David Myers

She Persisted: Lessons From the Life of Judith Rich Harris

Blog Post created by David Myers Expert on Jan 10, 2019

Judith Rich Harris’ December 29th death took my mind to her remarkable life and legacy. Among all the people I’ve never met, she was the person I came to know best. Across 243 emails she shared her draft writings, her critical assessment of others’ thinking (including my own), and the progress of her illness.

 

Our conversation began after the publication of her cogent Psychological Review paper, which changed my thinking and led me to send a note of appreciation. The paper’s gist was delivered by its first two sentences: “Do parents have any important long-term effects on the development of their child’s personality? This article examines the evidence and concludes that the answer is no.”

 

Her argument: Behavior genetics studies (of twins and adoptees) show that genes predispose our individual traits, and that siblings’ “shared environment” has a shockingly small influence. Peers also matter—they transmit culture. Show her some children who hear English spoken with one accent at home, and another accent at school and in the neighborhood, and—virtually without exception—she will show you children who talk like their peers.

 

Judy Harris was a one-time Harvard psychology graduate student who was dismissed from its doctoral program because, as George Miller explained to her, she lacked “originality and independence.”

 

But she persisted. In her mid-fifties, without any academic affiliation and coping with debilitating autoimmune disorders, she had the chutzpah to submit her evidence-based ideas to Psychological Review, then as now psychology’s premier theoretical journal. To his credit, the editor, Daniel Wegner, welcomed this contribution from this little-known independent scholar. Moreover, when her great encourager Steven Pinker and I each nominated her paper for the annual award for “outstanding paper on general psychology,” the judges selected her as co-recipient of the—I am not making this up—George A. Miller Award. (To his credit, Miller later termed the irony “delicious.”)

 

The encouraging lesson (in Harris’ words): “‘Shut in’ does not necessarily mean ‘shut out.’” Truth will out. Although biases are real, excellence can get recognized. So, wherever you are, whatever your big idea or passion, keep on.

 

Her fame expanded with the publication of her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, which was profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker feature article, made into a Newsweek cover story, and named as a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

 

Her argument was controversial, and a reminder that important lessons are often taught by those who fearlessly push an argument to its limit. (Surely child-rearing does have some direct influence on children’s values, religiosity, and politics—and not just via the peer culture to which parents expose children. And surely the loving versus abusive extremes of parenting matter.)

 

Harris was kind and generous (she supportively critiqued my writing, even as I did hers) but also had the self-confidence to take on all critics and to offer challenges to other widely accepted ideas. One was the “new science” of birth order, which, as she wrote me, was “neither new nor science.” An August 24, 1997, email gives the flavor of her wit and writing:

Birth order keeps coming back. In their 1996 book on birth order and political behavior, Albert Somit, Alan Arwine, and Steven A. Peterson spoke of the “inherent non-rational nature of deeply held beliefs” and mused that “permanently slaying a vampire”—the belief in birth order effect—may require “that a stake of gold be driven through his/her heart at high noon” (p. vi).
            Why is it so difficult to slay this vampire? Why, in spite of all the telling assaults that have been made on it, does it keep coming back? The answer is that the belief in birth order effects fits so well into the basic assumptions of our profession and our culture. Psychologists and nonpsychologists alike take it for granted that a child’s personality, to the degree that it is shaped by the environment, receives that shaping primarily at home. And since we know (from our own memories and introspections) that a child’s experiences at home are very much affected by his or her position in the family—oldest, youngest, or in the middle—we expect birth order to leave permanent marks on the personality.
            The belief in birth order effects never dies; it just rests in its coffin until someone lifts the lid again.

 

Alas, the disease that shut her in has, as she anticipated, claimed her. In her last email sent my way on September 6, 2018, she reported that

I’m not doing so well. This is the normal course of the disorder I have—pulmonary arterial hypertension. It is incurable and eventually progresses to heart failure and death. I’m in the heart failure stage now. It’s progressing very slowly, but makes remaining alive not much fun. 

            Because I can’t actually DO anything anymore, it’s a treat to get your mail. I can’t do any more than I’ve already done, but maybe what I’ve already done is enough. Who would have thought that 20 years after its publication, people would still be talking about The Nurture Assumption!

 

Or that The New York Times would replay its message at length, in your well-deserved obituary, Judy.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit www.TalkPsych.com.)

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