Cinderella effect: what is it and how does it describe relationships with children?
Do we treat stepchildren worse than Biological children? Let's look at what the Cinderella effect is.
Parents generally love their children above all else. But is it the same if they are stepchildren rather than genetic children?
This question has generated decades of intense debate and study. Let's see what the Cinderella effect has to say about it and whether there is a clear answer to the question we raise or whether the experts need to investigate further.
What is the Cinderella effect?
Starting in the 1970s, a number of researchers began to ask themselves the pertinent question of whether fathers and mothers behaved the same with both their biological children and their stepchildren, i.e., the offspring of their partners. In fact, their studies not only looked for a subtle difference in treatment, but went much further and investigated whether child abuse, and even filicide, was more frequent in these cases.
As a result of this question, the term Cinderella effect was coined, which would consist of a phenomenon whereby both stepfathers and stepmothers would show a tendency to treat stepchildren less well than their natural children.. Not only that, but also, in some cases, the difference in treatment would be so significant that the relationship with the stepchildren could be described as maltreatment.
Obviously, the authors who maintain that the Cinderella effect exists do not affirm that it occurs in all cases and therefore all stepfathers and stepmothers are inherently abusers, far from it. What they suggest is that there is a greater tendency of abuse between stepparents and stepchildren than between parents and biological children. But is this really the case, is there a Cinderella effect, or is there no data to support it?
What is certain is that the debate is open. To do so, we must take a look at the main studies that have been carried out on this issue, both by authors in favor of the existence of the Cinderella effect, as well as those who are against it. Only then will we be able to draw some conclusions about it.
Positions in favor of the Cinderella effect
The position in favor of the existence of the Cinderella effect began with the research of the Canadian authors Margo Wilson and Martin Daly.. They have compiled their findings in a volume entitled The Cinderella Truth, a Darwinian Approach to Parental Love. These psychologists have spent many years studying the variables underlying domestic violence, especially from parents to children.
Among all the conclusions they have reached throughout their research, there is one that is particularly devastating and at the same time is the one that supports the Cinderella effect. Wilson and Daly conclude that the greatest risk factor that their studies have found to predict child maltreatment is none other than cohabitation between stepchildren and stepparents..
Of course, this statement is not without controversy and other authors have tried to disprove it, but we will see that later. According to studies by Daly and Wilson, the cases of infanticide registered by male stepfathers with respect to their stepchildren are no less than 100 times higher than those between fathers and biological children. It seems like a really outrageous number, but it needs to be looked at in more depth.
The key is that in reality infanticide by a male parent is a very isolated phenomenon, so even if there is this huge disproportion between the two typologies, it does not mean that it is a crime that occurs frequently. Even so, the strength of this supposed Cinderella effect, even in the most serious cases of maltreatment, such as those that lead to death, is striking.
The key, therefore, would not be in the absolute numbers, which, as we have seen, are in fact very low.. The details that would underlie the Cinderella effect would have more to do with the relative proportions between the two cases and the significant difference we find between them. That is where the crux of the matter lies.
Why does this psychological phenomenon occur?
We have described what the Cinderella effect consists of and we have also reviewed the arguments of the main authors who claim that this phenomenon exists. Now we are now going to look into the hypothetical biological and psychological causes of this issue. Here comes into play a question that may be controversial, but it is also true that biology does not understand controversy.
In that sense, from an evolutionary point of view, and leaving aside for a moment everything related to ethics and the social constructs that human society has created over many generations, the biological cost of raising a child who does not share one's own genes is disproportionate. Why? Because the individual would be devoting all the resources at his disposal to safeguard the existence of a child that does not carry his genes and therefore will not perpetuate them..
This statement may seem very shocking but let us remember that we are analyzing the question of the Cinderella effect from a purely biological prism, without any patina of morality that would allow us to make a value judgment about it. Through the argument of biology, some researchers claim that in cases of stepmother or stepfather and stepchild, it may be more complicated to generate the bond of attachment that, with some exceptions, occurs between stepparents and stepchildren. that, with some exceptions, occurs between biological parents and children.
Other authors analyze it from the point of view of economics, which in fact, when talking about resources and the distribution of them, connects with both biology and psychology. Thus, the economist Gary Becker designed an algorithm to predict which type of human couples had a higher divorce rate, taking into account variables such as previous marriages and children and also whether the woman is of reproductive age.
According to this algorithm, what Becker claims is that couples with children in common are less likely to divorce than those with biological children of only one of the partners.. Somehow the Cinderella effect could be at work in this case, since the bond between parents and stepchildren would be less intense than in the case of marriages with biological children of both parties.
Position against the Cinderella effect
We have delved into some of the bases that some authors use to justify the existence of the Cinderella effect, but we have yet to hear from the other side. There are many researchers who, on the contrary, maintain that this phenomenon does not really exist or that its effect is much less than what authors such as Wilson and Daly have affirmed in their work.
This is the case, for example, of David Buller. This is an American philosopher who criticizes the research of these two authors and maintains that the conclusions they have reached are not valid since they have a series of biases that invalidate the results. In this sense, Buller affirms that the major problem with the studies carried out is that are based on a series of official documents that have been transcribed by officials without clear guidelines for collecting the necessary data. to collect the necessary data.
For his part, Hans Temrin has spent several years of his career doing work to show that the Wilson and Daly studies came to the wrong conclusions and therefore the Cinderella effect cannot exist as such. However, author Steve Stewart-Williams, a disciple of those researchers, states in his work, The Ape Who Understood the Universethat it is Temrin who makes methodological errors in his work and therefore has not been able to replicate the results.
So, does the Cinderella effect really exist?
After reviewing the positions of the two opposing blocks of authors on the existence or not of the Cinderella effect, we can get an idea of how complicated it is to lean one way or the other. It is a complex and highly controversial phenomenon that undoubtedly requires further studies to obtain the information necessary to be able to to obtain the necessary information to be able to answer the question without a doubt.
Therefore and until then, knowing whether there is a Cinderella effect or not will depend on the validity that we grant to some or other studies, since to date it is still a completely open issue.
- Daly, M., Wilson, M. (2005). The 'Cinderella effect' is no fairy tale: Comment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
- Daly, M., Wilson, M. (2007). Is the 'Cinderella Effect' controversial. Foundations of evolutionary psychology. Taylor & Francis.
- Stewart-Williams, S. (2018). The ape that understood the universe: How the mind and culture evolve. Cambridge University Press.
- Temrin, H., Nordlund, J., Rying, M., Tullberg, B.S. (2011). Is the higher rate of parental child homicide in stepfamilies an effect of non-genetic relatedness? Current Zoology.
- Tooley, G.A., Karakis, M., Stokes, M., Ozanne-Smith, J. (2006). Generalising the Cinderella Effect to unintentional childhood fatalities. Evolution and Human Behavior. Elsevier.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)