It’s one thing to go and see that if the parents of a kid go to church, the kid goes to church too. That’s kind of trivial.
The real question is: what if you come from atheist genetic stock, but you’re adopted by fundamentalist Christians? Are you still going to church when you’re 30? The research on this says at least to a far lower extent than the biological children in that conservative religious family would.
Everybody knows that good parenting has a big impact on how kids turn out. Except that maybe they don’t, because it doesn’t.
Incredible though it might seem, according to today’s guest — economist Bryan Caplan, the author of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids, The Myth of the Rational Voter, and The Case Against Education — the best evidence we have on the question suggests that, within reason, what parents do has little impact on how their children’s lives play out once they’re adults.
Of course, kids do resemble their parents. But just as we probably can’t say it was attentive parenting that gave me my mother’s nose, perhaps we can’t say it was attentive parenting that made me succeed at school. Both the social environment we grow up in and the genes we receive from our parents influence the person we become, and looking at a typical family we can’t really distinguish the impact of one from the other.
But nature does offer us up a random experiment that can let us tell the difference: identical twins share all their genes, while fraternal twins only share half their genes. If you look at how much more similar outcomes are for identical twins than fraternal twins, you see the effect of sharing 100% of your genetic material, rather than the usual 50%. Double that amount, and you’ve got the full effect of genetic inheritance. Whatever unexplained variation remains is still up for grabs — and might be down to different experiences in the home, outside the home, or just random noise.
The crazy thing about this research is that it says for a range of adult outcomes (e.g. years of education, income, health, personality, and happiness), it’s differences in the genes children inherit rather than differences in parental behaviour that are doing most of the work. Other research suggests that differences in “out-of-home environment,” such as the friends one makes at school, take second place. Parenting style does matter for something, but it comes in a clear third.
You might think that these studies are accidentally recruiting parents who are all unusually competent, by including only the kind of people who respond to letters asking them to participate in a university study of twin behaviour. But in fact that effect is small, because many countries and hospitals have enrolled twins in this research almost by default, and academics can check on some kinds of outcomes using tax, death, and court records, which include almost everyone.
Bryan lays out all the above in his book Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work And More Fun Than You Think.
He is quick to point out that there are several factors that help reconcile these findings with conventional wisdom about the importance of parenting.
First, for some adult outcomes, parenting was a big deal (i.e. the quality of the parent/child relationship) or at least a moderate deal (i.e. drug use, criminality, and religious/political identity).
Second, these are adult outcomes — parents can and do influence you quite a lot, so long as you’re young and still living with them. But as soon as you move out, the influence of their behaviour begins to wane and eventually becomes hard to spot.
Third, this research only studies variation in parenting behaviour that was common among the families studied. The studies are just mute on anything that wasn’t actually done by many parents in their sample.
And fourth, research on international adoptions shows they can cause massive improvements in health, income and other outcomes. So a large enough change in one’s entire environment, say from Haiti to the United States, does matter, even if moving between families within the United States has modest effects.
Despite all that, the findings are still remarkable, and imply many hyper-diligent parents could live much less stressful lives without doing their kids any harm at all. In this extensive interview host Rob Wiblin interrogates whether Bryan can really be right, or whether the research he’s drawing on has taken a wrong turn somewhere.
And that’s just one topic we cover, some of the others being:
- People’s biggest misconceptions about the labour market
- Arguments against high levels of immigration
- Whether most people actually vote based on self-interest
- Whether philosophy should stick to common sense or depart from it radically
- How to weigh personal autonomy against the possible benefits of government regulation
- Bryan’s track record of winning 23 out of 23 bets about how the future would play out
- And much more
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ‘80,000 Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore