It’s time to move beyond the nature/nurture divide

In advising parents to ignore hectoring experts, Judith Rich Harris’s book still packs a punch 10 years on. But its use of evolutionary theory and social psychology to explain how people are ‘shaped’ leaves much to be desired.

Helene Guldberg

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Earlier this year, on the tenth anniversary of its first publication, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris was revised and updated. The book is a welcome antidote to the increasingly shrill voices lecturing us today about the ‘right’ ways of parenting. But as an insight into what it means to be human, and what shapes our development, Harris’s book raises more questions than it answers.

‘One of my purposes in writing this book is to relieve parents from the guilt that has been imposed upon them by the professional givers of advice on child-rearing’, Harris writes. ‘The nurture assumption has turned children into objects of anxiety. Parents are worried about doing the wrong thing, fearful that a stray word or glance might ruin their child’s chances forever.’ She rightly argues that ‘Somehow the advice-givers always manage to take the joy and spontaneity out of child-rearing and turn it into hard work’.

‘If you have occasionally lost your temper and hit your children, it is unlikely that you have caused them any lasting harm’, she continues. That is not to say it doesn’t matter if you are regularly nasty to your children; if you are, it is possible that you will seriously harm your relationship with your child, potentially for life. But it will not shape your child’s relationship with other adults. Your child will not relate to all other adults as if they are unpredictable, quick-tempered and nasty, but they may relate to you in that way, says Harris.

Harris meticulously takes apart the claims made by academics and experts about children being determined by their early familial relationships: ‘The experts are wrong: parental nurturing is not what determines how a child turns out.’

Much of the evidence for the effect of parenting styles on children’s later outcomes is based on correlational research. Harris shows that many of these claims are vastly overblown. Researchers will often gather a good deal of data about the participants of their study. If, for instance, they were to gather five measures of the home environment and five measures of the children’s outcomes, these measures could be paired up in 25 different ways, yielding 25 possible correlations. As Harris points out: ‘Just by chance alone, it is likely that one or two of them will be statistically significant.’ She adds that if none of them is significant, ‘Never fear, all is not lost’: all the so-called experts need to do is split up the data further and look again. ‘Looking separately at girls and boys immediately doubles the number of correlations, giving us 50 possibilities for success instead of just 25. Looking separately at fathers and mothers is also worth a try. “Divide and conquer” is my name for this method.’

A good example of this type of analysis is the recent government-funded study by the Institute of Education, which, according to the UK Daily Mail, shows that ‘children are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults if their parents are firm disciplinarians’ (1). The authors of the report set out to ‘understand the determinants of parenting’, and ended up recommending that ‘maternal mental health, breastfeeding and social networks form the focus of intervention efforts to boost parenting capabilities’ (2).

On what basis did they draw such far-reaching conclusions about the need for further government intervention in family life? The researchers looked at the relationship between a whole host of measures and the ‘quality of the mother-child interactions’. The factors they looked at included: the mother’s marital status, marital satisfaction, family income, breastfeeding, attitudes towards breastfeeding, feelings about childcare, quality of maternal care that the mother received in her own childhood, post-natal depression, mother’s age at child’s birth, mother’s education, and much more. To assess the mother-child interactions, they measured the amount of ‘warmth’ and ‘educational communication’ involved when a mother shared a picture book with her child at one and then five years of age.

Of course, the researchers came up with some ‘statistically significant correlations’. With so many possible correlations it would be highly surprising if they didn’t. For instance, they found: ‘Breastfeeding had a positive association with parenting.’ But it only continued to have ‘a positive effect’ at five years of age for single and lower income mothers – not ‘for married and higher income mothers, or for the sample overall’. Note Harris’s warning about ‘Divide and conquer’: if the correlations are not significant over longer periods for the whole data set, divide up the data further.

The Nurture Assumption is an important book in guiding students – and non-students, too – through the minefield of correlational research and the various methodological tricks used to come up with publishable results.

It also challenges the pressure on parents to raise children’s self-esteem. Contrary to the current orthodoxy, Harris argues that self-esteem is based on what we do, not on how we are encouraged to feel. Children are perfectly aware of how they compare to, and are regarded by, their peers – and therefore need to develop mechanisms for coping with difficult situations when they arise. She writes: ‘Kids are not fragile. They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home they might hear “What you did made me feel bad”, but out on the playground it’s “You shithead!”’

Sadly, since The Nurture Assumption was first published 10 years ago, the cultural preoccupation with protecting children from any possible negative messages has extended far beyond the confines of the home to include what goes on in the classroom and the school playground, too. There are those who argue that we have a duty to protect children from ever facing the possibility of being called a ‘shithead’ – even by another child. Yet this obsession with protection is problematic.

The strength of The Nurture Assumption is that it encourages parents to worry less about how they bring up their children. However, it falls seriously short in explaining – in the words of the book’s subtitle – ‘why children turn out the way they do’. Harris says: ‘There are hundreds of books that give advice to parents – books that tell you what you’re doing wrong and how to do a better job of raising your kids. Find a good one and it may help to explain why children behave the way they do when they’re at home. My goal is to explain what makes them behave the way they do in the world outside the home – the world where they will spend the rest of their lives.’

Yet Harris’s theoretical framework for explaining what makes us who we are is no less deterministic than the frameworks that she criticises. It is not parents that shape us, she says, but a combination of our genes and ‘group socialisation’. Her model does not go beyond the dualistic concepts of nature and nurture that have plagued much of psychology since its inception.

Harris welcomes the fact that ‘there is now more acceptance of the idea that behaviour is influenced by genes and that individual differences in behaviour are due in part to differences in genes’. But environment also has an effect, she says – ‘both on children and on corn’. She even puts a figure on it: ‘In our own species, differences in environment account for about half the variation in personality characteristics.’

Her thesis builds on social psychology’s ‘group socialisation theory’ and the two key concepts of ‘assimilation’ and ‘differentiation’. It is through this ‘groupness’ that children become socialised, Harris argues: ‘Children get their ideas of how to behave by identifying with a group and taking on its attitudes, behaviours, speech and styles of dress and adornments.’ She draws on evolutionary theory to explain the importance of group socialisation: ‘Hating the members of other groups is part of human (and chimpanzee) nature. Our evolutionary history has predisposed us to draw a simple corollary: that we prefer Xs to Ys. We also conclude, as a result of the categorisation process itself, that we are similar to other Xs and different from Ys.’

In truth, we cannot understand the complexity of human behaviour on the basis of simplistic rules, such as ‘assimilation’ and ‘differentiation’. These concepts may provide a framework for understanding some of the processes that shape our behaviour, but they would only give us a partial, ahistorical and not very meaningful insight. However, Harris implies that these processes can explain everything from patriotism and war to school achievement and truancy.

Indeed, she goes so far as to argue that: ‘The basic phenomena of group relations – preference for one’s own group, hostility towards other groups, between-group contrast effects, and within-group assimilation and differentiation – are so robust, so easy to demonstrate in the laboratory or observe in natural settings, that social psychologists soon found themselves with little left to do but clean up the crumbs. It was the success of social psychology, not its failure, that led to the decline of the field in the wake of the brilliant research carried out in the 1950s.’

But for me, social psychology is one of the least illuminating and most reactionary branches of psychology. Social psychology was born out of a fear and loathing for the masses at the end of the nineteenth century, in the context of a wave of working-class unrest. In 1895, French social psychologist Gustave le Bon described crowds as mobs in which normal psychological capacities are suppressed, revealing a primal irrational nature. Explaining human behaviour on the basis of ‘group processes’, removed from any understanding of the social context, inevitably ends up undermining individual subjectivity.

Steven Pinker called The Nurture Assumption ‘a turning point in the history of psychology’. But it is only ‘a turning point’ in so far as it has helped swing the pendulum back to the ‘nature’ side of the debate while at the same time redefining ‘nurture’ to mean ‘peer group socialisation’ rather than parental influence.

‘Children are not socialised by their parents’, Harris writes. ‘Parents have no lasting influence on their children’s personalities or on the way they behave outside the home… The personality we acquire in our childhood and adolescent peer groups is the one that accompanies us through the rest of our lives. It is the “me” that continues to look out of our eyes even when our eyes require bifocals’, she says. And cultures, apparently, are passed from one generation to the next via the peer group, not via adults.

Yet even within the peer group, it is not the relationships that shape us, she argues, but the abstract concept of ‘groupness’. Just as we cannot blame any character defects on our parents, neither can we blame them on our friends, says Harris. ‘Relationships do matter – they generate powerful emotions and take up a large proportion of our thoughts and memories – but nevertheless they don’t have much effect on how we turn out.’ So peers are only important in so far as they provide a ‘group’ to identify with or react against, but the relationships with our peers per se are not important in influencing how we turn out.

Far more interesting insights have been made in other fields of psychology – away from ‘social psychology’ – by individuals who have gone beyond the staid nature-nurture debate. Harris, and Pinker for that matter, fail to appreciate the wealth of research, not least from developmental psychology (a branch of psychology responsible for so much ‘worthless’ research according to Harris), that has elucidated the many transformations human beings go through during their lives.

In fact, back in the 1930s the famous Soviet psychologists Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky put forward a theoretical framework for explaining what makes us human in their book Ape, Primitive Man and Child. They argued that human beings are the product of three distinct lines of development: the evolutionary, the historical and the ontogenetic (or, in other words, the individual).

Anthropology, palaeontology, primatology, genetics and other disciplines have given us insights into the possible events in our evolutionary history that created the biological basis for the emergence of our unique human abilities. But, as Luria and Vygotsky stressed, the evolution of the human genetic make-up is merely the precondition for our humanity.

Our human genetic make-up is almost identical to the first Homo sapiens sapiens that emerged around 150,000 years ago. But in terms of how we live and organise our lives – our aspirations, values, attitudes, social relationships, intelligence and much more – we are incomparable to our ancestors. Thus, in order fully to understand what shapes us, we need to go beyond the evolutionary line of development. Building on the work of Karl Marx – who famously argued that ‘Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their choosing’ – Luria and Vygotsky showed that we are the product not only of biological evolution but also historical development and childhood relationships. Their historical concept of society is very different from the simple idea of ‘groupness’ put forward by most social psychologists.

It is in the area of the third line of development – the ontogenetic or individual line of development – where psychology, and in particular developmental psychology, has made some important strides. At birth, human infants are merely bundles of reflexes. As Luria and Vygotsky wrote: ‘In all animals, inherited reactions or innate modes of behaviour form the first stage in the development of behaviour. These are usually called the instinct, and for the most part are associated with the satisfaction of the basic needs of the organism.’ (3) But at some point in the child’s development, this biological being is transformed into a conscious self-aware being, capable of participating in our collective culture.

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello shows that this is only possible once infants understand other people as intentional beings like themselves. This ‘uniquely human cognitive competency’ does not emerge all at once ‘and then function the same way throughout’, he argues: ‘To the contrary, the human understanding of others as intentional beings makes its initial appearance at around nine months of age, but its real power becomes apparent only gradually as children actively employ the cultural tools that this understanding enables them to master, most importantly language.’ (4)

Luria and Vygotsky, and many developmental psychologists since, have shown that our interpersonal relationships not only serve important developmental functions, but are conduits through which we engage with our collective culture. Culture is not passively internalised, in the way Harris and other new social psychologists imply, through the abstract concept of ‘groupness’. And human beings are determined neither by nature nor nurture (or ‘groupness’). We are active agents who engage with, and have the capacity to shape, the collective culture of our time.

Helene Guldberg is managing editor of spiked. Her book, Reclaiming Childhood, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Her next book, Just Another Ape? will be published in 2010 by Imprint Academic. Visit Helene’s website here.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do, by Judith Rich Harris, is published by Pocket Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Why children do best with strict parents, Daily Mail, 27 March 2009

(2) Nurturing parenting capability: the early years, by Leslie Morrison Gutman, John Brown and Rodie Akerman, Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning, March 2009 (PDF)

(3) Ape, Primitive Man and Child: Essays in the History of Behavior, by Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992: p1

(4) The Cultural Origin of Human Cognition, by Michael Tomasello, Harvard University Press, 1999: p56

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