The Cinderella Syndrome: waiting to be rescued or waiting to be killed?


Cinderella (Image:

Most people would think that the Cinderella Syndrome (or Effect) is an attitude in young women where they believe a handsome man will come and rescue them from their unhappy state and they will 'live happily ever after'.

Much as Cinderella was rescued by the handsome prince.

However, there is a much more sinister Cinderella Effect whereby step-children are treated so badly by their step-parents that they are seriously injured or even die.

Could this be an echo of some biological phenomena which are well known to animal behaviourists?

Does it have its roots way back at the genetic level and give credence to Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene Theory?

Step-fathers kill their step-children at 100 times the rate that children are killed by genetic parents

Saturn devours his son by Goya

Saturn devours his son by Goya

Data drawn from a number of countries has been used to compare abuse of children between non-genetic resident parents and biological parents. Despite the limitations and paradoxes of the available data, they present some sobering facts:

In Australia the estimated relative risk of death from step-fathers vs genetic fathers exceeds 300-fold.

In the USA stepchildren were killed by non-genetic fathers at about 100 times the rate for same-age children living with two genetic parents.

Interviews with step-children routinely reported much higher rates of both physical and sexual abuse.

Surveys of runaway youth indicated a very large proportion had fled step-families in which they were subjected to abuse.

Many studies reported that step-children left home at a younger age and cited family conflict as the reason.

Step-children exhibited reduced growth and had chronically higher circulating levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

The Bruce Effect in laboratory mice is where females abort fetuses when a new dominant male is introduced into their cage

Adult mouse with pups

Adult mouse with pups

It is well know that, in certain mammals, an incoming dominant male will kill the offspring of previous dominant males when they take over.

Probably less well know is the Bruce Effect, discovered by the British zoologist Hilda Bruce, where a high proportion of pregnant females will abort their fetuses in response to a takeover by a new dominant male. More and more species are being added to the list as studies progress: lions, certain monkeys, gelada baboons and several rodent species.

It is likely that by aborting their fetuses, females not only avoid the waste of energy involved in producing new offspring just for them to be killed, but they reduce the time to when they can conceive the offspring of the new dominant male.

One cannot help noticing the striking similarities between the Cinderella Effect in humans and the Bruce Effect recorded in other mammals

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