Do you learn cooperation from your parents?

Some people say no:

This paper studies whether prosocial values are transmitted from parents to their children.  We do so through an economic experiment, in which a group of families play a standard public goods game.  The experimental data presents us with a surprising result. We find no significant correlation between the degree of cooperation of a child and that of his or her parents.  Such lack of cooperation is robust across age groups, sex, family size and different estimation strategies.  This contrasts with the typical assumption made by the theoretical economic literature on the inter-generational transmission of values.  The absence of correlation between parents’ and children’s behavior, however, is consistent with part of the psychological literature, which emphasizes the importance of peer effects in the socialization process.

Here is the paper.  The alternative interpretation, of course, is that social cues learned from parents are specific to particular contexts.  Put people in some new and hitherto unexpected context — the lab games — and you can’t make much out of what goes on.  But if you’re predicting whether a Bedouin will bring water to someone lost in the desert, or whether a Swede will engage in recycling, I expect parental behavior has more predictive power.


Right, intra-ethnic personality differences are more driven by peer role models than by parents, but inter-ethnic cultural differences are heavily driven by learning within the family.

My review in National Review in 1998 of Judith Rich Harris's "The Nurture Assumption," which outlined the lack of influence parents have on their children's personalities, pointed out that many important behavioral differences stem from culture, not individual personality, and culture is much more under the suasion of parents and other relatives:

"To show that peers outweigh parents, she repeatedly cites Darwinian linguist Steven Pinker's work on how young immigrant kids automatically develop the accents of their playmates, not their parents. True, but there's more to life than language. Not until p. 191 does she admit -- in a footnote -- that immigrant parents do pass down home-based aspects of their culture like cuisine, since kids don't learn to cook from their friends. (How about attitudes toward housekeeping, charity, courtesy, wife-beating, and child-rearing itself?) Not until p. 330 does she recall something else where peers don't much matter: religion! Worse, she never notices what Thomas Sowell has voluminously documented in his accounts of ethnic economic specialization. It's parents and relatives who pass on both specific occupations (e.g., Italians and marble-cutting or Cambodians and donut-making) and general attitudes toward hard work, thrift, and entrepreneurship."

The "alternative interpretation" is not a minor objection.

Behavioral psychology + economics = scraping at the bottom of the barrel

Predictions about "whether a Bedouin will bring water to someone lost in the desert, or whether a Swede will engage in recycling" are consistent with peer effects and don't say anything about parent effects.

Alex, don't forget that we Swedes live in a "nanny state"...

Leave subjects like these to other social scientists.

On Alex's concern, note that peers face multiple equilibria (not every peer can look to peer effects) and thus the parents very often provide the appropriate initial cues. For instance it is correct to note that "peer effects" induce many Italians to buy nice, expensive shoes, but generational effects cause this peer effect to be recreated time and again.

The best example of children adopting the "prosocial" norms of their parents is religion. Children almost always adopt the religion of their parents - even when most of their cohorts in school belong to some other religion. Sure, it might be that these children might adopt the attitudes and norms of their peers, but their parents selected their peers.

Yes -- the most powerful, reliable way to influence your kids is to select their peers.

It's always worth looking at how much siblings raised in the same homes (other than identical twins) differ in personality - for example, one of my sons' teachers is an outstanding gentleman of the finest character while his brother is a a C-list celebrity who makes a living mostly off the publicity value generated by all the humiliating scandals he's been involved in.

My guess would be that the personality traits that Judith Rich Harris focused upon are particularly likely to come out highly diverse even within nuclear families. One phenomenon I've noticed is that brothers will mold their own traits to be quite different from those of each other as part of their individual identity formation process.

The Big 5 Personality Traits are certainly important, but they aren't the end-all and be-all of predicting human behavior. Cultural patterns, which are much more likely to be communicated within families, play a big role.

In summary, human behavior is enormously complicated, so understanding it is complicated too, and we need multiple tools for understanding it.

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