Thursday, 19 April 2012

Nature or nurture? A real-life experiment

by Beatrice Wilkinson 
Twins Paula Bernstein and Elyse Shelin (image: Daily Telegraph)
As part of my psychology AS level, I am exploring aspects of the nature/nurture debate that is so prevalent in our society today and also extremely important in helping us understand how our bodies and minds work. On the 28th of March, I travelled up to London with my classmates to hear various talks given by psychologists including Dr Philip Zimbardo.
It was all fascinating, but I found this particular story especially so.
Paula Bernstein and Elyse Shelin are identical twins, born in Brooklyn, New York in 1968. They were separately adopted as part of an experiment which aimed to discover how identical twins would react to being raised in different family backgrounds – how this would affect characteristics such as looks and personality.  Neither set of adoptive parents were aware of the study. They didn’t even know that their adopted daughter had been born a twin.
The girls grew up happily, and it wasn’t until 2003 when Elyse Schein contacted the agency to try and uncover some details about her birth.
"I received a letter that said: 'You were born on 9th October 1968 at 12.51 pm, the younger of twin girls.' It was unbelievable.”
When the agency contacted Elyse's newly discovered sister Paula, the two women arranged to meet in a cafe in New York.
"Walking every step to that cafe felt momentous," says Paula. "I felt like this is it. From now on my life will forever be different."

Despite being identical, the twins found they didn’t look as similar as might be expected.
Paula said "it was a relief I think for both of us that we were not carbon copies. As similar as we looked when we compared pictures of ourselves as kids, as adults we have our own distinct style."
However, as they got to know each other, more and more similarities began to surface. "We had the same favourite book and the same favourite film, Wings of Desire," says Elyse. "It was amazing," says Paula.
On that first day Elyse did not reveal the secret she had discovered during her research. But soon afterwards she told Paula that they had been deliberately separated at birth and were the subjects of a unique study on nurture versus nature, a debate that has enthralled scientists for generations.

Now, the twins are in close contact. "What's funny is we've kind of come full circle," says Elyse. "We were initially twins, which was a biological bond, and then now I say that we've adopted each other. Now we're family by choice."

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