A modest proposal: testing the Cinderella Effect

One of the most prominent results of evolutionary psychology research is “the Cinderella Effect,” made famous by the work of Margo Wilson and Martin Daly (you can find one of their summary papers here). Although I don’t pretend to be an expert on the extensive literature on this phenomenon, it’s pretty much what the name connotes: the more abusive treatment by parents (usually males) of stepchildren than of their genetically related offspring.  Studies have repeatedly shown that, when corrected for the proportion of stepparents among all parents, and step-children among children in a family, the step-children receive disproportionately more abuse than do genetically related children.

While these data have been disputed, I think the pattern has held up pretty well. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen this in my own family: my father’s mother died of Spanish influenza in 1918, a few months after he was born, and after his father remarried, they had another child. My father was severely mistreated compared to his half-brother. In fact, his childhood was made so unhappy by his stepmother’s abuse that he didn’t speak to his half-brother until he was about 60.)

To an evolutionary biologist, the Cinderella Effect has an obvious explanation: genetic relatedness.  If you marry someone who already has a child, and then produce your own child with him or her, that natural child shares half of your genes while your stepchild shares none.  Evolutionarily, it would pay you to funnel resources and solicitude toward your natural child and not the stepchild, because those resources will propagate the behavioral genes that promote such preferential care. In fact, adoption is rare among animals, probably for this very reason. Infanticide, too, has a similar explanation: when male lions take over a pride, they often kill all the cubs of the females, bringing the females back into estrus so they can produce the new males’ genetic offspring. It wouldn’t pay a male lion, evolutionarily, to take care of unrelated cubs—even though females do most of the hunting.

When I first heard about this, it made evolutionary sense to me, but I formulated an alternative hypothesis, not based on relatedness, that could explain the same thing. This hypothesis differs from the five “alternative hypotheses” described in the Wikipedia article for the Cinderella Effect.

Here’s my alternative, and I’m sure someone’s suggested it before.  It’s based on convenience rather than relatedness.  When one marries or mates with a previously-mated spouse, you may often do so because you love that man or woman rather than that person combined with their children.  That is, it’s possible that the children of the previous mate are regarded as encumbrances rather than part of the “love package.”  If you then have your own genetic children with that mate, they would represent a deliberate choice rather than an encumbrance.  Ergo, because you choose your own children but not your step-children, you may treat the latter abusively. (Note that this explanation still has an evolutionary basis—you have genetic children to pass on your own genes—but the differential treatment is based not on a “relatedness module” but on culture.

My alternative theory predicts results to those of the Cinderella Hypothesis. How, then, can one discriminate among them? What you need to do is find some items that are not children, but which you can choose to acquire with your new mate versus items he or she  acquired before they met you. This would separate genetic relatedness from the “acquisition” hypothesis.  What items could you use?


If you marry someone who already has a pet, you might regard that pet as an encumbrance in the same way you’d regard a stepchild.  You didn’t choose the pet and you may not like it very much. In contrast, if you and your mate select a pet together, you’d be more inclined, under my hypothesis, to treat it better.  Ergo, the prediction of Coyne’s Encumbrance Theory is that step-pets will be mistreated or abused more than “own” pets.

Of course, there’s nothing that prevents my mechanism from operating in tandem with the genetically-based theory.

This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but not completely.  And, as I said above, I’m not deeply acquainted with the Daly and Wilson theory—though I think it’s intriguing and possibly correct—so I may have overlooked someone who’s already suggested my hypothesis.

Picture 1

Remember him?


  1. Diane G.
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink


  2. marksolock
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  3. mikerol
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    You do not need evolutionary theory to eplain what is called Cinderella effect Narcissism suffices. Of course a certain amount of self-love is required in every instance. Narcissism plus family connectedness, family dynamics. One can of course hold that these have underlying evolutionary advantages and I would not disagree.

  4. Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    There’s also the case of adopted children. One might imagine that if the explanation for treating stepchildren badly was a semi conscious awareness of their lack of relatedness, then adopted children would be also be treated worse than natural children, on average.

    In the case of farm animals (I was brought on a farm), when a cow has adopted a calf, which can be difficult to arrange initially (farmers sometimes rather gruesomely drape the adoptee in the skin of the surrogate mother’s own dead calf), the cow then seems to have no knowledge that the new calf isn’t her own and treats it the same as a natural calf would be treated.

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      What’s different is that adopted children are typically adopted by choice: the parents really, really want a child to bring up. So the kids are really wanted.

      • Keith
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        I think Jerry’s “chosen encumbrance” hypothesis would explain adopted children rather well, although I confess to not knowing how child welfare statistics compare among genetically related, adopted, and step children.

        • Thomas
          Posted April 29, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          Adopted children seem to me to be a better test than pets. If they were abused at the same rate as related children, it would support the “chosen encumbrance” hypothesis, and if they were abused at the same rate as step-children it would support the “genetic relatedness” hypothesis. (or it could be in the middle (a mix of both perhaps), or a really different rate, which would need a different hypothesis)

          Another place to look (although unlikely to have stats for) would be ‘planned’ children against ‘surprise/accident’ children, with a higher rate of abuse (and incidence of things like post-natal depression) for the latter supporting “chosen encumbrance” and an equal rate of abuse supporting “genetic relatedness”.

          • Thomas
            Posted April 29, 2013 at 5:59 am | Permalink

            Whoops, davidpinsof below had already brought this up

    • Mark D.
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      The problem with your scenario is that it relies on trickery.

      Animals aren’t geneticists, and don’t have the ability to carry out a paternity test. Other markers have to be used as a proxy for genetic relatedness. In the case of a cow, “thing that came out of my vagina” would be the proxy, indicating 50% genetic relatedness of offspring.

      If you’re tricking the cow into thinking that a different calf is the one that came out if its vagina, that scenario has no bearing on Jerry’s theory because the cow is not aware it is unrelated; it has been deceived. From the cow’s point of view, it has evaluated the calf to be its own offspring, and will therefore treat it as such.

      Regarding adoption as a test, I think that would be difficult as there is another factor that may be very difficult to control for: Almost every adoption is likely a deliberate choice that was made with great care and planning. It’s rather difficult to end up accidentally adopting someone after a night of drinking. This would be a very strong influence for adopted kids being treated better, on average, than “normal” kids if it cannot be properly controlled for.

      • Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        From a genes eye point of view, any adoption of an unrelated child is a “trickery”, since the adopter is being “coerced” into spending resources on something that won’t propagate it’s genes.

        The reason that a human will adopt a child is probably because we evolved in small communities where everyone was likely to be related and so adaptations to reject genetically unrelated offspring didn’t benefit our genes. Instead “look at that cute little thing, I want one” was a good enough evolutionary strategy.

        In the same way that we trick the cow into accepting a calf, we are tricked also by our natural inclination for nurture. But, it’s “a blessed, precious mistake” as Dawkins would put it.

      • mikerol
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        Preisely. A cuckoo’s off spring depend on trickery – and it evidently works. My blackbirds do not know the difference, the baby cuckoo is treated as though it were a blckbird. And what about those instances where one marries a woman because one likes her young child or children?

    • Gary W
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      There’s also the case of adopted children. One might imagine that if the explanation for treating stepchildren badly was a semi conscious awareness of their lack of relatedness, then adopted children would be also be treated worse than natural children, on average.

      Not true. Daly and Wilson address this claim:

      the most important reasons are that prospective adoptive parents are screened, largely precluding the worst sorts of exploitative adoption known from other times and places; that they enter into the relationship with the explicit intention of simulating the experience of genetic parent families; that they are not comparable to genetic-parent or stepparent families with respect to other risk factors, especially socioeconomic status; and that whereas step-parenthood is a cross-culturally universal phenomenon that has presumably existed in ancestral environments for many millennia and exerted some selective pressure, adoption by stranger is a modern novelty.

      • Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        In the respect of adoption being a modern novelty, I thought I vaguely remembered hearing that chimps might spontaneously adopt orphans. Plunking around on Google, I found: http://www.livescience.com/8052-altruistic-chimpanzees-adopt-orphans.html, so D&W’s assumption there would seem to be a bit suspect.

        • Posted April 29, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

          In Inuit groups, adoption is (was?) routine. In other native American groups, the children were regarded as the community children, not those of a specific parent.

          • Gary W
            Posted April 29, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            the children were regarded as the community children, not those of a specific parent.

            Then it’s not adoption by stranger in the modern sense that Daly & Wilson are discussing.

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

              False. Children without relatives often just died. Native Americans were not endowed with some extra altruistic genes. Ask any social worker about who is abused most frequently and it is the girlfriend’s kid and the step-children abused by the step-father. The major histocompatibility complex operates to identify genetic relatedness and although it can be mediated by memes (culture) the system is not one of absolutes (I know a couple who . . .) but by tendencies. Anecdotes are not science, and we have entirely too much “science by assertion” being thrown at us daily.

              Of note for the catophilous is the lion-like behavior of farm cats. A stray tomcat will “come to visit.” It usually has totally shredded ears from frequent battles. It kills all kittens it can. The females quickly go back into heat and a new batch of kittens is shortly born. The male has meanwhile moved on to someone else’s farm.

              I grew up on a farm – became an anthropologist who welcomed sociobiology in a discipline where it was denied.

              • mikerol
                Posted May 2, 2013 at 4:15 am | Permalink

                maybe that tom cat just like to play cat on a hot tin roof! and the oly way to do so is to get the bitch in heat! her kittens are an encumbrance! those chewed up ears? fighting over the hot bitches!

            • Posted May 1, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

              I think one should be careful about drawing conclusions from the behaviour of animals such as cats, since male cats don’t tend to live in communities, as you in fact point out yourself. Evolution would then favour eradicating kittens, since the kittens of a female cat you come across are unlikely to be relatives.

    • Gordon
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      The skin trick works with sheep as well. Also brought up on a farm. Lambs are easier to skin though.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

      But what about those cases when cats suckle raccoon babies or dogs suckle kittens?

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 12:13 am | Permalink


      • mikerol
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

        I think that the variations and contradictions that the focus on the “Cinderela Effect” have brought out show that the notion of “the selfish gene” is a manifestation of the last several decades’ dog eat dog economic way of life, of Neo-Liberaliwsm in short, just the way that crude Darwinism was used in te 19th century.

        • Posted April 29, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          I hope you’re joking here, because if you’re not then you have no idea what Dawkins meant when he talked about “the selfish gene.”

          • mikerol
            Posted April 29, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

            It is not what Dawkins meant but how it is used in political discpourse so I have noticed that it resembles crude Social Darwinism.

  5. Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Another way you could test the hypothesis is by comparing rates of child abuse for unplanned biological children vs. stepchildren. The encumbrance theory would predict no difference between the two groups.

    • aspidoscelis
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Indeed. Coyne’s Encumbrance Theory seems rather backwards on the point of choice; one does indeed choose one’s step-children! Those step-children may still be viewed as encumbrances, of course, but they are deliberately chosen encumbrances. On the other hand, very often one does not choose one’s own children. Further, even if one does deliberately choose to have a child, it’s a crapshoot–there is no prior information about the child beyond its parentage. OTOH, there will be prior knowledge of a step-child extending far beyond mere parentage.

      A step-child is deliberately chosen; a child may or may not be. In comparing step-children and children, there is also a very large asymmetry in the information available in making a choice.

      • Marella
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        In the past the idea of choosing to have a child hardly existed at all. You got married, you got pregnant. It wasn’t a choice it just happened. It’s only in the last 50 years that family planning has really been a thing.

        • Simon Hayward
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          Probably more often; you got pregnant, you got married.

          I read somewhere that studies of nineteenth century marriage and baptismal records suggest that at least among the working classes brides were commonly or even usually pregnant.

          • mikerol
            Posted April 28, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

            In farming country you wanted to make sure that the wench was fertile, you needed farmhands,lots of them!

  6. Tulse
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    According to the same Wikipedia article, the level of abuse among adoptive parents is lower than for biological parents, which I would think would put paid to the notion of the Cinderella Effect being the result of evolved mechanisms, or at least mechanisms that favour genetic kin over non-kin.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Not really. An adopted child is presumably a very wanted child. A stepchild just comes with the package.

      • Tulse
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        But neither are genetically related to the parent, which is the point. If the Cinderella Effect were caused by a mechanism that favors genetically-related offspring, then (all else being equal) biological children should be treated better than adoptees, but the evidence suggests the opposite. This evidence supports Jerry’s hypothesis, since as you say, almost all adopted kids are wanted.

        • Mark D.
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          All else is NOT equal, however.

          The Cinderella Effect would be just one of many that can affect a parent’s treatment of a child. The “wantedness” factor is another one. There may be others but I’ll deal with these two.

          In the case of an adoption, because it is done deliberately an is much more of a hassle than normal conception, adopters are not a randomized control sample; they are a self-selected group of people who really want a child and are willing to go out of their way to get one. In this case, “wantedness” is likely to overpower the Cinderella effect (assuming it exists, of course) and children in these circumstances will be much less likely to be abused.

          It’s the opposite for stepchildren; nothing has to be done to get them, they come with the package. Of course, technically there is a choice that’s made, but it’s usually indirectly, as outlined in Jerry’s post. The same investment is not there, so in this case it may be reasonable to assume, on average, that the Cinderella effect could be much more significant as “wantedness” is not as strong.

          • Tulse
            Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            So the proper control would then be couples who conceive via IVF versus those who fail to and then adopt. In both cases the couples have made extraordinary efforts to have a child, which should wash out the “wantedness” effect.

        • Gary W
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          If the Cinderella Effect were caused by a mechanism that favors genetically-related offspring, then (all else being equal) biological children should be treated better than adoptees, but the evidence suggests the opposite

          All else is not equal. See my comment above.

      • mikerol
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        Another wild card in these speculations is waht constitutes “abuse”. Violent physical maltreatment is an obvious case. How about witnessing a violent primal scene where the father abuses, rapes and beats the mother for years on end?

  7. coozoe
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Therefore, adopted children are “chosen” so no Cinderella effect?

    • Mark D.
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Likely, this is correct. “Choice” is a legitimate psychological confounding factor in this analysis. See my posts above for my take.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      As I understand the effect, it involves differential investment toward a genetically related child over a child related only to one’s mate, whose investment in that child could limit their investment in the child to whom you are genetically related. That situation doesn’t pertain to an adopted child, to whom neither parent is related.

  8. Diane G.
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Until one becomes a parent one has no idea of the profound emotions (not entirely summed up by “love”) that overcome you. A large part of it, of course, is a huge sense of responsibility and obligation to this brand new, totally helpless human being you’ve brought into being.

    I suspect the same is true for most children adopted or otherwise acquired during infancy, and probably the strength of the feeling is directly related to the degree of helplessness of the child.

    Older children are just strangers. You may connect with them, you may not. One hopes most adults are mature enough to accept and nurture all children they take on; but in most cases they are starting without that profound emotional element (which is itself clearly evolutionarily advantageous).

    Other children also, of course, may be associated with previous relationship baggage, through no fault of their own!

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Ah, that’s interesting.

      I wonder if estranged fathers who return to their wives (or children’s mothers) later in their children’s lives, having missed the “helpless” phase, treat those children more like natural children or more like stepchildren?


      • Diane G.
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Interesting question.

        Humans sure can complicate matters.

    • Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Hrm…I have a problem with this. I think the “baggage” probably belongs more to the adults in this situation than children. Children generally just want to be loved and admired – that’s not too hard to do. There are exceptions to everything of course. Once I became a parent, my ability to truly love and enjoy all children blossomed.

      • Diane G.
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        That’s why I said “through no fault of their own.” I meant they come with a history that might aggravate the new parent, and over which they’ve had no control.

        Yeah, I felt that blossoming, too; up until about the time playgroups and carpools started…

        • Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

          LOL..yeah…well mine is at that oh so magical/horrifying age of 3. I guess talk to me after carpools.

          • Diane G.
            Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink


  9. lamacher
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if there is any sex difference re the step-children, attachable to gender of the step-parent. Is a step-mother more likely to mistreat her step-daughter than her step-son? One could imagine several reverse Oedipus scenarios here.

  10. E.A. Blair
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Not long before I met my wife, she had moved in with her newly-divorced sister and, because of allergies in her sister’s young son, she had to get rid of her four cats. I used to joke about her spending time with me to get her fur fix from my two cats, but when we started living together, she adopted a stray that quickly became her favorite.

    She spoiled him outrageously, and indulged his bad behavior to a degree that I did not, but although there was a notable lineup with regard to favoritism, there was no abuse.

    Although we had the opportunity to take in more, we decided that three cats was enough for a working couple. When my wife died, Kveldulf waited nightly at the door for her to come home until we moved to a new apartment. He ended up outliving her by twelve and a half years, and had a loving home for that time.

    Readers of WEIT were recently treated to a picture of my late wife’s cat, nesting in a box of styrofoam packing – one of the few good uses I’ve ever found for the stuff.

  11. Alison Sainsbury
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s “Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection” speaks extensively about the phenomenon in the wild of the killing of offspring by invading males, as well as choices made by mothers sometimes to kill their own children.

  12. Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a thought experiment.

    A man marries a woman who already has a child. So this is his step child. Later, his wife gives birth to a second child, who I’ll call the real child.

    As it happens, the man had been a sperm donor, and his step child happened to be genetically related (genetically his child). And, as it happens, his wife had been sleeping around after marriage, and the real child was not actually genetically related.

    I would guess that the step child would still be more likely to be abused than the real child. This agrees with your alternative hypothesis.

    • Mark D.
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      No, it would not, because your hypothetical uses missing information (anonymous sperm donor) and deception (cheating).

      In order to be a valid test of the Cinderella effect, the animal (human, in this case) must KNOW the relatedness of the children in some way.

      As I said with the cow example, animals do not possess the ability to perform genetic paternity tests. Although we do, I suspect that this information operates on a higher conscious level than the “gut feelings” that our baser instincts usually operate on, and doesn’t count. Any treatment based on something high tech like that should be considered cultural rather than evolutionary, unless very strong evidence can be mustered in its favor.

      In the absence of direct genetic information, the animal has to use other clues as proxies. And if all those clues point to the step child being unrelated (even though it is) and the child being related (even though it’s not), it will treat them by what it thinks the relatedness is, not by what it really is.

      tldr; Your hypothetical is irrelevant regarding the Cinderella effect. The only thing it might be used to test is what criteria an animal might use to evaluate relatedness.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      I’m not clear on what you’re suggesting. Does the man learn the actual facts of the children’s paternity, or does he remain ignorant of them? If he remains ignorant, then of course we’d expect his behavior to follow his beliefs about paternity rather than the actual facts.

      On the other hand, if there’s a big moment of revelation in which his whole life is turned upside down, then I’d expect him to feel considerably different afterward about everyone involved (including his cheating wife) purely on the basis of emotional trauma, never mind the genetics.

      • Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        If he remains ignorant, then of course we’d expect his behavior to follow his beliefs about paternity rather than the actual facts.

        I agree. But in that case it has to do with psychology, not with genetic relatedness.

        • mikerol
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

          For this to be a genetically significant factor psychology would have to be under the influence of genetics too.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted April 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          If by psychology you mean the father’s behavior is culturally rather than genetically determined, then I don’t think that follows from your hypothetical, for the reasons Mark D. already laid out. The father needn’t have certain knowledge of a child’s paternity; he just needs to be able to make a reasonably good guess. That’s enough for natural selection to cause him to favor those children that are likely to be his own.

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I like your pet hypothesis!

  14. Ken
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    What an intriguing line of thought, one that could possibly have many connotations not considered by the researchers, or anyone attempting to understand and explain what happens in such a situation, I would think. It would be incredibly simple to make assumptions, both minor and major, when making determinations at any point of the research and study of this subject. I am not yet in any way familiar with the research and it’s results, so don’t know how much of what I say has already been covered, or has been rebuked, is out of line, or perhaps has not yet been considered. I am not a scientist, a doctor, or anyone of above average intelligence, but this topic intrigues me so I am compelled to comment.

    I wonder if considerations are made for the situation where the stepchild, having not had the benefit of growing up under the step parent’s philosophy and sets of rules, will feel abused or hard done by when adjusting to a new way of life. Perhaps there is no serious or severe abuse in some cases, per se, only the meting of disciplinary actions. The genetic offspring, on the other hand, whether brought in as an existing entity to the new family unit, or brought in at birth, would have the benefit of learning the rules, so to speak, from the jump.

    This is not to discount any real and damaging abuse that quite likely does occur in some families, something that should never be condoned or tolerated, especially as it pertains to any child in any position or location.

    Of course my thoughts would mean a parent would have to be wise enough to be equitable in the execution of discipline regardless of which child is the object of discipline, which, again, might mean stepson gets time in the corner for breaking a rule, but genson doesn’t tend to break that rule, so serves little to no time in the corner. As the study indicates, chances are the meter of discipline is biased toward his/her own genetic offspring, but that assumption should not be made. Each case, each situation, is quite likely different in that aspect at the least.

    One thing I want to make clear is I don’t personally condone corporal punishment in any form or for any situation. Discipline is NOT synonymous with inflicting physical pain, but can be meted out and administered in various fashions without harming someone. This doesn’t mean there would never be a case where some level of physical discomfort was in need of administration to make a point that simply could not be made otherwise. In some cases of step parent / step child this might possibly be necessary on occasion, but hopefully only as a last resort.

    So, perception and wisdom are key when in such a situation as being a step parent. Understanding the situation en toto perhaps is key in determining what are valid results for the researcher. But what do I know

  15. Brad
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Mission creep on the part of evolutionary psychologists. Narcissism and the pronounced otherness of stepchildren reduces more to mind than genes.

  16. Lurker111
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    The spouse has always claimed that I fell in love first with her cat. Now what?

    • mikerol
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      My last wife had evidently realized that it was all over when she said that I love our two hunting dogs more than her! True!

  17. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure how easily you can separate out the purely biological from the cultural effects.

    Mrs DiscoveredJoys has worked on the family ancestry and found that, like many other earlier families in the 19th and early 20th century, a man and woman marry, have 3 or 4 kids. Then the woman (or husband) dies and within just a few months a new spouse is in place to mother the kids or provide for the family, and shortly thereafter a new bunch of kids is born. Alternatively the ‘widowed’ kids would be farmed out to uncles and aunts. I think kids were valued differently back then.

    • Mark D.
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      Did you not read the article?

      Jerry specifically says that his pet experiment “…would separate genetic relatedness from the “acquisition” hypothesis.”

      • DiscoveredJoys
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        My comments were a counter anecdote.

        It *may* be true that step children are less well treated in modern times in Western societies, but other than an Jerry’s anecdote we don’t know if was true in earlier times or in other societies. Unless you have a clear history of similar behaviour, evolutionary explanations may be ‘just so’ stories.

  18. Youssef Soliman
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    adopted children have the same issue. when parents adopt a child, they don’t always treat him the same way as the natural offspring of the two parents, thus explaining the evolutionary thought of relatedness of the parents and their offspring

  19. Posted April 28, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya.

  20. Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Interesting while simultaneously heartbreaking. I was a step child and was treated fantastically by my step dad until my mother and he had children of their own. I wasn’t terribly abused, but he was just a total asshole to me most of the time and had much less patience with me than the other kids (and I was a good kid, really). I don’t care what the reason is, you have a living being under your care that needs you and depends on you for their physical and emotional well being – what cold kind of heart can treat that dependent so callously?

    • mikerol
      Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Initially my stepfather – he entered my life as my still married moter’s lover at age 8 – made it a point, so it appears in retrospect, to treat me extra well… to gain favor with my mother! So there is that facotor that needs to be put into play during the courting stage.

      • Ken Pidcock
        Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Initially my stepfather – he entered my life as my still married mother’s lover at age 8 –

        Damn, that kid moved fast. (I’m sorry. Couldn’t be resisted.)

    • darrelle
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      I agree. I had a stepfather as well. My experience was different though. He was, is, a fine person and always treated me well.

  21. Posted April 28, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see…

    My step-mother was a total jerk and screwed my brother and I over quite a bit. However, my father, in order to make our step-brothers feel ‘welcome’ bent over backwards to be nice to them at the expense of being decent to his sons.

    Normally this wouldn’t have been an issue, but for the fact that my brother and I lived with them and not my mother and step-father after our parents divorce.

    So my brother and I got it from both ends… And her slander and poison got bad enough that I was forced to move in with my mother (at my father’s request) at 17, uprooting me from my friends, relatives, home and other aspects of my long-term social network. Something I’d rather have avoided.

    And, of course, just to make it ironic, she really screwed him over too. She turned into a pot-head/coke-head, embezzled a lot of money from her employer (with the help of one of the three partners she was having an affair with) and left my dad on the hook for about $100K of debt and a brutal divorce settlement because the Courts are seriously unfair in these matters…

  22. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I married someone who already had a pet, and I adored it. How it related to me, on the other hand, is a whole ‘nother matter. Such is different for our daughter, whose cat immediately abandoned her for her boyfriend. When we’re talking about cats, we should know that all reason is useless.

  23. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    This topic has given me one more reason to reflect fondly on my father. I have a stepbrother (though I never thought of that before now; he’s my half-brother), and my father was deeply devoted to him throughout his life. He was likewise devoted to our adopted children. His philosophy seems to have been that kids need to be loved and, if you find yourself responsible to a kid, you need to show them love.

    Later in his life, my father married a woman with a large family, and continued following his philosophy. At his funeral, I was introduced to a young man I had never met, who had been given leave from military service in Germany to attend his grandfather’s funeral.

    Be a loving person. You will be remembered.

    • Keith
      Posted April 29, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink


  24. Posted April 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I have been a careful keeper of mammals and birds for about 30 years as a rehabber. Officially in the county, my name was used often. My former wife joined me in this effort.

    The difference between mammals and birds is crucial for understanding a rehabber’s job. Any young bird can be rehabbed by other birds of the same species, and often beyond that (they mentioned laying your eggs in another species nest). I hacked out young birds like crazy by locating in our woods where the nests were. I get a bird, and promptly put into another nest of the same species. This was even true of wood ducks babies out in a pond near the river. This is a fact about bird behavior. They do not fit any Cinderella option.

    As the babies near leaving the nest, this practice does not work well. You must keep this in mind.

    Mammals are different. They are everywhere diverse in their behavior of keeping track of their children and others added. They vary from rejection to complete acceptance and anywhere between. The Cinderella is sometimes very acceptance and often not, as many comments suggested. Humans are worst about differences between them. Humans treated well as kids can be horrible parents, and ones treated poorly can do a great job as parents. I doubt that the Cinderella effect has much effect. It sounds good, like it must be true.

  25. neil
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    A brilliant idea.

    Another suggestion. Since the encumbrance is costlier the younger the step-child, we should observe whether the degree of neglect/abuse lessened with the age of the step-child. Of course, there are other factors–it is easier to neglect/abuse a young child than an older one. An adult step-child might retaliate. Perhaps look at developmentally-challenged step-children? Ugh, science can be ugly.

  26. quiscalus
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    My great grandfather’s dad abandoned him and his mother before he was born. His mother remarried eventually but my great grandfather was forced to sleep in the barn. He was maybe 5 or 6 but wasn’t allowed in the house because he was a “bastard”. He made a living cutting firewood for boats traveling the Osage river by age 10, learned hands on mechanical repair from the boat crews and left “home”. And me, I’m a red-headed step child twice over. It was not quite as bad as what my great granddad dealt with though.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted April 30, 2013 at 12:45 am | Permalink

      What your great grandfather went through was horrible. How utterly inhumane!

  27. ladyatheist
    Posted April 28, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    What is the role of oxytocin? Pets flood my brain with it. Babies, not so much.

    Supposedly once someone has had their own kid, they will get an oxytocin rush from other babies. But if they have never had a child, a random child could turn on the switch or not. (I was forced to be a babysitter against my very feminist will, which cured me forever)

    Presumably birds would not feel oxytocin because eggs are not babies.

  28. pulseteresa
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    Sorry Jerry, but I disprove your Encumbrance Theory. And it’s been tested in exactly the manner you describe: with pets!

    When I married my wife she had two cats and a dog. I was not a cat person and had last had a pet – a dog – 16 years prior, when I was still living with my parents. I daresay I love our pets just as much (if not more!) than my wife does. I had much to get used to early on, never having had cats before and having been dogless for so many years, but I never mistreated or abused them. Maybe it helps that they’re the most awesome pets ever, but I did have to win one of them over. The dog (female) seemed to like me from the start (the feeling was mutual; she’s a sweetheart) and the female cat pretty much claimed me as her own from the get-go – if she had a flag, I think she would have planted it on my chest and claimed me as her territory as soon as I moved in. She adopted me and I loved her immediately. Still do! (She’s on my lap right now). The baby of the family (the male cat) was a bit of a tougher sell. He was more skittish, but my wife also cast him as the brat of the family (I think this was pure sexism:)…seriously, though, I do) and I took her word for it…initially. Then I realized that he was just a misunderstood, sensitive guy like me. Once I realized that and treated him accordingly, he seemed to fall in love with me just as much as I did with him. He’s affectionate with me in ways that he’s not with my wife (who does not mistreat him; I don’t mean to imply that) and that makes me feel special. My wife and I both see them as our children. They may technically be my step children, but I treat them as my own (because they are!).

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

      Nice story. 🙂

  29. Posted April 30, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    The step-cat’s name is Lucifer.

  30. Lisa Carson
    Posted April 30, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Maybe you would have to test this along side other types of married-into-responsibilities to see how much of it is really about the steps of responsibility or expectations, or difference in approaches taken that it surfaces. For instance, you marry into a partner with a boat collection. It requires a lot of time and maintenance and choices of storing. Perhaps one partner might start abusing the boats (small scratches seem to mysteriously appear, seen as “the other” in the relationship, or time competing), or it is a matter of cost of storing and seen as not as efficient as it could be (and the lack of “ideal” efficiency is a constant reminder), or it never seems to be shared since married into (always referred to as “I will take you for a ride” ..type thing)…In this case, the levels of responsibility could be brought out of this experiment (with kids or pets) if perhaps some help were brought in to see what is a concern of responsibility/time, use of resources or efficiency – or actual relational competing or conflict.

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