The 2018 movie Three Identical Strangers documented the story of identical triplets Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, and David Kellman, who were born in 1961 and were adopted away into three separate homes at six months of age as part of a secret and unethical study of separated twins, conducted by New York psychiatrist Peter Neubauer and others in the 1960s and 70s. The results were never published, and the research materials are currently stored in an archive at Yale University with instructions to keep them sealed until the year 2066. (Over 10,000 pages of “heavily redacted” material from the archives were released to Shafran and Kellman after the completion of the filming.) The triplets grew up not knowing that they had genetically identical brothers, until they discovered each other in 1980. Tragically, Eddy Galland committed suicide in 1995.
The triplets’ story lands squarely in the middle of the long-running “nature-nurture debate,” which centers on the question of whether differences in human behavior and intelligence are mainly the result of genetic influences, or whether they are mainly (or entirely) the result of environmental influences.
Interpretations of Three Identical Strangers have been mixed, with some reviewers seeing it as showing the powerful influence of environmental factors on behavior, while others see it as showing that genetic influences play an important role. Many reviewers understandably have focused on the tragic human-interest and abuse-of-science aspects of the story. My focus here is on how the triplets’ stories relate to the nature-nurture debate, in the larger context of problems in reared-apart twin research in general.1
Single Cases of Reared-Apart Monozygotic Twin Pairs (MZAs)
Studies of supposedly reared-apart (separated) identical (monozygotic) twins are often cited as providing powerful evidence in favor of the view that heredity plays a major role in determining human behavior, including especially intelligence as allegedly measured by IQ tests. These genetically identical twins are known as “MZA” pairs, or monozygotic (identical) twins reared apart. Critics, on the other hand, have argued that “twins reared apart” (TRA) studies, as well as single-case MZA pairs reported in the popular media, provide little if any evidence in favor of genetics.
My book The Trouble with Twin Studies: A Reassessment of Twin Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences contains a detailed critique of TRA studies, which includes the famous “Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart” (MISTRA), performed by Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr., Matt McGue, Nancy Segal and others between 1979 and 2000. Although Bouchard and colleagues published some of their results, they have always denied access to potentially critical independent reviewers to inspect and possibly reanalyze the raw data and life history information on the twins they studied. (My 2018 full analysis of Bouchard’s Minnesota twin study can be found HERE.)
Single-case “cherry-picked” anecdotal stories of allegedly similarly behaving MISTRA MZA twins or triplets, such as the “Jim Twins,” the “Fireman Twins,” “Oskar Stöhr and Jack Yufe,” and the “Three Identical Strangers” have been reported ad nauseam in the media and by the researchers themselves since the late 1970s. According to Wikipedia, cherry picking is “the act of pointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.” These stories, which are often used to sell the false ideology of genetic (biological) determinism, have entered the public imagination in ways that academic research results never could. As science writer and MISTRA critic John Horgan put it, “These tales of separated twins serve as a powerful rhetorical device, much more so than the statistical analyses and heritability figures.”2 Behaviorally dissimilar MZA pairs usually are not discussed in media reports or in textbooks.
Cohort Influences on Twins’ and Triplets’ Behavior
Although rarely mentioned by journalists or textbook authors, MZA pairs, and identical triplets such as Shafran, Galland, and Kellman, share many non-familial environmental influences in common, and are subject to cohort effects. The cohort effect concept refers to similarities in age-matched people’s behavior, preferences, beliefs, physical condition, and other characteristics that are caused not by heredity, but by experiencing stages of life at the same time in the same historical period and cultural milieu. Twins (and triplets) are of course born at the same time, and therefore are similarly exposed to cohort influences at the same points of their lives. As behavioral geneticist Richard J. Rose pointed out in relation to the impact of cohort effects on MZA behavioral resemblance, “You’re comparing individuals who grew up in the same epoch, whether they’re related or not. If you asked strangers born on the same day about their political views, food preferences, athletic heroes, [and] clothing choices, you’d find lots of similarities. It has nothing to do with genetics.”3
Age- and sex-effects alone make it likely that genetically unrelated same-sex strangers born in the same year would think and behave much more similarly than would genetically unrelated opposite-sex strangers born decades apart from each other. Males and females, as common sense tells us, are socialized to behave and think differently, meaning that same-sex pairs—which MZAs always are—will behave and think more alike for this reason alone.
Even hypothetical MZA pairs or triplets that were separated during the first few months of life, who never met each other, and who spent their entire lives not knowing that they had a twin, share many of the following 31 prenatal and postnatal non-familial behavior-molding environmental influences:
- Prenatal (including common prenatal exposure to toxins and other influences)
- Postnatal healthcare
- Postnatal nutrition
- Postnatal exposure to environmental toxins
- Birth cohort (same age)
- Gender cohort (same sex)
- Developmental stage
- Striking physical resemblance, including facial appearance and height
- Adoptee status (with accompanying abandonment and attachment issues)
- National culture
- Regional culture
- Political culture
- Socioeconomic or class status
- Religious (defined in part as “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith”)
- Oppression, racism, discrimination, or privilege on the basis of common racial or national background, gender, SES status, language, religious beliefs, disabilities, political beliefs, etc.
- Shifting gender roles and increased career opportunities for women
- Age at puberty onset or menarche
- Advertising and marketing campaigns
- Exposure to the mass media, Internet, social media, etc.
- Legal status of abortion
- Birth control technology and availability
- Selective placement status (adoption)
- Teaching methods and technological advances in education
- Exposure to similar music and lyrics
- Advances in medical technology and medical treatments
- Advances in cosmetic surgery technology
- Advances in technology designed for people with disabilities
Psychologist Susan Farber noted in her 1981 book, Identical Twins Reared Apart: A Reanalysis, that MZA pairs are “not so much similar to each other as they are similar to people of their eras and SES.”4 Although she was referring to twins’ dental issues, this observation applies to IQ and behavioral similarity as well.
Although even perfectly separated twins and triplets grow up sharing many non-familial environmental influences in common, in the famous MISTRA study the researchers’ conclusions in favor of genetics were based on the crucial yet completely false assumption that “all [behavioral] resemblance between reared apart relatives is because of shared genetic factors,” and they encouraged the journalists reporting on the twins they supplied to accept this completely false assumption.5 As I wrote in a previous article, journalists’ and researchers’ presentation of individual cherry-picked MZA pairs and triplets in support of genetic theories of behavior has been one of the major “scientific” smoke-and-mirrors deceptions of the past half century.
Peter Neubauer and Colleagues’ “Secret Study”
The purpose of what journalist Lawrence Wright called Neubauer’s “secret study” was to investigate sets of genetically identical twins and triplets that were placed into homes of differing socioeconomic status (SES), and then to study and test them as they were growing up. It appears that these twins and triplets were separated for research purposes. (Neubauer, who died in 2008, denied that they were separated for this purpose.) Adoptions were made by Louise Wise Services, which arranged for the adoption of children into Jewish families in the New York City area. Neubauer believed that if the environment (nurture) is important, genetically identical pairs or triplets placed into separate homes of differing SES would behave and test differently. If heredity (nature) is important, their behavior and test scores would be similar. It is also likely that Neubauer was interested in investigating whether psychiatrically diagnosed birthmothers produced adopted-away offspring with the same condition.
The number of MZA pairs and triplets studied by Neubauer and colleagues is unknown to the public because the study was never published, but it is likely that five to eight sets were involved. Due to the rarity of such pairs, only a small handful of reared-apart twin studies have been performed, and this was the first to attempt to identify and study twins from the first months of life to adulthood.
In addition to its harmful and unethical aspects, the logic of the study was amazingly misguided because, as we have just seen, social class is only one of at least 31 potential non-familial environmental influences shared by MZA twins and triplets. As a Freudian psychoanalyst/researcher initiating the study in the heyday of psychoanalysis, Neubauer by training believed that mothering and the family environment were major factors determining human behavior. As he wrote in his 1990 book Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality (co-authored by his son Alexander Neubauer), the purpose of the study was to assess “the influence of the environment on the child, and by environment we meant, primarily, the mother’s relationship with the infant.”6 Psychologist Lawrence Perlman, who was a research assistant in the study, stated in the movie that “we were interested in differences in parenting.” Strict Freudian analysts and psychiatrists believe that psychological problems and personality are mainly the result of how a child’s innate “drives” and “infantile sexuality” are frustrated or satisfied in the family environment, and they often overlook, and at times attribute to “fantasy,” the direct effects of abuse, trauma, poverty, social oppression, and neglect.
Nature’s Thumbprint was not mentioned in Three Identical Strangers even though in it, Neubauer discussed his study and described how his results, and recent behavioral genetic research, had led him to the position that “genes…play a vital role in dimensions such a temperament, perception, emotion, and both physical and emotional illness.” He wrote that “much of what we call personality has an underlying genetic foundation” (italics in original), and that “we can now say that much of what becomes personality is intrinsic to the child from the start—in other words, predisposed by natural inclination.”7 In reaching this conclusion, Neubauer committed the colossal error of overlooking the numerous non-familial environmental influences on behavior that I listed above, and of assuming that MZA behavioral resemblance is caused by either (1) hereditary influences, (2) the influences of the maternal and the family environment, or (3) by a combination of both. The only behavioral genetic study that he cited in support of his conclusions was a 1988 MISTRA study of personality, which was based on a similar error.
A 1986 Publication about the Study
The movie mentioned, but did not discuss, a 1986 publication in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, an academic journal co-edited by Neubauer. The author was Neubauer’s colleague, the Freudian psychiatrist Samuel Abrams. Abrams began the article by reviewing the rationale for the study, and then presented a case-study of one of the pairs, “Beth and Amy.”8 No test results were provided in this article.
Abrams wrote that “several sets” of separated identical twins (MZAs) had been placed into different homes by an adoption agency. This presented “an extraordinary research opportunity” to the researchers because, for the “first time,” it would be possible to follow reared-apart identical (MZA) twins “as they grew up in different households.” Abrams believed that the study “cast a brighter light upon the nature-nurture issue: how much is owed to disposition, and how much to the environment?” He noted that previous studies of reared-apart twins had only been “retrospective” because twins were not examined until their adult years, and he briefly described other problems with these studies. This new investigation, headed by Neubauer, studied twins “within a clinical, psychoanalytic, and developmental framework,” and had produced “an extraordinary quantity of data.” This included “direct observations, films, psychological tests, parent interviews, integrated discussions, impressions, hypotheses, and findings,” which were “captured in the minutes of almost a thousand weekly conferences.” In these conferences his colleagues experienced “moments of distress when some long-cherished views about human development suddenly seemed quite vulnerable.”
Amy and Beth were placed together in a foster home at six weeks of age, and were separated and sent to different adoptive homes several weeks later. Abrams wrote that by age ten both twins had “equivalently pathological” serious mental disorders on the basis of vague behavioral patterns such as “inner-directedness,” “problems in effectively engaging persons and things,” and a “limitation in integrative capacity.” He combined these and other behaviors to highlight a supposedly new “disease entity” discovered by Neubauer, which Neubauer called “An impairment in the inherent impetus.” Among other things, this “disease” interfered with the girls’ ability to successfully resolve their “Oedipus complex.”
On the basis of studying Amy and Beth and a few other pairs, Abrams concluded that genetic factors played an important role in determining these girls’ supposedly similar behaviors and disorders. “Nature and nurture…are potentials to be realized,” he wrote, and “each exacts a continuing influence upon the other, transforming potential into shape and substance.” The behavior-shaping impact of age- and sex-effects, in addition to many other environmental influences shared by MZAs (see above), were not addressed or recognized in this article, nor was the fact that both twins shared a common prenatal and perinatal environment. As abandoned children (AKA “adoptees”), both girls experienced attachment rupture with their birthmother (which we now know has a negative impact on brain development), and both had difficulties in securely attaching to others. Although adopted children in the United States in general are at higher risk for developing psychiatric disorders than are children who grow up with their biological parents, Abrams attributed the girls’ similar symptoms in part to hereditary factors.9
Three Identical Strangers featured an interview with Natasha Josefowitz, who in the early 1960s obtained information about what she called Neubauer’s “monumental study” in an admittedly “peripheral” way. Although she did not “do the research,” she “heard about” the findings because she was “in the office.” “I just do the hearsay,” she said. She believed that the study “would put to rest the dilemma of nature and nurture forever,” and claimed “what they found out was incredible…I did not believe that it [behavior] would be as much hereditary as it was. That was more than any of us thought.” However, this was merely her “hearsay” account based on unpublished data obtained from a tiny handful of twin pairs and triplets.
Undoubtedly, many viewers were impressed by statements from the charismatic Josefowitz that “we are moved to behaviors that we are totally unconscious about,” and that “we would prefer that we have some influence over our lives…so finding out never mind, it doesn’t matter what you do” is “disturbing” to people. The filmmakers seemed to support these claims by cutting to early 1980s clips of the triplets saying that their behavior was “ridiculously” similar, and to an MZA pair who claimed that their similar behavior “seemed to be inherited”—all accompanied by dramatic background music produced by a string quartet. Despite her “peripheral” status as someone not directly involved in the study, the film presented Josefowitz as a semi-authoritative figure with insider access to spectacular unpublished data. Whatever “hearsay” stories she may have been privy to, the results of twin studies, and the behavior of separated twins and triplets, prove absolutely nothing about genetics—the crucial question is how these results and behaviors should be interpreted.
Perhaps I should mention that when the filmmakers first contacted Josefowitz and asked her to participate in the project, according to her own 2019 account she told them that she “really did not know anything about the study and would be of no use to them.”10 When the cameras started rolling, however, a different story emerged.
It is noteworthy that no twin researcher, or twin research critic, appeared in or was listed as a consultant in Three Identical Strangers, a movie that did not have a narrator. Most statements about how the triplets’ story fit into the nature-nurture debate were made by family members, friends, journalists, research assistants or people peripherally related to the study, or by Shafran and Kellman themselves.
The Triplets Sought Celebrity Status and Wealth on the Basis of Their Claimed Similarities
In the early 1980s, the reunited triplets made the U.S. TV talk show circuit and became celebrities. “We went on everything,” Shafran recalled. They traveled to Minnesota and became MISTRA participants. In their TV appearances the triplets often dressed alike and they obviously staged most of their similar mannerisms, and they at times answered questions and finished each other’s sentences in an obviously rehearsed way. They were all said to smoke the same brand of (tobacco) cigarettes, and the average viewer was led to believe that genetic factors influence whether a person smokes tobacco, as well as the brand of cigarettes a person smokes. Given that cigarette smoking rates have gone down dramatically in the United States during the past few decades, we might ask the question that the movie did not ask: what happened to all those alleged smoking genes?
Shafran, Galland, and Kellman attempted to profit from their fame on the basis of their claimed similarities. Although not mentioned in the movie, in a 1981 appearance on the U.S. Today show they revealed that they were enrolled in acting classes and hoped to star in a TV situation comedy. When that didn’t happen, as seen in the movie they opened a New York restaurant that made over $1 million in its first year of operation. In an early 1980s report, one of the triplets claimed that at times “we will all say the same thing at exactly the same second.” Decades later in Three Identical Strangers, Shafran confirmed, accompanied by a smile that suggested that he was understating the case, that he and his brothers intentionally emphasized their similarities and downplayed their differences. “We found the ways that we were alike and we emphasized them, and we wanted to be alike,” he said.
The triplets’ story is entertaining, fascinating, anger provoking, and tragic. Sadly, they were separated at six months of age as part of Neubauer’s harmful and misguided “secret study,” and later they became the unwitting pawns of genetically oriented “scientists,” corporate media outlets, and others attempting to use their story—and their rehearsed and cherry-picked behavioral similarities—to sell false genetic determinist theories. As usually happens in these cases, the twins’ or triplets’ desire to be famous and to potentially receive a financial payout, combined with the desire of people and groups seeking to use their claimed similarities to promote a genetic determinist agenda, leads to a massive smoke-and-mirrors hoodwinking of the general public.
Other Identical Strangers
Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, a reunited Neubauer study identical twin pair and co-authors of the 2007 book Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited, appeared several times in the movie. They believed that genetic factors influenced their similar mannerisms and common history of depression, and in their book they wrote that reared-apart twin studies such as the MISTRA provided powerful evidence in favor of genetic influences on behavior, on the basis of their very mistaken belief that MZA pairs share “none of their environment.”12
Schein and Bernstein learned that their birthmother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Because according to psychiatry depression and schizophrenia are distinct and different disorders (“schizoaffective disorder” notwithstanding), the twins and the filmmakers could have cited this as an argument against genetic theories, since neither twin had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or a psychotic disorder. Instead, they combined these diagnoses into a common “mental health issue” category, and implied that the twins’ common diagnosis of adult depression was caused in part by their birthmother’s genes.
Hardly anyone wants to watch a movie or buy a book about reared-apart twins who behave differently, and who failed to discover a genetic link to their suffering. Once again, the deceptive “bewitching science” world of reunited identical twins and triplets takes center stage.
Jewish Twins and Triplets as Research Subjects
Like Schein and Bernstein, the triplets’ ancestry and adoptive homes were Jewish. The study of Jewish twins and triplets through the use of a method historically favored by eugenicists and the German “racial hygiene” movement has been noted by several critics. When Robert Shafran discovered that he and his brothers had been separated “like lab rats” as part of a twin study, he called it “Nazi shit.” It is indeed troubling that Jewish twins, families, researchers, and adoption agencies were involved in a study of this type, where only 20 years earlier thousands of Jewish twins had been subjected to the murderous and sadistic “experiments” by Josef Mengele and his collaborators at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. Neubauer himself was a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Austria. Contemporary white nationalist and anti-Semitic political groups often claim that reared-apart twin studies provide the most definitive “scientific” evidence in support of their theories about “race,” and Bouchard and colleagues’ Minnesota study was largely financed by the Pioneer Fund, an organization that was created to support and finance eugenics and racial differences research.13 At the same time, linking Neubauer’s study to Mengele’s death camp “twin research” is unfair and ill-advised, and serves to trivialize the singularly heinous deeds of German National Socialism and its “murderous science.”
The film made little mention of the behavior-shaping influences experienced by three males brought up from an early age in the Jewish cultural and religious tradition. A major goal of religion is to train people, from infancy onward, to behave and think in ways taught by each particular religion. According to the purported Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” If all three triplets had been bar-mitzvahed in 1974 at age 13, would we conclude that this was caused by the common “bar-mitzvah genes” they shared?
Although a few featured journalists and relatives and friends of the triplets said toward the end of the movie that environmental (nurture) influences are important determinants of behavior, a take-away for some viewers of Three Identical Strangers is that genetics plays a major role in determining human behavioral differences and similarities.
The “secret study” sealed records should be made available to the remaining triplets and to all qualified reviewers even though, for the reasons I have discussed, they will not shine much light on the nature-nature issue. Whatever Neubauer and colleagues concluded in these records—and Nature’s Thumbprint and Abrams’ 1986 article strongly suggest that they favored genetic interpretations and conclusions—critics and other independent reviewers will provide alternative interpretations and conclusions. At the same time, Bouchard, McGue, Segal and colleagues have kept the MISTRA raw data secret for decades. They suppressed and omitted their full-sample DZA IQ test-score correlations (dizygotic or fraternal twins reared apart) in their famous 1990 Science article and elsewhere, even though DZA pairs were the designated MISTRA control group. While Neubauer and colleagues have been rightly criticized for withholding and failing to publish their data, the Minnesota researchers have gotten a free pass up to this point in relation to the data and the suppressed correlations they continue to keep under lock and key.
Three Identical Strangers is a riveting film describing the story of identical triplets separated at six months of age and reunited in early adulthood. Like other stories about reunited twins and triplets, however, their story provides no evidence in support of the genetic side of the nature-nurture debate, but it does supply some evidence in favor of the environment because the triplets grew up to be behaviorally different people.
Genetic theories of behavior, and the regressive social and political policies that flow from them, are built on a massive behavioral genetic house of cards consisting of family, twin, adoption, and molecular genetic studies, that collapses completely under the weight of critical examination and the decades-old failure to discover “genes for” psychiatric disorders, and for behavioral differences in general. In a 2019 article, a leading behavioral genetic researcher recognized that his field’s “gene-finding project” turned out to be a “failure.”14 Nevertheless, genetic theories are very much needed by the economically and politically powerful, who will continue to prop them up as long as possible. As Lawrence Wright observed in the 2017 film The Twinning Reaction, “there’s nothing I can think of in science that is more political than twin studies.”
- In an interview, Three Identical Strangers director Tim Wardle said that he came into the movie “believing very strongly in nurture. I was shocked to discover just how influential DNA is. The idea that you could make decisions in your life for reasons that hinge on your ancestors—that you can’t fight and do unconsciously—it’s freaky.” It is not clear whether Wardle changed his views on the basis of reading the behavioral genetics literature on twin studies, or on how he interpreted (or misinterpreted) the triplets’ histories and behavior. ↩
- Horgan, J., (1999), The Undiscovered Mind, New York: The Free Press, p. 145. ↩
- Richard J. Rose, quoted in Cole, K. C., (1995), “Innumeracy,” in R. Jacoby & N. Glauberman (Eds.), The Bell Curve Debate: History, Documents, Opinions (pp. 73-80), New York: Times Books, p. 75. ↩
- Farber, S. L., (1981), Identical Twins Reared Apart: A Reanalysis, New York: Basic Books, p. 77. ↩
- McGue, M., & Bouchard, T. J., Jr., (1989), “Genetic and Environmental Determinants of Information Processing and Special Mental Abilities: A Twin Analysis,” in R. Sternberg (Ed.), Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence (Vol. 5, pp. 7-45), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, p. 22. ↩
- Neubauer, P. B., & Neubauer, A., (1990), Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, p. 5. ↩
- Neubauer & Neubauer, 1980, pp. 158, 38-39. ↩
- Abrams, S., (1986), Disposition and the Environment, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 41, 41-60. ↩
- This was a rare twin study in that it was performed by people apparently lacking a strong bias in favor of genetic explanations of behavior. At the time this paper came out, however, psychiatry was in the midst of a rhetorical “biological revolution” described in psychiatrist Nancy Andreasen’s 1984 book The Broken Brain. Andreasen claimed that the major psychiatric disorders are “diseases caused principally by biological factors, and most of these factors reside in the brain.” Genetic claims based on twin studies are a major component of this position, and Abrams’ conclusions helped support psychiatry’s shaky status as a legitimate branch of medicine—a status that had been challenged by critical psychiatrists such as Thomas Szasz, Peter Breggin, and R. D. Laing. ↩
- Josefowitz, N., (2019, posted March 8th), “Three Identical Strangers”—And Me, San Diego Jewish World, retrieved online 6/9/2019 from https://www.sdjewishworld.com/2019/03/08/three-identical-strangers-and-me/ ↩
- Dusek, V., (1987), Bewitching Science, Science for the People, 19, (6), 19-22. ↩
- Schein, E., & Bernstein, P., (2007), Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited, New York: Random House, p. 56. ↩
- For a description of the Pioneer Fund and its relationship to the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, see Joseph, J., (2015), The Trouble with Twin Studies: A Reassessment of Twin Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, New York: Routledge, Appendix A. ↩
- Turkheimer, E., (2019), The Social Science Blues, Hastings Center Report, published online 6/13/2019, https://doi.org/10.1002/hast.1008 ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.