Facts So Romantic

Why We Judge People Based on Their Relatives

While Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, his younger brother, Billy, a brewer, endorsed Billy Beer, which featured his signature. Despite this, in private, Billy enjoyed Pabst.Photograph by Lorie Shaull / Flickr

Imagine you’ve moved into a new neighborhood. You and your new neighbor, Jack, quickly build a friendly rapport and, after a couple weeks, you give him a set of keys, in case of emergency. One day, returning his hammer you borrowed, you see a young guy stumbling out of Jack’s front door, a laptop in one arm, a fur coat in the other. He doesn’t seem sober. Suddenly Jack runs up and says to his son, “Stop it Pete! You told me you wouldn’t do this again!” Pete drops the goods and runs off. “Pete’s an addict,” Jack tells you. He changes his locks often, he explains, because Pete comes over and steals from him and his wife.

Who wouldn’t feel terrible for Jack? He seems like a good guy. Yet you find yourself rethinking giving him your house keys. Do you change your opinion of him at all based on the fact that his son is an addict, and a thief?

We know that humans are inference machines. With very little information, people can guess at rates above chance whether someone is a psychopath. With a 10-second video clip, people can correctly guess whether someone is gay 81 percent of the time. To many, “stereotype” is a word practically synonymous with “false,” but stereotype accuracy is one of the best replicated findings in psychology. You can accurately infer a lot about someone simply by knowing their ethnicity, sex, or country of origin. Of course, when we know people better, we tend to rely relatively more on our own experience.

The same intuitions that create trust can also sow distrust.

So how might you think about Jack in light of meeting Pete? You might be someone who thinks that the environment has a strong influence on people’s personality, and that having negligent or otherwise bad parents is a major way for people to become dysfunctional. Historically, it was common to blame people’s parents for their ills. Since they were more involved in children’s lives, mothers were blamed more often than fathers for kids who grow up and lose their way. For decades, autism and schizophrenia were attributed to “refrigerator mothers,” a term for mothers who weren’t adequately warm and maternal or even abusive and neglectful. This attribution caused generations of parents, but women especially, to feel profoundly guilty for their children’s disorders. Back when homosexuality was considered a disorder, it was blamed on absent fathers. Now it’s common to say that addiction and criminal behavior are caused, in part, by absent fathers. By this logic, you might wonder if Jack’s bad parenting was in some way responsible for Pete’s dysfunction. 

You could also change your assessment of Jack for genetic reasons. Behavioral genetics looks at where individual differences come from—whether from family upbringing and life experience, or genetic factors. Or from both (for example, parents could choose to buy more books because their kid shows a lot of natural interest in reading). 

For most characteristics, it looks like genetics are much more important than parenting. One large study found that, for adopted children, their rate of criminality was 12 percent if their biological parents were criminals but their adopted parents were not criminals—but just 6 percent if their adoptive parents were criminals and their biological parents were not. When both sets of parents, biological and adoptive, were criminals, the rate of criminality shot up to 40 percent. There is a similar pattern when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse. If we know that Pete is a criminal with a substance-abuse problem, his father Jack is much more likely to have these problems as well.

I’ll call this judgement we make about others, on the basis of their relatives, “intuitive behavioral genetics.” Research has shown that people aren’t bad at guessing how heritable certain human traits are (interestingly, it’s mothers of multiple children who are the best at guessing heritability). This seems especially relevant when it comes to leaders.

One of the most common systems of governance in human evolutionary history was some form of hereditary rule, where the eldest son of a king, say, takes over after the king dies. Intuitive behavioral genetics may have granted hereditary rule some sense of legitimacy. You might infer that if someone was a good and competent leader, there would be a pretty good chance that their close relatives, like their children, who have 50 percent of their genes, would also be good leaders. And if you know how to cope with one leader’s personality problems, you could perhaps better cope under the rule of one of their close relatives. 

It’s clear that leadership, like all other psychological characteristics, likely has a substantial genetic component. This is also a possible reason why there was so much focus on the paternity of the sons of kings. A child whose father was not the king would have characteristics that the population would find less predictable. This may also be why royal bastards often ended up in prominent political positions. Even though they were formally illegitimate, people may have trusted that they had similar good leadership qualities to the father that sired them, they would have still benefited from nepotism, and they may have been more likely to have inherited characteristics that motivated them toward powerful positions.

Even in democracies, we see that the relatives of political leaders are more likely to end up political leaders themselves. For example, Shinzo Abe, Japan’s longest serving prime minister, is the grandson of a prime minister and a prominent politician. You can see similar patterns commonly in Eastern democracies like South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Taiwan. You might put this down to just nepotism and name recognition. But that explanation could be missing the kernel of rationality inherent in political dynasties, the trust people bestow on family members of trusted politicians, and our tendency to ascribe certain psychological characteristics to notable families.

Get the Nautilus newsletter

The newest and most popular articles delivered right to your inbox!


Intuitive behavioral genetics also sheds light on why prominent political families are so guarded about family members with psychological problems. The same intuitions that create trust can also sow distrust. 

Consider Roger Clinton Jr, younger half-brother to Bill Clinton. Roger was given the nickname “headache” by the Secret Service and ultimately pardoned by Bill for cocaine possession. His various shenanigans could have made people more likely to see unbecoming characteristics in Bill Clinton. Rosemary Kennedy, the younger sister of John F. Kennedy, was incapacitated by a lobotomy that was meant to cure her violent mood swings. There are many other stories of leaders, politicians, and celebrities who have taken to hiding embarrassing relatives, perhaps to stay in the good graces of the public. 

It’s surprising that there is almost no research about how much we judge people based on their relatives, given the abundance of evidence showing that we make quick inferences about other people on the basis of little information. Some sociologists have looked into a related bias, called the “courtesy stigma.” If you associate with someone who is stigmatized in society, like someone with substance-abuse problems, schizophrenia, or a cognitive disability, that stigma can fall on you. “Family stigma” is one form of courtesy stigma. 

People are more likely to think that a son or daughter is likely to have substantial difficulties if they find out the father of this person is in prison, depressed, or an alcoholic than if he is away much of the time, or elderly. Another study found that most people who had a family member with schizophrenia wanted to hide this information from others. Looking at attitudes toward close relatives of people with schizophrenia or drug addiction, respondents were more likely to blame parents for having sons and daughters with these dysfunctions but thought all close family members, including brothers, sisters, and sons and daughters “should feel ashamed.” 

Because most sociological research still rarely considers the role of behavioral genetics, many scholars hold that humans stigmatize the close relatives of people with significant dysfunction for reasons of mere proximity. But this stigmatization may result from a heuristic that these close relatives are likely to share this dysfunction. 

This heuristic, to my eye, played out during the latest presidential election. There was some mudslinging from both sides in an attempt to discredit both Joe Biden and Donald Trump through their family associations. The Lincoln Project, a political action committee with the aim of ousting Donald Trump, posted a billboard of Ivanka Trump looking excited about COVID-19 death rates, implying a heritable psychopathy through intuitive behavioral genetics. Shortly before the election, there was a scandal about Joe Biden’s son Hunter—leaked pictures, among other things, led many news outlets to revisit his alleged problems with drugs, erratic behavior, and incompetence. It’s unclear, now that the election is over, how much of an impact this had. Perhaps people were less likely to attribute Hunter’s problems to Joe’s genes or parenting because Hunter was in a significant car crash that killed his mother and sister and left him with a serious head injury. Or, Hunter may have caused some voters to have less trust in Joe Biden, leading to a closer election.

If this tactic derives at least part of its power from the fact that we infer what people are like based on their families, it suggests our psychology is significantly genetically determined. On some level, then, we may be psychologically disposed to track people’s genetics for insight into their behavior. Similar to stereotypes, intuitive behavioral genetics, especially when it’s used to stigmatize, isn’t moral or kind—but we can safely expect humans to judge others with whatever information they’re privy to, including blood relations. And sometimes it’s warranted.

Perhaps Jack once shared Pete’s problems but has learned enough about how to manage himself now to be a trustworthy neighbor and friend. Many men become less troubled and troublesome as they age. As Jack’s neighbor, Pete has certainly given you a better idea of what to watch out for. Yet regardless of what you know about Jack’s family, getting to know him personally will give you the best insight into who he is, and what kind of neighbor he’ll be. Intuitive behavioral genetics may sometimes be reliable in sizing people up, but should hardly be the only thing you rely on.

Diana Fleischman is an evolutionary psychologist and a Research Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @sentientist.

Join the Discussion