A popular culture theory of why we misunderstand families

by on December 20, 2017 at 6:43 am in Education, History, Television | Permalink

Due to TV, which shows us “false families,” we overrate the importance of the environmental and underrate the importance of genetics:

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!

That is from Bryan Caplan.

1 Art Deco December 20, 2017 at 7:25 am

Due to TV, which shows us “false families,” we overrate the importance of the environmental and underrate the importance of genetics:

Bryan Caplan has always struck me as a man addled by unearned self-confidence.

2 Dick the Butcher December 20, 2017 at 8:09 am


To be clear, “popular culture” and academia pretty much misunderstand everything. What’s worse Is too many give them unearned discretion.

3 Shazam December 20, 2017 at 10:39 am

>Bryan Caplan has always struck me as a man addled by unearned self-confidence.

He has never struck me at all. But I did read this one.

He now strikes me as a man with little first-hand familiarity with actual biological families. And therefore believes everyone is the same way.

4 JWatts December 20, 2017 at 11:40 am

“He now strikes me as a man with little first-hand familiarity with actual biological families. And therefore believes everyone is the same way.”

+1, that’s a very odd post by a presumably smart man

5 Wonks Anonymous December 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm
6 bdbd December 20, 2017 at 7:34 am

Barely related, but one of the most amusing things about having a kid was attending school events and seeing all the quirky ways in which members of families could resemble one another.

7 Sandia December 20, 2017 at 7:40 am

Families haven’t been cool in the liberal left for a long time. It’s just another endeavor or construct that favors the priveleged white straight ….whatever they call it.

8 Liberal Leftist December 20, 2017 at 10:36 am

Not setting up straw bogeymen for the “liberal left” hasn’t been cool in the conservative right for a long time. It’s just another endeavour or construct to allow them to feel… whatever it is they’re trying to feel.

OK I get the appeal. Knocking down straw men on the internet is easy and fun. Still don’t get the logic, though.

Maybe you could fill me in on your salient point?

9 brute December 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm

‘The Life of Julia’ comes to mind and it was a feature on the Obama campaign site.

10 Boonton December 22, 2017 at 7:14 pm

‘A feature’ on a web site? You don’t say? Pretty powerful stuff there, how many ‘features’ are there on web sites every year? Why over a dozen maybe!

11 Gary Saturday December 23, 2017 at 5:03 pm

A stinging rebuke from Boonton, worthy of the Daily Show or Vox. Good luck, dude.

12 Jimmy Buffet's First Son December 23, 2017 at 9:17 pm

Ha – petulance like this is a big part of why I’ll probably vote for Trump next time. Like Gary said, good luck trying to smoke your own dong, Boonton.

13 Wonks Anonymous December 20, 2017 at 12:34 pm

I’m a fan of some of Adam Cadre’s work, but in his review of Brave New World he actually does resemble that strawman:

14 dearieme December 20, 2017 at 7:54 am

Schoolteachers often know families, in the sense of teaching one child after another from the same family. Yet anybody who expects much social wisdom from schoolteachers can’t have met many of them.

Perhaps I should rephrase that. Anybody who expects public explanation of their social wisdom by schoolteachers can’t have met many of them.

15 A Truth Seeker December 20, 2017 at 8:04 am

“I’ve spent more time with the Simpson family than every family besides the Caplan family.”
Maybe it is time to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.

16 Anonymous Bosch December 20, 2017 at 8:28 am

> “Maybe it is time to make American families a lot more like the Waltons”

What would that entail? Starting another Great Depression and sending everyone to rural Virginia?

17 Ted Craig December 20, 2017 at 8:43 am

He’s referencing George H.W. Bush.

Junior gave it his best effort.

18 Anonymous Bosch December 20, 2017 at 8:56 am

Thanks for the explanation. I was doing shitty jobs in exotic locations during the early 1990s, and did not pay much attention to either Bush or the Simpsons.

19 Jeff R December 20, 2017 at 9:38 am

Awfully obscure reference for a fake Brazilian.

20 A Truth Seeker December 20, 2017 at 10:01 am

No, it is not. Much like Dan Quayle’s Murphy Brown-centered fracas, Tip Gore’s anti-profanity efforts and, in Brazil, former President Quadros banning the bikini (the ban was reverted lately) and former Minister Serra criticizing female celebrities conceiving children outside commited relationships, Mr. Bush’s anti-Simpsons crusade was a notable instance of values politics crashing with pop culture and the wider transformations of Westerns societies since WW II. Cf Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and None Dare Call It Witchcraft by Gary North.

21 JWatts December 20, 2017 at 1:26 pm

“Awfully obscure reference for a fake Brazilian.”

Nah, it would be an awfully obscure reference for a real Brazilian, though.

22 Slugger December 20, 2017 at 10:00 am

Basketball. Be like Bill and Luke.
I just want to say that I am much saner than my sibs and should not be held responsible for them.

23 Pshrnk December 20, 2017 at 9:50 am

” I’ve spent more time with the Simpson family than every family besides the Caplan family.”

Does he think OJ did it?

24 Boonton December 22, 2017 at 7:15 pm

The Simpsons do strike me as a family that shares a lot of genetics.

25 Bill December 20, 2017 at 8:07 am

Due to the internet, which shows us the written words of commenters to this site, we overate the importance of the environmental and underrate the importance of genetics.

We never get to know their family, or get to know their upbringing; we only get to know what they write,


Wonder why they said THAT.

26 Guy Makiavelli December 20, 2017 at 8:22 am

If you have kids of your own and/or are part of a community based around families, you will have plenty of experience of socializing with the parents while your kids socialize with their kids.

The people who Caplan is talking about must think that a “community” is a global clique of academics studying some obscure specialty, or a group of individuals living in urban studio apartments who share a boutique sexual orientation.

27 Aretino December 20, 2017 at 11:03 am

Also, if you are active in a a religious community (e.g. church), then you’ll also get plenty of experience socializing with entire families. This is especially the case with high involvement churches.

It would be interesting to test if the nurture assumption holds in such communities, such as Mormons.

28 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 12:48 pm


29 y81 December 20, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Agree totally with Guy Makiavelli. From our daughter’s school, from our church, and from our summer community (which is a very family-oriented place), there are dozens of families where we know multiple generations and multiple siblings of the same generation. And from the summer community, where I went myself as a boy, I have lots of friends whose parents I have also known for years.

Based on this experience, real-life families probably look a little more alike physically than TV families, but they have the same diversity of personalities. It’s pretty common in our friends’ circle to find families where some of the children go to Ivy League schools and some go to to dumb rich kid schools, some are star athletes and others are total spazzes, some are hound dogs and others are constant hearts, etc. Anyway, I’m not sure how the diversity of personalities in TV families, admittedly exploited from comic or dramatic effect, makes Americans overstate the importance of nurture over heredity. All the children in a family, fictional or real, receive the same nurture. So Caplan’s argument makes no sense.

30 Joe December 20, 2017 at 8:37 am

Join a Christ Care group. My family meets with four other families on a weekly basis. We share experiences, learn about the Word, and perform community service.

31 Niroscience December 20, 2017 at 8:42 am

A better way this comes up is that most people don’t really get to see more than one generation of family in real life either. For example, if you know very poor immigrants with a MD or Engineer for children or a layabout son of a upper-middle class family – you tend to assume that its solely nurture/effort driving this and not people regressing back up or down to the multigenerational family mean.

32 Dots December 20, 2017 at 8:56 am

That’s a plausible and scary thought. I have been laying about all my life, and I hope the air force will nurture me back up to speed in a few years

33 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 12:52 pm

The Marines would be better – they are famously intolerant of layabouts, unless the SJWs have even sunk their venemous claws into that roughneck institution.

34 Floccina December 20, 2017 at 8:50 am

Add to that, that we tend to think we are very different from our siblings but to other we look very similar.

35 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 12:53 pm

False. I have a counter example for you.

36 cthulhu December 20, 2017 at 1:40 pm

It depends. The non-blood-related people (such as my spouse) who know me and my siblings and my parents have often been known to mutter “Are you sure you’re not adopted?”

37 cthulhu December 20, 2017 at 1:41 pm

Oops, should have been a reply to Floccina.

38 P Burgos December 20, 2017 at 8:04 pm

What, with all the tentacles and all?

39 Clay December 20, 2017 at 9:01 am


Though I wonder if this is more telling about the author than the subject. One who grows up attending church, has activities such as sports or music, gets a job at a local grocery store or even just has siblings (whose friends are often the siblings of ones own friends) will usually have some amount of interaction with families in their community.

40 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 12:58 pm

“…more telling about the author…”

Exactly, and without a hint of self-awareness, and this from two members of the cognitive elite. Yet this same class of the elite think they are entitled to run the USA, or the whole world even. To which I say, that is not sand in your eye, it is my index finger, which I have named ‘Trump’.

41 Elite December 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

Caplan and Coulter have way more in common than I thought.

42 rayward December 20, 2017 at 9:30 am

When one has a child, the parents of the child’s friends become the friends of the parents. At least that’s been my experience. Hence, the more friends of the child, the more friends of the parents. What may be happening today is that the child has fewer friends (for any number of reasons, including over-protective parents) and, hence, the parents have fewer friends; or for the child of poor parents, the parents don’t have the time or the inclination to seek out the parents of the child’s friends. Once the child becomes older and makes new friends, however, the connection between the parents is not nearly as great, as older children are more independent and, besides, would prefer the parents to stay out of their relationships. This phenomenon creates lots of anxiety for parents, I know from first-hand experience. As for friendships outside the parent-child context, I can say that my very best friends have made me a part of their families, not just their immediate families, but their parents and their siblings; indeed, I’ve spent holidays visiting my friends’ extended families. And that has been reciprocal, as my best friends have spent holidays with my extended family. But I’m of the South, where families have a much greater significance in one’s life. If you know someone from, say, South Carolina, you will know what I mean. When my (now former) wife, who is very much a South Carolinian, would meet someone from South Carolina, they would name relative after relative until, bang, the common connection; it’s as if everyone in South Carolina is related (which may not be far from the truth since one can marry a first cousin in South Carolina, and many do). As I’ve mentioned many times, I reside in a small Southern town, where my neighbors politics are far different from mine. But my neighbors are wonderful people, and would do anything to help a friend or neighbor. And they are my friends – we just don’t discuss politics. Similarly, my very best buddy’s politics are very different from mine. I respect him immensely, and know he would do anything for me, and I for him. I’ve learned much from him. Occasionally our differences are exposed, but we care so much about each other and our friendship that it does not matter. Indeed, if one has only friends exactly like oneself, what will one learn. Very little.

43 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 1:03 pm

Holy moly Rayward, this is one of the best posts I have ever read – it’s right out of a translated-into-real-people-talk ethnographic study!

I have a whole new respect for you! I am going to pay more attention.

44 Careless December 20, 2017 at 6:54 pm

t’s as if everyone in South Carolina is related (which may not be far from the truth since one can marry a first cousin in South Carolina, and many do)

This makes random people less likely to be related

45 Dino December 20, 2017 at 9:49 am

Honestly, I can’t believe these guys have tenure (except Tyler, of course).

As others have mentioned, lots of things bring us in contact with other families – kids, church, school, and all the team & community events related to those things.Does that mean I’m intimately familiar with what goes on “behind closed doors”? No, but that’s always been the case.

It’s true that although we probably don’t live far from each other in #s of miles, I don’t know the Caplan family at all. But the world’s a bigger place now than it was in 1650 or 1850. I can only hope that not everyone in the house is absorbing dad’s borderline sociopathy (known politely as libertarianism), but I’ll never really know. I just hope it’s not genetic.

46 Matthew Young December 20, 2017 at 10:04 am

Evolution is a painful process, we would prefer denial.

Note religions are a cheap way to get evolution done, they allow us denial.

47 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 1:05 pm


48 charles darwin December 21, 2017 at 7:59 am

best thing about Evolution is that you can say whatever you want about the modern world and say, look, this is the result of Evolution? You want proof? Look around you….

49 Ryan T December 20, 2017 at 10:09 am

I’m not sure that the the best argument that people underrate the importance of genetics is shown in quoted content, but I’d agree that pop culture representations of family do create a wide variety of misunderstandings about family. Even televised content that attempts to be gritty or real will still likely succumb to the form’s demands.

I wonder how he feels about the Weasley family from the Harry Potter films.

50 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

No matter how families are portrayed on tv, remember these caricatures are products of the minds in hollywoodish worlds.

Some of the wierdest peeps from small town America, or not-big-city America, migrate to Hollywierd to bombard us with their pathologies.
You gotta steel your mind against this onslought of delusions.

51 Anonymous December 20, 2017 at 10:17 am

Plausible, though if the difference leads people to underestimate the importance of genetics due to how unlike siblings are, it should do the same for the “shared environment” of living in a family together.

But let’s not lose sight of the primary(not the sole) reason people underrate the importance of genetics, because the lying media tells them to.

52 mpowell December 20, 2017 at 10:52 am

This makes sense. Caplan wrote a whole book dedicated to the premise that your kids will turn out fine regardless so you can just ignore them and continue living your life the way you want until they start popping out grandchildren that you can enjoy in your retirement. So he has what, 4 kids? I’ll bet he has no social experience with the local community that his kids are part of and therefore doesn’t interact with other families as such and, since he’s probably also on the spectrum, doesn’t understand this experience is abnormal. More remarkable is his comment that you often barely know the families of your close friend. This is barely possible in my experience as a parent.

53 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 1:37 pm


54 Art Deco December 20, 2017 at 3:44 pm

I think he has 3 kids, all boys, a singleton and a set of twins. If you’ve seen the family photo floating around, you’d swear his wife reproduces via parthenogenesis. It seems to me he took up homeschooling at one point. His wife is a lawyer working for Freddie Mac, because being legal counsel for ‘a stew of rent seeking and regulatory arbitrage’ is a job Americans just won’t do. I’m guessing most of the sweat equity in the homeschooling is his.

55 A.G.McDowell December 20, 2017 at 11:27 am

I’m not sure that genetics is straightforward enough to be appreciated correctly by experience alone, and of course the supposed genetic relationships between members of the same family cannot be taken for granted. I am sufficiently different in appearance from my sister, due to differences in height, hair color, and hair type, that we would certainly not be cast as brother and sister by Hollywood (As far as I know, I just picked up a few recessives – I have never seen any indication of any non-genetic irregularity, and it is long past time for me to have been informed of any such irregularity so that I can have correct information about my background for health purposes).

(It’s not just my opinion of differences – from the time my sister started attending the same grammar school as myself I have encountered people who were surprised by – or refused to believe – that we were brother and sister).

56 wiki December 20, 2017 at 12:09 pm

But that suggests there are many families where no one is surprised by the similarities of siblings. Yours is an atypical case and movies/tv love atypical cases, but that is not the modal result in the real world.

57 A Truth Seeker December 20, 2017 at 11:38 am

“More remarkable is his comment that you often barely know the families of your close friend. This is barely possible in my experience as a parent.”

For adult friendships (and he mentioned coworkers, too), it is probably true. It would be creepy if my siblings’ friends wanted to know me.

58 Dave Barnes December 20, 2017 at 1:11 pm

What TV families teach us is that your mother did not and will not look like Sofia Vergara.

59 John Mansfield December 20, 2017 at 1:46 pm

“The Pritchetts. The Bluths. The Whites. The Sopranos.”

I only recognize one of those four names, and I never watched that show either. Is watching a lot of TV a characteristic of cognitive elites these days?

60 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Ah, the “I-don’t-own-a-TV” guy has arrived, right on schedule.

61 Sam Haysom December 21, 2017 at 12:38 am

American anti-intellectualism at is finest. Hofstadter would be so proud. (No that’s not a character on curb so you can stop scouring IMDb.)

Read a fucking book sometime msgkings.

62 msgkings December 21, 2017 at 11:15 am

Sam is unaware you can do both.

63 Thomas Mulligan December 20, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Tyler is mistaken, as least as far as economic outcomes are concerned. In the US, we tend to overstate the relevance of genetics to economic outcomes and understate the relevance of environment. (This is a peculiarly American phenomenon.)

There is a good bit of research on this, which I summarize in my just-released book, Justice and the Meritocratic State. As just one example, Hufe et al. (“Inequality of Income Acquisition”, in Social Choice and Welfare) have carried out the most careful analysis of the causes of American income inequality. They find that the contribution of natural ability to inequality, once environmental factors have been taken into account, is small (explaining 44% v. 41% of inequality, respectively).

64 charles darwin December 21, 2017 at 8:06 am

you’re pushing an open door TM. Try to publish something in the social sciences that suggests any problem is caused by genetics, see how far you get..

65 Careless December 21, 2017 at 8:38 am

“respectively” what? You listed one thing

66 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 1:57 pm

This post reminds me of the serious but bad movies that are accidentally funny. As so many have written here already, the post reveals much more about the bias of Tyler and Caplan than the society at large. I suspect, but could be wrong, that these guys were close to neither their school-age friends nor their extended family and community, were excellent but nerdy students, broke tenuous familial and community ties to attend a university far from ‘home’, invested all of their energies in their professional career, and as a result, now swim in an ocean of relationships a mile wide and an inch deep. This is the life model of the professional cognitive elite.

These people have no idea what it is like to live as an adult in a community with a network of close friends and extended family, people who have known you for decades, with whom you have mutual obligations. This is why the professional elite were totally blindsided by Brexit and Trump. They do not value the type of social capital provided extended family and deep long time horizon friendship networks. It is too much to explain here, but it is well described by Joan C. Williams, herself a professor and member of the same elite class, in her book “The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America”.

These people do not deserve to run the world.

67 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Well, they are smarter. That’s sort of how they got to rule it.

68 Lanigram December 20, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Yes, they used their intellect to snatch it from us and remake it to suit their own needs. Now we are trying to take it back.

69 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Won’t their intellect prevent that? And in any case, how have they made your life any worse?

70 y81 December 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm

They force our churches to perform gay marriages, forbid us to display Christian symbols in public, bring in immigrants who harass our wives and daughters, raise our taxes to pay their own salaries (Caplan and Cowen are both state employees), and attempt to teach our children to hate America and our way of life.

71 JonFraz December 21, 2017 at 2:21 pm

Y81, do you live in the US? Not a single church here has ever been forced to perform a gay marriage (or any other sort of marriage, including interracial marriages), nor will that happen as long as the First Amendment is in force.

72 Potato December 20, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Pretty sure Lanigram is a troll. I’m not entirely convinced that he isn’t one of Thiago’s alter egos.

Y81 is being sarcastic.

73 Lanigram December 21, 2017 at 5:07 pm

I am not a troll and I am most definitely not Thiago. Trolls are sociopaths and enjoy tormenting people. I am here to have a serious discussion. I represent only myself. I know this sounds like boasting but, as a product of simple blue collar workers from a small town and now a member of the cognitive elite, I am very concerned about the widening divisions within the USA and their destabilizing consequences. That’s all there is to it.

74 Edward Burke December 20, 2017 at 2:09 pm

An old idea whose time might yet approach: let’s indulge the spectacles of executions of television sets, stereos, wireless telephones, laptops and PCs. Line up the available villains for target practice.

Wonder how much interest and income “technology shooting galleries” could generate?

75 JonFraz December 20, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Most of us have seen too many real world families where people are strangely different, even at far poles from each other, so yes, something other than genes is making a big difference.

76 msgkings December 20, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Just think of how different you are from your siblings, or your kids are from each other. Same parents AND environment, but totally different people.

77 Sam Haysom December 21, 2017 at 12:40 am

We aren’t all shitty black sheep of the family types like you msgkings. Or maybe your whole family sucks as much as you do I don’t know.

78 msgkings December 21, 2017 at 11:17 am

Man this one was lame. You usually have at least a bit of wit in your drive-by vitriol. “You suck and your family sucks”? Yikes.

79 Boonton December 22, 2017 at 7:19 pm

I see ‘far poles’ quite a bit, often one ‘responsible sibling’ and the other ‘bad sibling’….but perhaps they are really the same thing…they both go to extremes. One took the role of responsibility and the other took the opposite role. Opposite yet in a certain way the same.

80 Steve Sailer December 20, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Or maybe in relativistic terms, there really is a fair amount of difference between siblings, and even between identical twins.

It’s not uncommon for identical twins raised together to see themselves as highly distinct, but later when they make lives apart to begin to understand how similar they are compared to the outside world.

It’s All Relative (when it comes to relatives).

81 Art Deco December 20, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Ha ha ha. The identical twin set in my family could only be distinguished at age nine by checking the one for the tiny scar he received from some minor early childhood injury. Their mother painted the toenails of one when they were young to be able to tell them apart. They began do diverge around age 14. Different sort of schooling, different occupation, different taste in women, different worldviews. They’re still quite friendly.

82 Steve Sailer December 20, 2017 at 4:42 pm

Did you ask the identical twins what their opinions on their distinctiveness were? I’ve been earnestly informed by one twin of distinctions such as, “My eyesight is 22/20, while my brother’s is only 24/20.”

83 Art Deco December 20, 2017 at 5:25 pm

No. I ask them about their work, I ask them where they’d like to have dinner, I ask them if there’s something they need from us. I can see passably well how they differ and how they’re similar. What’s more, neither one has ever given much indication that the question of how they differ takes up much rent-free space in their heads.

84 M December 21, 2017 at 5:34 am

Family variance in iq about 70% population variance. The mean is the parental mean after regression. So not too bad to assume that family members are almost as different as random unselected people on any given trait. A family at 100 will experience kids being only slightly less variable than the whole gpop. Of course, over multiple traits (not just iq but neuroticism, etc.) converge more.

85 jeffn December 22, 2017 at 5:14 am

“”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.””

I have no idea what proportion of society this may be true for, but my presumption is that it is very small (~5-10%?).

86 JSON formatter December 23, 2017 at 1:39 am

In the modern world, we are much less likely to meet the family

87 Boonton December 23, 2017 at 5:48 am

Not for nothing but there are people who deal with families all the time. You have psychologists and counselors who deal with families on a regular basis and an economist could go talk to the people in that department. Even more radical one could talk to pastors and priests who probably see even more families and see a broader sample…and of course teachers, as mentioned here, see families as well.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: