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Debunking the Tiger Mom Thesis

Amy Chua argues in a bestselling book that people who embody a "triple package" of traits are likely to succeed. Two psychologists find it's mostly nonsense.
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Author Amy Chua. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Author Amy Chua. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

What's the formula for a successful life? That depends, of course, on your definition of "success." But if you mean achieving wealth, power, and/or prominence in your field—the conventional American measures—"Tiger Mom" Amy Chua and her husband, fellow Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, have a formula for you to follow.

As described in their 2014 bestseller The Triple Package, it features an incongruous mix of ethnocentrism (a strong belief in the superiority of your ethnic group); insecurity ("an anxious uncertainty about your worth or place in society"); and self-discipline (the ability to control your impulsive need for immediate satisfaction).

"The hypothesis mostly failed."

They argue that this combination is passed down through certain ethnic cultures, such as Jews and East Asians, which makes members of those groups more successful, on the whole, than others.

"This is not a carefully researched book," noted a Washington Post reviewer, who complained that "their evidence is often anecdotal or fragmentary." But its thesis is now in the popular culture, and a pair of actual psychological researchers—Joshua Hart and Christopher Chabris of Union College—decided to put it to the test.

Their conclusion, after analyzing the results of two large-scale studies: "The hypothesis mostly failed."

In fact, they write in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, "the most likely elements of a triple package would be intelligence, conscientiousness, and economic advantage—the same factors that would benefit anyone, regardless of ethnicity."

Hart and Chabris conducted two online studies (via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website), one featuring 430 American adults, and a similar, somewhat simplified one featuring 828 American adults. Participants filled out a series of surveys designed to provide demographic information, and measure Chua-defined success (including annual income, and whether they had won any honors or awards).

Other surveys revealed specific psychological traits, including three that closely align with the book's thesis (ethnocentrism, insecurity, impulse control) and one that does not (cognitive ability).*

"We found scant support for a 'triple package' hypothesis that a group superiority complex, personal insecurity, and impulse control interact to predict exceptional achievement," the researchers write. Instead, "we found that achievement of awards, education, and income was predicted by the educational attainment of individuals' parents (a proxy for socioeconomic status), and individuals' own cognitive ability."

One of the book's pillars, impulse control, "was related to an omnibus measure of success," they write."But that relationship was explained by low personal insecurity. In other words, insecurity (contrary to Chua and Rubenfeld's assertion) predicted less success."

Also contradicting the book's central thesis: Ethnocentrism "bore no relation to our omnibus success measure."

"Our studies suggest that success is best explained by environmental and ability factors, including socioeconomic status and cognitive ability," the researchers write, "along with personality traits reflecting something akin to psychological security or emotional stability."

"Perhaps there is a formula of learnable personality traits that increases individuals' chances of succeeding in Western culture above and beyond what is contributed by native ability and the advantages of socioeconomic status," Hart and Chabris conclude. "If so, the formula remains undiscovered—and we have found no evidence that the one proposed by Chua and Rubenfeld is it."


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

*Update — February 16, 2016: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the three psychological traits that align with the book's thesis.