A study of British twins appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that an adolescent’s sense of their own family’s social and economic standing is closely linked to that child’s physical and cognitive health.
In fact, the adolescent’s perception of status was a more powerful predictor of their well-being and readiness for further education than their family’s actual status. The study sample represented the full range of socioeconomic conditions in the U.K.
“Testing how young people’s perceptions related to well-being among twins provided a rare opportunity to control for poverty status as well as environmental and genetic factors shared by children within the same family,” said lead author Joshua Rivenbark, an MD/PhD student in Duke’s Medical School and Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Siblings grew up with equal access to objective resources, but many differed in where they placed their family on the social ladder – which then signaled how well each twin was doing,” Rivenbark said.
Researchers followed 2,232 same-sex twins born in England and Wales in 1994-95 who were part of the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study based at King’s College London. Adolescents assessed their family’s social ranking at ages 12 and 18. By late adolescence, these beliefs signaled how well the teen was doing, independent of the family’s access to financial resources, healthcare, adequate nutrition and educational opportunities. This pattern was not seen at age 12.
“The amount of financial resources children have access to is one of the most reliable predictors of their health and life chances,” said Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine, who is the senior author of the report. “But these findings show that how young people see their family’s place in a hierarchical system also matters. Their perceptions of social status were an equally good, and often stronger, indicator of how well they were going to do with respect to mental health and social outcomes.”
Study findings also showed that despite growing up in the same family, the twins’ views were not always identical. By age 18, the twin who rated the family’s standing as higher was less likely to be convicted of a crime; was more often educated, employed or in training; and had fewer mental health problems than his or her sibling.
“Studies that experimentally manipulate how young people see their social position would be needed to sort out cause from effect,” Rivenbark said.
The E-Risk study was founded and is co-directed by Duke professors Avshalom Caspi and Terrie Moffitt at King’s College London.
Guest Post by Pat Harriman, UC-Irvine News @UCIPat