The Science Of Siblings

Mom Liked You Best: Researcher Says Smothers Brothers Were RIght

It could be mounting anxiety over the imminent, carbo-fueled clashes that many of us will likely have with a sibling later this week, but there sure have been a lot of studies out lately about the powerful, curious and often mysterious connections we have with our brothers and sisters.

Today, NPR takes on the issue of genetic similarities between siblings, who can resemble one another another physically, but have vastly different personas.

…in the 1980s, a researcher named Robert Plomin published a surprising paper in which he reviewed the three main ways psychologists had studied siblings: physical characteristics, intelligence and personality. According to Plomin, in two of these areas, siblings were really quite similar. Physically, siblings tended to differ somewhat, but they were a lot more similar on average when compared to children picked at random from the population. That’s also true of cognitive abilities.

“The surprise,” says Plomin, “is when you turn to personality.” Turns out that on tests that measure personality — stuff like how extroverted you are, how conscientious — siblings are practically like strangers.

From an emotional perspective, it may not matter that one sibling becomes a harpist, while the other takes over a hedge fund. If they have a sister (or are sisters themselves) they are probably happier than their sister-less counterparts. That’s according to linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, who wrote the essay “Why Sisterly Chats Make You Happy,” for The New York Times a few weeks ago. Tannen theorizes that the key to that happiness isn’t the content of any particular conversation one has with a sister, it is simply the act of conversing, about anything, even the minutiae of daily life, that can produce a feeling of connection, and ultimately happiness.

But none of that sisterly talk will help if you grew up with a gnawing feeling that mom always liked your sibling better. Turns out she probably did. According to yet another sibling-focused study this month, published in The Times, most mothers do have a preferred child, despite the deeply cherished fantasy that all mothers love their children equally.

Researchers who surveyed Boston-area mothers, ages 65 to 75, about their adult children found that most moms were “perfectly willing to name favorites,” among their kids.

“Most mothers have very distinct preferences,” Dr. Pillemer said. “There’s one to whom they feel most emotionally close, one with whom they have the most conflict. Parental favoritism is a fundamental part of the family landscape throughout life.”

In other words, he added, “the Smothers Brothers were right.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Why Sisters Make You Happy

It's not what you talk about with your sister that makes you happy, it's the talk itself, writes Deborah Tannen

As the mother of two daughters, this essay by Deborah Tannen in The New York Times on why having a sister makes you happy, made me, well, happy. Her premise is not what you’d expect. The key isn’t the content of those deeply personal and emotional discussions you have with your sister, Tannen writes, it is more the simple fact of talking, about anything, even the minutiae of daily life, that can produce the feeling of connection, and ultimately happiness.

An example is Colleen, a widow in her 80s who told me that she’d been very close to her unmarried sister throughout their lives, though they never discussed their personal problems. An image of these sisters has remained indelible in my mind.

Late in life, the sister came to live with Colleen and her husband. Colleen recalled that each morning after her husband got up to make coffee, her sister would stop by Colleen’s bedroom to say good morning. Colleen would urge her sister to join her in bed. As they sat up in bed side by side, holding hands, Colleen and her sister would “just talk.”

That’s another kind of conversation that many women engage in which baffles many men: talk about details of their daily lives, like the sweater they found on sale — details, you might say, as insignificant as those about last night’s ballgame which can baffle women when they overhear men talking. These seemingly pointless conversations are as comforting to some women as “troubles talk” conversations are to others.

So maybe it’s true that talk is the reason having a sister makes you happier, but it needn’t be talk about emotions. When women told me they talk to their sisters more often, at greater length and about more personal topics, I suspect it’s that first element — more often — that is crucial rather than the last.