Examining The Science Of Sibling Rivalry

Originally published on January 26, 2013 5:36 pm



And, of course, the Harbaughs have tried to downplay that, saying, hey, pay attention to the players, not us. Fat chance.

JOHN HARBAUGH: The team that we're going to play is a great football team. They're extremely well-coached, I'd have to say.


SIMON: So, we thought we'd take a thoughtful NPR approach by asking NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to talk about the science of sibling rivalries. Shankar, thanks for being with us.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: So, what does science have to say about this brotherly rivalry?

VEDANTAM: You know, Scott, most of the time, when a close friend or a spouse or a sibling succeeds at something, we just feel proud. And it's not just that you feel happy for someone you love. It's because if your brother is the president, some of his glory rubs off on you as well, right? Now, I spoke with a social psychologist. His name is Abraham Tesser. He's now a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia. He's been studying for decades what happens when people who are close to you succeed at something that you want to succeed at. And he told me this started many years ago when a women came up to him and said, a close friend of mine did much better at an exam than I wanted to do really well at. And instead of feeling happy for my friend, what I felt for jealousy. And so Tesser conducted a series of experiments and he found that seeing your friend or your sibling in the spotlight has two different effects on you. If they're doing something that you don't care about, you can just enjoy their success. You bask in their reflective glory. But when they succeed at something that you care about, you see them in the spotlight and you ask, why isn't the spotlight on me?

SIMON: So, the Manning brother who is a stockbroker in New York can be happy for both of his brothers.

VEDANTAM: You're exactly right.

SIMON: But Eli and Peyton might have a problem.

VEDANTAM: You summarized the research in a nutshell.

SIMON: I understand this is not just siblings, right?

VEDANTAM: That's right. Tesser's work has really looked at close relationships in general. He's looked at husbands and wives. He's looked at all kinds of close relationships. But he finds that siblings are one dimension of this but hardly the only dimension.

SIMON: So, they need to be close and even fond of each other but reaching for the same spotlight.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. I mean, and this might be magnified with siblings, who, of course, are often competing for their parents' praise and attention. So, I mean, think about someone who's a writer and their brother isn't just another writer but a famous writer. So, you know, your brother gets to invite mom and dad to go to the Pulitzer Prize ceremony and you sit at home. And, you know, you feel like not so good.

SIMON: But let me tell you what I've heard the Manning brothers say, what I've heard the Harbaugh brothers say, which is, look, we've grown up competing with each other and loving each other and we know how to do this. This is not new ground for us.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. And I think that's right. Because I think what the research can tell us is about the human condition in general. It can't tell us about this individual pair of brothers. It's possible, for example, the Harbaugh brothers are especially evolved human beings and they don't experience the kind of petty feelings that the rest of us experience.

SIMON: This is the first time I've heard evolved human beings and football coach in the same sentence. But go ahead.


VEDANTAM: You know, there's another interesting dimension to this, which Tesser has found. He's found that it's not only the case that competitiveness influences close relationships. He finds that the reverse is true as well; that close relationships effect competitiveness. So, in other words, if two brothers find themselves competing for the same spotlight, one of the things that often happens is that they will start to define what they do slightly differently so that it doesn't seems as if they're in competition with their brother.

SIMON: One's a defensive specialist. One's an offensive specialist?

VEDANTAM: That's right. So, you say, you know, if you're a writer, you say, you know, my brother's a novelist. I'm a poet. There's really not conflict whatsoever. I can just celebrate my brother and be happy. So, when it comes to the Harbaugh brothers, the question is really not what we think, but the question is what do they think? Have they come up with psychologically healthy ways of managing the competition?

SIMON: Do you have a pick - scientifically speaking?

VEDANTAM: Scientifically speaking, I'd like the 49ers.

SIMON: OK. I'll agree with you. I'm going to say 49ers by seven.


SIMON: Shankar Vedantam, who covers social science research for NPR. You can follow him on Twitter: @HiddenBrain. Hidden brain?

VEDANTAM: That's the name of 2010 book, "The Hidden Brain."

SIMON: Why would you hide a brain? But in any event, and while you're at it, you can follow this program: NPRScottSimon - all one word - and NPRWeekend. Thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.