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May 30, 2014 / JayMan

Beware Armchair Psychoanalysis

Thanks to certain recent events, I wanted to have you guys look at an excerpt from Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption. This is here to serve as a reminder to certain people (you know who you are, if not, don’t worry):

In Chapter 3 I recounted some stories of identical twins separated in infancy and reared in different homes. The Giggle Twins, both inordinately prone to laughter. The two Jims, who both bit their nails, enjoyed woodworking, and chose the same brands of cigarettes, beer, and cars. The pair who both read magazines back to front, flushed toilets before using them, and liked to sneeze in elevators. The pair who both became volunteer firefighters. There was also a pair who, at the beach, would only go into the water backward and only up to their knees. And a pair who were gunsmiths, and a pair who were fashion designers, and a pair who had each been married five times. These are not the imaginings of tabloid journalists; they were reported by reputable scientists in reputable journals. And there are too many of these stories for them all to be coincidences. Such spooky similarities are seldom found in the case histories of fraternal twins separated in infancy and reared apart.5

Behavioral genetic studies have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that heredity is responsible for a sizable portion of the variations in people’s personalities. Some people are more hot-tempered or outgoing or meticulous than others, and these variations are a function of the genes they were born with as well as the experiences they had after they were born. The exact proportion— how much is due to the genes, how much to the experiences—is not important; the point is that heredity cannot be ignored.

But usually it is ignored. Consider the case of Amy, an adopted child. It wasn’t a successful adoption; Amy’s parents regarded her as a disappointment and favored their older child, a boy. Academic achievement was important to the parents, but Amy had a learning disability. Simplicity and emotional restraint were important to them, but Amy went in for florid role-playing and feigned illnesses. By the time she was ten she had a serious, though vague, psychological disorder. She was pathologically immature, socially inept, shallow of character, and extravagant of expression.

Well, naturally. Amy was a rejected child. What makes this case interesting is that Amy had an identical twin, Beth, who was adopted into a different family. Beth was not rejected—on the contrary, she was her mother’s favorite. Her parents were not particularly concerned about education so the learning disability (which she shared with her twin) was no big deal. Beth’s mother, unlike Amy’s, was empathic, open, and cheerful. Nevertheless, Beth had the same personality problems that Amy did. The psychoanalyst who studied these girls admitted that if he had seen only one of them it would have been easy to fetch up some explanation in terms of the family environment. But there were two of them. Two, with matching symptoms but very different families.

(pp. 276-277, emphasis mine)
There you are. Yet how many armchair psychoanalyses have you seen about Santa Barbara murderer Elliot Rodger, blaming some or another aspect in his life for his rampage, including his parents? And these are from people who know about heredity and hence should fucking know better! We can all point to some aspect in someone’s life circumstances we think is the thing (or things) that led to whatever outcome they happen to have. But as this should make clear, it is not so simple. That’s the whole reason behavioral genetic methods were invented!

On that, I refer you once again to this video (from here) featuring behavioral geneticist Nancy Segal (as previously seen in my post No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why). Pay close attention to the tests the twins had to take:

25graymatter-superJumboIndeed, as featured lately in Segal’s recent article about reunited twins:

Consider the case of the identical twin Brent Tremblay. Inadvertently switched with another baby at birth, Mr. Tremblay grew up with adoptive parents and their adopted son, while his twin brother, George Holmes, was raised by their biological parents with a child the family believed to be his fraternal twin. In a remarkable twist of fate, the real twins met by chance at age 20 and eased into a friendship that Mr. Trembley described as “natural and effortless.” They were friends for more than a year before discovering they were twins.

twins patent-imagesOf course, as Steven Pinker put it in The Blank Slate (p. 51, emphasis mine):

Imagine that you are agonizing over a choice — which career to pursue, whether to get married, how to vote, what to wear that day. You have finally staggered to a decision when the phone rings. It is the identical twin you never knew you had. During the joyous conversation it comes out that she has just chosen a similar career, has decided to get married at around the same time, plans to cast her vote for the same presidential candidate, and is wearing a shirt of the same color — just as the behavioral geneticists who tracked you down would have bet. How much discretion did the “you” making the choices actually have if the outcome could have been predicted in advance, at least probabilistically, based on events that took place in your mother’s Fallopian tubes decades ago?

Of course, none of this is to say (contrary to the accusations repeatedly leveled against me) that “genes are everything.” Though identical twins aren’t actually genetically identical, there are other factors, such as developmental stochasticity (noise) in utero, pathogenic and other biological insults, and plain old randomness that contribute to the differences between twins – and hence, the differences between all individuals. As well, the situation at hand (and the incentives in play) are also hugely important. Genes are the cards in your hand; the landscape of the day is the rules of the game.

But, this should make clear the foolhardiness of trying to identify causal factors – especially those from life experience – that are responsible for any given individual’s behavior. How interesting would it be if Elliot Rodger had a twin brother with similar difficulties – including one or more violent episodes – but was raised in some far away place in quite different circumstances?

But none of that stops people from trying, cooking up all manner of explanations for Elliot Rodger’s killing spree, and in so to doing, executing, broadly, the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy in the process.

These include Heartise (who couldn’t resist blaming the dad despite the clear folly of this as per my earlier posts The Son Becomes The Father and More Behavioral Genetic Facts), who has his own 8-factor causal proclamation. It doesn’t occur to many of these people that Rodger had a special kind of crazy, and that his long diatribe describing his life and his motivations for the killings could have essentially blamed anything, but wouldn’t necessarily nail down the relevant factors for us. Indeed, the serial killer Ted Bundy blamed, among other things, pornography for his killing spree. Are we to believe that these things were more of a factor than the fact he was a murderous psychopath? It’s easy for people to make claims of what motivates their actions – which they themselves might actually believe. But as we see here, the true causes have more to do with the type of person the individual in question is. Elliot Rodger’s fictitious murderous twin brother might have given us a fairly different list of reasons for why he came to the same result.

This little article sums the problem up nicely:

As shots rang out across the courtyard, I ducked behind my desk, my adrenaline pumping. Enraged by the inexplicable violence of this complex and multi-faceted attack, I promised the public I would use this opportunity to push my own pet theory of mass shootings.

Only a few days have passed since this terrible tragedy and I want to start by paying lip service to the need for respectful remembrance and careful evidence-gathering before launching into my half-cocked ideas.

The cause was simple. It was whatever my prejudices suggested would cause a mass shooting and this is being widely ignored by the people who have the power to implement my prejudices as public policy.


Leave a Comment
  1. Dippity Do / May 30 2014 2:39 AM

    I keep saying that, but people keep being all, “Hollywood culture drove him to it!” 😛

  2. panjoomby / May 30 2014 1:32 PM

    right on. armchair psychoanalysts abound in history books – most biographies incorrectly revel in assigning early environmental experiences to later personality traits (often assigning widely differing traits to similar early experiences: “Gge Washington was independent b/c he lost his father early… Aaron Burr was a charming cad & womanizer b/c he lost his father early,” etc.) The field of history should be ashamed. History ignores IQ/ability as a major contributing reason as to why things are the way they are – it instead assumes that everyone in say Syria or Libya is the same as a European American. Uhh, no… They are compelled to act the way they do b/c it is in their nature to do so. Same as us:)

  3. erica / May 30 2014 2:12 PM

    If people could only watch researchers fiddle with neurotransmitters and the resultant rodent behavior, everything from their aggression levels to their choice of what gender to try to mate with, perhaps they’d moderate their natural inclination to choose the more comforting conclusion that environmental/social influences cause most of our behaviors.

    • JayMan / May 30 2014 2:15 PM


      Indeed. The thing is that, in this post, I’m not even trying to say that “environmental/social influences” don’t impact our behavior, because they almost certainly do. All I am saying is that trying to attribute any behavioral outcome to any particular environmental factor (or set of factors) is generally foolish and often impossible. That doesn’t seem to stop people from trying, though.

  4. erica / May 30 2014 2:18 PM

    BTW, Jayman, forgot to add–I’ve been enjoying and am thankful for your assiduous efforts to bring reason to the race denialists attacking Wade all over the net. It’s a sign, I think, of their panic, that they keep changing their tactics, even within the same blogposts and comments. It’s as if they feel they must use the scattergun approach, hoping something, anything, sticks.

    However, you and others have done a marvelous job of counterpunching as well as punching, with facts and logic, and at some point, these people will conclude that the curtain has been pulled back on them.

    • JayMan / May 30 2014 2:21 PM


      Happy to help. Though I think you may be overly optimistic there. 🙂

      Wade himself has hit back, too.

  5. denise / May 30 2014 3:31 PM

    I read about Amy in a New Yorker article on twins many years ago, and it forever changed my view of just about everything, cemented by Judith Harris’ book a few years later. I photocopied the article and tried to get everyone I knew to read it, but no one found it as fascinating as I did. Why they didn’t is still a mystery to me.

    I got into a number of arguments online about Elliot Rodger last week, to the point that I may not be welcome back at some sites. I wanted to scream when I saw the knee-jerk “Rape Culture” being screamed all over the place. Like you, I am a liberal who finds that liberals can be colossally blind sometimes.

    But I’m 65 years old. People my age have an excuse. We were taught a lot of crap about human nature. Why more younger people are so unaware of what’s been going on in the sciences is harder to fathom. It’s as though a collective decision was made that some things are so distressing that we’re going to simply refuse to see them. How long can this gone on?

    The final paragraph of the New Yorker article as I recall it said something to the effect that perhaps our real freedom is the freedom to be who we were born to be. I liked that.

    Keep up your good work. You do such a good job of making things clear.

    • JayMan / May 30 2014 8:29 PM


      Thank you!

      People my age have an excuse. We were taught a lot of crap about human nature. Why more younger people are so unaware of what’s been going on in the sciences is harder to fathom.

      This and this are why.

  6. denise / May 30 2014 3:35 PM

    I stumbled on that piece on Mindhacks myself the other day, and posted links to it in a few places. It’s what I wish I’d written instead of arguing with people.

  7. erica / May 30 2014 3:41 PM

    Yes, I know he has hit back and I’m glad he did. If the inanities persist from those who claim to be scientists, he should keep hitting back.

  8. Anthony / May 30 2014 4:08 PM

    Lion of the Blogosphere, who is pretty uneven on these sorts of things, I think has nailed this one. Rodger was way out on the edge of the bell curve on Neuroticism, well before this incident happened. And he was in an environment where high neuroticism is extremely maladaptive.

    • JayMan / May 30 2014 4:11 PM

      It’s likely a lot more than just that.

      How many highly neurotic NE Jews, for example, shoot things up?

    • Anthony / May 30 2014 4:38 PM

      In New York, being Jewish and neurotic isn’t nearly so maladaptive. While Hollywood is hardly a hotbed of emotional stability, it’s built around people who are outgoing and social, while Rodger was a poster boy for the opposite traits. And at least from what Lion has posted, it sounds like Rodger was somewhere around one-in-a-million neurotic+shy. He’d have had trouble in any environment, but the Hollywood environment seems almost designed to torment someone like that. In Jewish circles in New York, he’d be outstanding for his shyness, but maybe only far edge of normal for neurotic.

      I mean, I’m kind of neurotic, and used to be pretty shy, and had dumb ideas about what girls wanted in men, and didn’t have a girlfriend until later than I’m willing to publicly admit, but I *did* actually talk to girls and occasionally ask them out. Rodger apparently never managed even that. That’s really unusual – most guys try at least a little before giving up.

    • Anthony / May 30 2014 4:49 PM

      Of course, it’s still armchair psychoanalysis, but it seems to avoid the dumbest pitfalls of the genre.

    • JayMan / May 30 2014 4:51 PM

      You said it for me… 😉

  9. jjbees / May 30 2014 5:11 PM

    “Elliot Rodger had a twin brother with similar difficulties – including one or more violent episodes – but was raised in some far away place in quite different circumstances?”

    – I lol’d when you put your own genetic twin study spin on it.
    And yeah, Lion seems to have come out with a good analysis of the individual.

  10. Maciano / Jun 1 2014 10:29 AM

    It seems to me he’s just a genetic mis-fit: a combination of various bad human characteristics (narcissism, low empathy, weakness to fall into psychosis, neuroticism) and under certain circumstances (like involuntary solitude, perceived low status, no forced hospitalization, access to firearms) they can come out badly. Very, very badly.

    Eliot Rodger actually had a lot going for him, he was privileged (the real kind), so I don’t buy he had to snap. Tons of guys suffer more, longer, harder, more unfair and never snap. The whole talk of divorced parents, stepmom, et al is pointless; of course, all these things never help screwed-up people to be less screwed-up, but they’re not the reason why he snapped. Some people have a bad personality structure, which makes them evil or, at least, capable of evil under the right circumstances.

  11. panjoomby / Jun 1 2014 6:11 PM

    i live in the midwest – i absolutely do not care about Elliot Rodger. i’m a psychologist who realizes so very little is due to the “environment” that the field of psychology could be abolished without harm. it’s cute that some people believe in psychology 🙂 the only real part to it is psychometrics – which is simply an accurate way to measure biological attributes. the rest of psychology follows the reverse of occam’s razor – i call it “under-simplification” – inventing complex socio-cultural/environmental reasons for behavior. it’s a cottage industry!

  12. MawBTS / Jun 2 2014 7:42 PM

    These include Heartise (who couldn’t resist blaming the dad despite the clear folly of this as per my earlier posts The Son Becomes The Father and More Behavioral Genetic Facts), who has his own 8-factor causal proclamation.

    Heartiste is a funny writer but he’s not a scientist, and he usually comes across as totally out of his depth. Sometimes he is downright cringeworthy.

  13. kai / Jun 4 2014 8:39 AM

    While I usually stand right in the nature camp just like you, and feel that the 50-50 hypothesis is a cowardy, easy and trendy position, I feel you are a little bit too much in the genetic determinism camp here. Circumstances sometimes matter, especially when trying to explain extremely rare behaviors. Would this guy have turned a well balanced womanizer if raised differently? No way! Would he have started killing people if raised in a totally different environment….like in japan for example? (Not chosen arbitrarily, his view of woman and hit success would have been very different, and the importance of his success with girls too his self image would have been different too) I also doubt it. Maybe he would have turned suicidal when falling academically? Or live an unremarkable life as a frustrated mid level salary man? I think that you need the genetic background to turn into a killing psychopath…but also the trigger. For some the trigger may be trivial. For other, it take much. Reading the manifesto of the guy, he clearly is unbalanced. More so as it progress…but I suspect he needed quite a trigger, my feeling is that just getting laid would probably have been enough to avoid the shooting (probably not to make him sane, but who is in Hollywood anyway 😉 )

    • JayMan / Jun 4 2014 8:44 AM


      1. We don’t know if he’d be different in a different environment.

      2. The point of the post wasn’t that “everything is genetically determined,” but that, especially given this single example, it is impossible to make declarations, or even much headway, about the environmental factors that made the difference, if any. The heritability of behavioral traits only serve to highlight that. Any such speculation is armchair psychoanalysis!

    • kai / Jun 4 2014 3:16 PM

      Well, I agree, for me the lesson from the twin studies is that, except in the very rare case where we have a convenient control (real twin raised appart) it is extremely difficult to know if our actions are mainly caused by reaction to some stimulus, or by an innate tendency that would manifest in most cases. For broad personality, the science has spoken and, contrary to what people (want to) believe, it’s mostly innate. For more specific action, like shooting half a dozen people for example, it’s unknown. I hope it’s stay unknown (or, at worst, that the predictions based on genetic will remain very weak for specific actions)…else it would be a minority report society for true. It would be much worse than gattaca (which is in fact not so bad….lucky cause it is also almost here 😉 ) I could live in gattaca. But not sure I could in minority report…

    • JayMan / Jun 4 2014 9:21 PM


      Pretty much…

  14. Henry Purcell / Jun 7 2014 1:36 AM

    Harris’s anecdotes seem cherry picked to me. I mean, haven’t you known identical twins yourself? Did they seem as freakishly similar as what Harris describes? Most identical twins have rather distinct personalities, with their own quirks and inclinations. In my experience anyway.

    • JayMan / Jun 7 2014 8:06 AM

      @Henry Purcell:

      I think the point is that identical twins are highly similar. Yes, MZ twins can be different, often significantly so, but their overall similarity is clear. The pervasiveness of heredity should call into question all the diagnoses people have been slapping on folks like Rodger.

    • Henry Purcell / Jun 8 2014 12:29 AM

      Yeah, I understand and agree with your general point. I’m just saying Harris’s anecdotal evidence is less than convincing given the ease of picking and choosing stories to paint a certain picture. And as kai said, the evidence of genetic causation is stronger for broad personality dimensions like big 5 than for specific and rare behaviors.

    • JayMan / Jun 8 2014 12:31 AM

      @Henry Purcell:

      Nancy Segal’s work is a good place to start on the heritability of specific and “rare” behaviors (all high).

  15. Staffan / Jun 20 2014 1:15 PM

    This is somewhat similar to the case of Anders Breivik where the debate concerned how the anti-immigrant sentiment in Norway had encouraged him. Both arguments can be dismissed with the very simple argument that if culture/society is a big causal factor then rampage killings would be common since it acts on all of us. But it’s an incredibly rare type of crime, although highly publicized.

    People believe it because of the blank slate legacy, their education and career. But perhaps the most insidiuos factor here is the power of storytelling. People enjoy stories, they remember events better that way, it seems to be a basic data structure in the brain. So people turn to storytellers rather than truth-tellers. And even crackpot feminists have better stories than “he did it because he was crazy.” It’s very frustrating…


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