or under the influence, is all. OK, that was neither here nor there, except it was part of the book, and a part that I thought was not well thought through.

* Subtitled: "Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do"

** I am linking here to a cheaper paperback version (if you're going to buy it) updated version for the reason that there are reviews on the amazon page for this one, but not for the original, that I read.

Saturday - August 25th 2018 7:39PM MST
PS - On the two-income household thing, that's something that Big-Gov, Big-Biz, and Big-Ed really love. However, from what I recall (the general ideas I do remember) of the book, Mrs. Harris is not pushing the feminist stuff at all, even though she was a career woman up to a point. Your point that the influence of the peer group may have been greatly increased by the time of those recent (as of 1998 studies) is a good one.

However, I recall that she wrote a lot about the influence of even the children's pre-school-day friends. Yeah, I guess if the book were fresh in my head right now, I could discuss this better.

If you can get it at the library, it's worth it - not as an advice book, just for interest and to see if you think the author is full of it.

Thanks again for reading, Bern. I'll probably have another post up on Monday.
Saturday - August 25th 2018 8:16AM MST
PS - FIxed that error - thanks. I know there are a coupla more errors I saw earlier, but I'll get to them later and write you back later in response to your discussion, BernCar.
Saturday - August 25th 2018 6:51AM MST
PS In your PS, 2nd paragraph first line, you refer to the book as "The Nature Assumption".

Whatever happened to the assumption that a child's personality is predominantly set by age four or five or thereabouts? That seemed to be a rule of thumb, say forty or fifty years ago, in the days before universal day care due to both parents working. It would seem that at that tender age, the normal child had more contact with parents than with peers, at least in those days.

The book you refer to was published in 1998 according to the provided link and I assume the studies referred to in the book were recent at the time and so would cover the time after universal day care. Maybe the old rule of thumb of priority of parental influence changed as a result of the requirement for two-income households. If so, that's another charge in the indictment against the Federal Reserve or whatever or whoever is responsible for mothers having to leave children to the tender mercies of daycare. Any working class parent should shudder at the implications of little Johnny's personality being shaped primarily by the cohort in his day care class. Back in the day, starting school at five or six, a child at least had a foundation provided by his family before being exposed to his peers on a regular basis. Of course, throughout history, peers have had a powerful influence on children, but in much of that time, parents knew a lot more about the peer group.

Nature vs nurture is a topic that a good friend and I used to debate frequently. Even when DNA research was in its infancy, he was convinced that nature was everything while I argued for the 50-50 theory. I don't think he was right, but he may have been closer to the truth than me.
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