Sandra Wood Scarr’s career as a psychological scientist spanned more than four decades. During that time, she engaged in scholarly pursuits dedicated to examining genetic influences on development and the importance of quality child care.
Scarr was born in 1936. She received her PhD from Harvard University in 1965 with a dissertation that examined genetic contributions to personality development in identical and fraternal female twins. Scarr’s findings, that sociability and activity level were genetically linked, challenged the mainstream belief at the time that environmental influences predominantly affected development. Following graduate school, Scarr held academic positions at the University of Maryland (1965), the University of Pennsylvania (1966-1971), the University of Minnesota (1972-1975), Yale University (1977-1983), and the University of Virginia (1983-1995). She retired in 1995.
While at the University of Pennsylvania, Scarr examined the genetic and environmental predictors of identical and fraternal twins’ intellectual development. Although genetic influence accounted for variations in intellectual development overall, environmental influences were more pronounced for black children than white children. Scarr attributed these differences to disparities in the relative opportunities afforded to the white versus the black children.
While at the Institute of Child Development at the University Minnesota, Scarr initiated the Minnesota Adoption Projects with the psychologist Richard A. Weinberg. One of their most controversial and misinterpreted collaborative studies was the Minnesota Transracial Adoption Project, which examined the IQ of 101 black children adopted into white families. Their findings revealed that rearing environments do affect children’s performance on intelligence tests; specifically IQ scores of the black children reared in white families relative to those reared in black families were significantly higher. Longitudinal examinations of these same children suggested that the effects of rearing environments are strongest in early childhood and dramatically decrease in adolescence. Although alternative explanations for the decrease in IQ scores may be attributable to environmental factors, such as conflicts surrounding dating and social identity during adolescence or the conflicts that might arise for nonwhite children living in a white environment with their white parents, the reduction of environmental influences in adolescence is well supported in the behavioral genetics literature. Scarr’s book Race, Social Class, and Individual Differences in I.Q. was published in 1981.
Scarr extended her work on gene-environment interactions through a series of theoretical and empirical papers. She and her colleagues proposed that the environments actively selected by individuals affect the genetic expression of characteristics such as personality. Further individuals’ characteristics evoke particular reactions from others in one’s environment. Thus the expression of a person’s genes has not only passive and active effects but also evocative effects.
Another branch of Scarr’s research program was geared toward improving the quality of child care environments. Scarr’s research with Margaret Williams, which demonstrated that stimulation practices (e.g., music exposure and rocking) had beneficial effects on premature infants’ subsequent growth and development, revolutionized the standards of neonatal care practices in hospital settings.
In 1984 Scarr published Mother Care/Other Care, for which she received the American Psychological Association’s (APA) National Book Award in 1985. In this topic Scarr identified deciding factors that influenced mothers’ reasons for entering the workforce as opposed to remaining at home. She also challenged the belief that maternal employment had negative effects on young children’s development and maintained that children can be well cared for by someone other than their parents. Her work also addressed the benefits of high-quality child care, particularly the importance of low child to caregiver ratios and stimulating day care environments.
In 1990 Scarr began serving on the board of directors of KinderCare Learning Centers, where she eventually served as chief executive officer from 1995 to 1997. Scarr moved to Hawaii after an investment firm purchased KinderCare.
Throughout her career, Scarr earned numerous awards and honors for her contributions to the science of psychology. In 1988 she received the first APA Award for the Distinguished Contribution to Research in Public Policy, and in 1989 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Scarr’s professional service included serving as the associate editor of American Psychologist, as editor of Developmental Psychology, and as cofounding editor of Current Directions in Psychological Science. Scarr also held several key leadership positions, including serving on the APA’s board of directors, as president of the Society for Research in Child Development, and as president of the American Psychological Society.
Ultimately, although controversial, Scarr’s contributions to the study of gene-environment interactions and the importance of quality child care defined and paved the intellectual path for contemporary and future generations of psychological scientists.