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Cinderella effect

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Research and Studies on the Cinderella Effect

In the early 1970’s, a theory arose on the connection between stepparents and child maltreatment. “In 1973, forensic psychiatrist P. D. Scott had summarized information on a sample of ‘fatal battered-baby cases’ perpetrated in anger (…) fifteen of the twenty-nine killers – fifty-two per cent – were stepfathers.” (“Truth” 33) Although initially there was no analysis of this raw data, empirical evidence has since been collected on what is now called the Cinderella Effect through official records, reports and census. Years of research have confirmed the hypothesis that stepchildren are significantly more likely to be abused in terms “from baby batterings (sic) to sexual molestation of older children” to murder.(“Truth” 30) Studies have concluded that “stepchildren in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States indeed incur greatly elevated risk of child maltreatment of various sorts, especially lethal beatings”. (“Assessment” 288)

For over thirty years, data has been collected regarding the validity of the Cinderella Effect with all the evidence proving a direct relationship between step-relationships and abuse. All such evidence on child abuse and homicide “is derived entirely from official reports of child abuse or from clinical data.” (Gelles and Harrop 79) In Chicago, police homicide records show that “115 children under 5 years of age were killed by their putative fathers in 1965 through 1990, while 63 were killed by stepfathers (…) and because very few babies reside with substitute fathers, the numbers imply greatly elevated risk to such children.” (“Violence” 78) The most powerful evidence in support of the Cinderella Effect is the proof that when abusive parents have both step and genetic children, they generally spare their own children. In such families, stepchildren were exclusively targeted 9 out of 10 times in one study and in 19 of 22 in another.(“Cinderella” 5) This discrimination towards stepchildren is unusual due to “the following additional facts: (1) when child abuse is detected, it is often found that all the children in the home have been victimized; and (2) stepchildren are almost always the eldest children in the home whereas the general (…) tendency in families of uniform parentage is for the youngest to be most frequent victims.” (“Assessment” 288) The Cinderella Effect explains this discrimination of abuse among stepchildren.

Studies and Their Findings by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson

The most profound data on the idea of stepchild mistreatment has been collected and interpreted by psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, who study with an emphasis in Neuroscience and Behavior at McMaster University. Their first measure of the validity of the Cinderella Effect was based on data from the American Humane Association (AHA), an archive of child abuse reports in the United States holding over twenty thousand reports. (“Truth” 26) These records led Wilson and Daly to conclude that “a child under three years of age who lived with one genetic parent and one step-parent in the United States in 1976 was about seven times more likely (…) to become a validated child-abuse case in the AHA records than one who dwelt with two genetic parents.”(“Truth” 27) Records in Great Britain were also examined and found that children were beat by stepfathers at a rate of 100 times more than genetic fathers. (“Cinderella” 2) Overall, their findings prove that children residing with stepparents had a higher risk of abuse even when socio-economic factors were considered.

Explanations for the Cinderella Effect

The Cinderella Effect is best explained through evolutionary psychology. Its origin and evolution into the role of human behaviors is a direct effect of the Darwinian theory of natural selection as explained by Daly and Wilson. According to theory, “research concerning animal social behaviour (sic) provide a rationale for expecting parents to be discriminative in their care and affection, and more specifically, to discriminate in favour (sic)of their own young”. (“Truth” 8) Natural selection measures an organisms success by its reproductive ability, explaining why parents invest their resources in their genetic children. This evolved rationale is why parents have developed the desire to protect their own young for investment in their own fitness and to ensure “genetic posterity (inclusive fitness)”. (“Truth” 39)

As an evolved species, humans follow “the assumption that any evolutionarily successful organism must balance its allocation of time, energy, risk, and other resources to itself-its own growth and maintenance.” (Burgess and Drais 374) Therefore, in the position of step parent, one cannot be expected to care for their non-genetic children out of altruism because they are earning no reproductive benefits. “If child abuse is a behavioral response influenced by natural selection, then it is more likely to occur when there are reduced inclusive fitness payoffs owing to uncertain or low relatedness.” (Burgess and Drais 376) Due to these adaptations from natural selection, child abuse is more likely to be committed by step-parents than genetic parents.

Studies Refuting the Cinderella Effect

Since the introduction of the theory of the Cinderella Effect, many psychologists have criticized and collected information, intending to refute the claim that stepparents and abuse in children are directly related. In one such study, John Harrop administered a survey via telephone, asking participants “whether they had ‘slapped’ certain family members (considered one by one) within the last year, had ‘punched’ them, and had ‘used a knife or gun on’ them and so forth, when they had a disagreement or were angry with them’.” (“Truth” 51) For this particular study, although the survey revealed that “the 117 stepparents who did not hang up (…) were no more likely to profess that they had assaulted the children under their care than were genetic parents” (“Truth” 51), the data is biased since those who do assault are unlikely to admit it or participate in such an interview via telephone.

Alternative Explanations for Elevated Mistreatment of Stepchildren

There are many skeptics who disregard the Cinderella Effect, convinced that step-relationships are not a direct cause of elevated abuse among children. One alternative explanation is that “a high incidence of abusive stepfamilies could, in principle, be a spurious result of biased detection or reporting.” (“Assessment” 288) Evidence against this shows that when higher criteria is required in the analysis of records, the risk for stepparents to be the perpetrators increases, contrary to skeptics beliefs. Others say that economic backgrounds could be an underlying cause and “one might hypothesize that the stress of poverty cause the poor to be especially likely to abuse and kill their children and also to experience high rates of divorce and remarriage, making steprelationship (sic) an incidental correlate of abuse.” (“Cinderella” 5) Although studies show that poverty increases the chances of child abuse, further analysis shows it has little connection to step-relationships. (“Cinderella” 5)


  • Burgess, Robert L., and Alicia A. Drais. "Beyond the "Cinderella Effect": Life History Theory and Child Maltreatment." Human Nature 10 (1999): 373-395.
  • Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. "An Assessment of Some Proposed Exceptions to the Phenomenon of Nepotistic Discrimination Against Stepchildren." Annales Zoological Fennici 38 (2001): 287-296.
  • Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. "The "Cinderella Effect": Elevated Mistreatment of Stepchildren in Comparison to Those Living with Genetic Parents." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (2005): 507-508.
  • Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. TheTruth About Cinderella: a Darwinian View of Parental Love. London: Orion House, 1998.
  • Daly, Martin, and Margo I. Wilson. "Violence Against Stepchildren." Current Directions in Psychological Science 1996: 77-81.
  • Gelles, Richard J., and John W. Harrop. "The Risk of Abusive Violence Among Children with Nongenetic Caretakers." Family Relations Jan. 1991: 78-83.
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