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Adult attitudes: share and share alike.

Although recent evidence indicates that unique childhood experiences of family life steer personality development among children and teenagers, the shared experiences of spouses largely shape their attitudes and values during adulthood, according to a reanalysis of data gathered from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Whereas youngsters have no control over their "family of origin" and seek a coherent identity by viewing sibling and parental relationships through a unique prism, adults -- at least in successful marriages -- strive to create shared experiences that foster a sense of belonging and connection, suggests psychologist Avshalom Caspi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Caspi directed the new look at these decades-old data from the longest prospective study of married couples conducted to date. Caspi's reanalysis appears in the February JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY.

"A host of shared experiences that we cannot yet specify contribute to enduring similarities between spouses," Caspi asserts. "Common involvement in work, recreational and religous activities is probably crucial."

Caspi's group analyzed measures of general values and attitudes toward marriage completed by 165 married couples shortly after their engagement and again 20 year later. They obtained the information from a research center at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., that stores data from many psychological studies. Value measures charted religious and political views and social and leisure pursuits. Attitude measures revealed beliefs about marital fidelity, premarital sex, the need for spouses to hold common interests, child rearing and how to manage a household.

Couples who stayed married did not grow more alike, as commonly assumed; instead, they remained moderately similar in attitudes and values across 20 years, the researchers contend. Further analysis indicates that this 20-year similarity does not depend on the influence of husbands on wives, wives on husbands or their mutual similarity to start.

In fact, 25 couples who separated during the study showed moderate similarity at first but markedly less 20 years later, suggesting that similarity between partners breaks down without shared experiences, Caspi asserts. The still-married husbands and wives changed in the same direction over the course of their marriage, providing further evidence that shared experiences maintain similarities between spouses, Caspi argues.

The notion that shared experiences guide adult personality gains support from an ongoing study of more than 7,000 pairs of adult identical and fraternal twins conducted by another research team, Caspi says. Twins engaging in frequent social contact exhibit more similarity in personality than those who see each other infrequently.

However, some researchers consider nonshared experiences as key influences on personality development from childhood through adulthood.

"Caspi presents some interesting data, but the notion of a shared environment between spouses is unclear," says psychologist Robert Plomin of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

Each family member perceives the web of family relationships differently, Plomin hold (SN: 12/7/91, p.376). Thus, non-shared influences should maintain a firm grip on adults as well as children.

Support for Plomin's position comes from a study in the March 1990 PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE that found comparable religious values and commitment among adult identical and fraternal twins, whether reared together or apart. Shared family experiences of twins growing up together played a small role in adult religious outlook, concluded a team led by psychologist Niels G. Waller of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Future work must examine the similarity of siblings' spouses to one another and chart adult personality changes among married siblings to reveal more about adult development, Plomin contends.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 22, 1992
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