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RS144 - Bryan Caplan on "Does parenting matter?"

Release date: Octiober 4, 2015

Bryan CaplanParents in the United States are spending more time and energy than ever to ensure that their children turn out happy, healthy, and successful. But what does the evidence suggest about the impact of their efforts? Economist Bryan Caplan (and the author of "Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids") argues that, despite our intuition that parenting choices affect children's life outcomes, there's strong evidence to the contrary. Bryan and Julia discuss his case, and explore what that means for how people should parent and how many kids they should have.


Bryan's picks: "The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey" and "Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction" 



Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (18)

I've always thought a biodeterminist parenting podcast would be a lot of fun. Episode one: You don't matter. Episode 2: You still don't matter. Episode 3: Nope.
October 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterParker
Is there any counter arguments to this guy. When you google for this guy you invariably get an echo chamber for his ideas.
October 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous Perso
Isn't it possible that people are just good at conditioning short term behavior, but bad at conditioning long term behavior? Bryan has already admitted that parents can indeed make their children smarter, its just that they regress to a baseline when their parents are no longer around. Bryan says, "...once the kid's born then you try to give them a stimulating environment,read to them,help them with their homework,hope that it will make them smarter.And here,the short run conclusion is it does, so if you get adopted by a smart family you will be smarter for a while. But the long run effect however is quite different." This shouldn't be surprising, after all, if I make my children lift weights in their early years, but then they stop lifting weights once they go off to college, I would expect them to be physically weaker in their 30's. This doesn't suggest however, that the environment has no effect in the long run. The conclusion we should draw is that, the environment affects behavior in so far as it is present. Stated another way, if environmental stimuli aren't present, then they can't affect behavior. Physical strength, like intelligence, has to be maintained by stimulation from the environment. Knowledge acquisition research is relevant here and provides some evidence of this. The spacing effect refers to the phenomenon where, information is better retained in the long run if it is spaced out over increasing intervals. If parents aren't around to reinforce studying overtime, their children aren't spacing their studying, they forget the information, and consequently their intelligence drops.

I'm also not sure Julia is correct when she says, "It also fits with what I know about the science of conditioning, or shaping, or reinforcement learning -­‐-­‐ that your motivation and your behavior will be shaped by the rewards and punishments that you get, even the subtle ones you're not really noticing, but if over time you stop getting those little rewards or punishments, then the behavior that was trained in you will fade." This is only true of continuous reinforcement; and, it could be the case that most parents instinctively reinforce their children's behavior on a continuous schedule. If this is the case, then we would expect to see the conditioned behavior fade as reinforcements decrease, as Julia suggests. The research actually shows that variable reinforcement schedules are more effective for conditioning long term behavior. Given that parents don't typically use variable reinforcement schedules, we can't conclude that the environment can't have long term effects.
October 5, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor
Yeah, counterintuitive is an understatement. At least Caplan does see the effect of nurture on religion, which was the first thing that came to mind. But there are a lot of other things that people pick up when they're young that stay with them for life: childhood vaccines, sunburn damage, smoking, language, musical instruments, bike riding, swimming, acquired taste, etc.

CDC says, "Tobacco use is started and established primarily during adolescence. Nearly 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried smoking by age 18."
Professor Abrar Qureshi, chair of the department of dermatology at Brown University, says, "melanoma risk was predominantly associated with sun exposure in early life."
A couple of weeks ago, the Endocrine Society released a statement, "Emerging evidence ties endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC) exposure to two of the biggest public health threats facing society – diabetes and obesity... The evidence is more definitive than ever before – EDCs disrupt hormones in a manner that harms human health... The threat is particularly great when unborn children are exposed to EDCs."
Playing Mozart to your unborn children won't make them smart, but drinking alcohol while pregnant will make them dumb. See fetal alcohol syndrome.
Mandarin speakers were much more likely to have absolute pitch than were English speakers who had started musical training at the same age. For example, 60 percent of Beijing students who had begun studying music between the ages of four and five years old passed a test for absolute pitch, whereas only 14 percent of the American students did. In both groups, students who started their musical instruction later were less likely to have absolute pitch, and none of the Rochester students who began training after their eighth birthday had the ability.
October 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
In their paper “The Cycle of Violence,” published by the American Psychological Association, David Lisak and Sara Beszterczey, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at the life histories of 43 men on death row. They discovered that all of them reported having been neglected as children, that an astonishing 94 percent had been physically abused, 59 percent sexually abused, and 83 percent had witnessed violence in adolescence.
Another study, “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality,” published in 2013 in The (Kaiser) Permanente Journal, surveyed 151 offenders and compared their answers with a “normative sample” of the population. The researchers found that the offender group reported nearly four times as many adverse events in childhood as the control group.

Is this genetics too? Should we start locking up people with murderer genes before they murder someone?
October 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
A beautiful demonstration of cherry picked data and research in order to perpetuate a mythological dichotomy in order to declare one side the winner.
Massimo would have ripped this guy to shreds.
It's sickening that people are still referring to the "nature / nurture" dichotomy when that myth was obliterated by scientists quite awhile ago. But guys like this are great at putting words into scientists' mouths in order to skew research findings to create the illusion of evidence for his thesis.
I love when people say, "all the research / data / evidence points to" whatever conclusion (for topics like this). I'd love to see all that so I can compare it to all the research / data / evidence that I know of that points to the contrary.
Research on heritability for psychological and/or sociological and/or behavioral traits tends to be very deeply flawed in many ways, rests on a lot of assumptions that are not fleshed out and justified, and are almost always utterly misunderstood by anyone not a scientist in the relevant field(s).
This guy might as well be saying that white privileged middle class westerners are just genetically better than the rest of the world…
October 7, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCEF
Caplan reminds me of Ronald Fisher and the smoking example from the episode on Newcomb's paradox:
In the 1950s, the statistician R.A. Fisher, in his early life developed a lot of the important groundwork of statistics and biology that shaped much of the 20th century. But later in life he was actually working for the cigarette companies. He was arguing that the evidence we have, so far, at least in the 1950s, doesn't prove that smoking causes cancer. What he said is, "For all we know, there's just certain people that tend to like smoking and this is caused by some sort of biological feature, and it's just a coincidence that the people who tend to like smoking, the same trait that causes them to like smoking also tends to cause lung cancer."

And this is from Wikipedia, though lacking citations:
Fisher saw eugenics as addressing a pressing social and scientific issues that encompassed both genetics and statistics... The last third of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection focused on eugenics, attributing the fall of civilizations to the fertility of their upper classes being diminished, and used British 1911 census data to show an inverse relationship between fertility and social class, partly due, he claimed, to the lower financial costs and hence increasing social status of families with less children... He opposed UNESCO's The Race Question, believing that evidence and everyday experience showed that human groups differ profoundly "in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development"... According to Yates and Mather, "His large family, in particular, reared in conditions of great financial stringency, was a personal expression of his genetic and evolutionary convictions."

Though Caplan went on Russia Today (RT) to argue in favor of open borders, so he doesn't mind letting the country be overrun by people from the Third World.
October 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
CEF doesn't like the evidence. But does he have any counter evidence?

Maybe it's true that, as CEF says, "... white privileged middle class westerners are just genetically better than the rest of the world… " and he doesn't like it.
October 8, 2015 | Unregistered Commentercover20
Based on twin studies, genetics can't even fully account for sexual orientation or autism, and Caplan thinks it fully accounts for religiosity and income?
October 8, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax
It seems to me that, even if we completely accept his data, the conclusion to draw from it is simply that people are bad at parenting, and that there is no obvious difference between rich and poor, or between people who spend a lot of time with their kids and people who spend little time with kids, simply because everybody is doing the wrong things. Spending a lot of time doing the wrong things is not going to be better than spending small amounts of time doing the wrong things.

My friends tend to be middle-class, well educated, and tend to spend a lot of time with their kids, but the things they do when they spend time with their kids often go against what current psychology research suggests would be good parenting practices. Of course, this is just my subjective experience. I would guess, however, that most parents — regardless of income or education — don't invest a lot of time reading up on the latest research when it comes to what they do with their kids.
October 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLukas
Here is a great antidote for the temptation to think in terms of "X is the answer" or "X doesn't matter":

tl;dr: Any specific trait or action may help, harm or may not matter, depending on context (which is an insanely complex web of interactions going back to the big bang.)
October 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMartin
I have some objections. It's not about the sacred cow of modern parenting; if that dies, so be it. Instead, I think that if we accept the described evidence at face value, that doesn't justify the conclusions.

All of the evidence is based upon averages and correlation, which are population measures. The conclusion about parenting advice involves individual choices, which are under no requirements to match the average. How big is the standard deviation around the mean? Are there ways to bias your individual result above the mean? To conclude that parenting style does not matter, we would need specific evidence that all styles of parenting have no effect. You can't conclude that from an average over all parenting styles.

As other commenters have pointed out, there's reason to doubt the evidence. We know that very bad parenting can have a lasting effect, such as abuse and neglect. The only way that population studies could show that on average parenting has no long term effect is if there also exists some kind of good parenting to balance the bad.

And I have one other criticism. The point of the book is that parenting has little effect on long-term outcomes. But how much of parenting is concerned with long-term outcomes? This is where I would’ve liked some philosophical input. After all, in the long long-term, everyone dies and all memories and benefits are lost. So which time horizon is most important? I spend significant time with my daughters (2.5 years and 4 months) to make them happy now, even though they will have no adult memories of this age, and even though it will have no appreciable effect on their adult behavior. There's similar arguments about the happiness of people with dementia. So I think that suggesting parents should reevaluate their parenting style based upon long term outcomes is based on a flawed premise. To put it another way, maybe I don't want to have a third child because I won't have enough time to make him/her have a happy childhood.
October 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBob
Sorry, but he's just… Not. Even. Wrong.

And listening to him, I just can't help thinking, "Wow, did he take lessons from creationists or something? 'Cause he pulls one hell of a gish gallop!"
October 17, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterwombat
Do you know why it feels so counterintuitive? Because it is. Even if he were 100% right, in what world and in whose life are 30 years of no significant importance? In nobody's. In many cases it's half a lifetime. If I'll succeed in making my kids healthy and happy all the while providing good values and guidance for half their lifes I consider my parenting a job well done. And that makes me happy and it's good enough. And you know, coincidentally, I might be spending the last half of my life doing this which is great and if I'm lucky enough to live longer, then maybe I'll witness my kids going through the same exhausting, life-drenching, modern parenting experience :). Sounds perfect.

Btw, I think he's interpretation of that data is all kinds of wrong. If you try to apply his correlational logic to any other specific aspect of human life it makes no sense. Moreover, you'd get eugenics, racism and all kinds of unexplainable 'exceptions' and examples of particular incongruences. And you know why, cause every human experience is unique as is the trajectory of their life within a nature/nurture/environment complex framework and let's not forget to throw a bit of hazzard in the pot either. No, those little studies are not nearly enough objective data for his eager conclusions.

I get his zest and good intentions though :). Yet that doesn't make him any shade of right, on the contrary.
October 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMom
This is one of the most hilariously and blatantly asinine things I've ever heard in my life. Economist Bryan Caplan is clearly an idiot. Anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time should be able to see this for the lunacy it is.
November 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
It's amazing to see how listeners cannot accept a counter-intuitive idea just because it doesn't seem right or moral to them. Yes, Caplan may be exaggerating a bit in his presentation of the data (mostly because it's hard to get into all the details in such a short interview), but his conclusions are widely accepted by the scientific community. If people thinks he is wrong, show the data. I think a good reference that should have been mentioned as well is Judith Harris book The Nurture Assumption who shows how peers influence more than parents. I think it's hard for people to accept that parents matter less than they think but science doesn't work but what feels right, rather but what the evidence show.
November 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGil
Re: Bryan Caplan's pick of Philip Tetlock's _Superforecasting_ -- seems to me that libertarian ideology makes you a hedgehog, not a fox.
December 25, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard
It's somewhat amusing to witness the certitude of some of the statements . Actually, genes can be adjusted for to a reasonable degree, and yes , a family with susceptible genes just might grow up in a family with 4 times more adverse events, precisely because their parents have the same suceptible genes.
January 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn

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