In a series of essays, philosopher-king Jerome Kagan contemplates just how much we can predict about children and about our own society's future.
By some measures, we have entered the century of the unvanquished underdog and the imperiled elite.
Seventy percent of The New York Times's best books of 2014 focused on the ordeals of victims, as did half the Oscar-winning films in the first decade of this century. At the same time, eminent developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan notes in On Being Human: Why Mind Matters, there's a drive to demote historical and contemporary elites. The most recent biographies of George Washington, he points out, relish details of his vanity and status-consciousness, characterizations that somehow escaped report for two centuries.
Kaja Perina is Editor in Chief of Psychology Today. Prior to PT I worked at magazines large and small; defunct and very much still alive (RIP Brill's Content; not going anywhere soon: Vogue). Before that I worked briefly in wire services and even more briefly in television news. My own writing for PT is anthologized in The Best American Science Writing series. The question I'm most frequently asked is whether I have formal training in psychology. My stock reply was once: "Only if you count years of psychotherapy." I now tell people simply, and no less honestly, that lifelong curiosity about human behavior is ample schooling. As to formal schooling, I hold degrees from Vassar College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Kagan writes that back in 2000, at the last Harvard faculty meeting he attended, the subject of debate was whether to send out death notices, printed on costly paper, to alert the community to a retired faculty member's death. The junior faculty argued that all employees, including janitors and buildings-and-grounds officers, deserved such honor.
Kagan's attention to the contemporary status gradient has nothing to do with snobbery. He is best known for longitudinal studies that begin in infancy and trace the development of personality well into adulthood. The interaction of temperament and parenting style are the variables most commonly teased out in his work, yet Kagan believes that early identification with a social class and family pedigree are important and vastly understudied influences on people's self-concept. He goes so far as to surmise that membership in a blue-blooded family was characterologically defining for Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill. These iconoclasts' willingness to pursue radically unpopular ideas would not have been predicted based on the men's temperament or parental input, respectively. Darwin was famously anxious and Churchill endured parenting so neglectful that Kagan finds it "impossible" to explain Churchill's adult personality without factoring in his youthful identification with an elite family.
In Kagan's essays one encounters a thinker galvanized by the existence of complex processes that emerge over time. He is eager to unpack the human genome and quick to marvel that our present-day longevity results from a mere century of medical advances—in a species that is more than 100,000 years old. Kagan has spent his career mapping subtle, overlapping inputs on human development, and he applies this same long lens to the workings of society, reaching across the centuries for insight. In thinking about increased hostility to the elite, for example, Kagan doesn't simply identify a trend, such as the growing refusal to accord politicians, doctors, or Harvard professors special status. He wonders where it will lead, drawing parallels to the Reformation, on the one hand, in which challenges to authority resulted in equality and opportunity for more individuals; and to the fraying of the social contract on the other, wherein discredited professionals essentially conform to lowered expectations, casualties of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Kagan's own work centered on infant temperament and revealed its predictive limits, signal research that has repercussions for anyone interested in personality or resilience. We want to believe that early disposition and parental input are incredibly developmentally important, partly, he argues, because these are easily observable data points. But in fact, the degree to which an infant demonstrates a secure attachment style at 15 months is unrelated to attachment style at age 18. Indeed, he finds that family social status is a better predictor of adolescent temperament than is infant attachment style. As to parenting, barring sexual abuse and extreme neglect, no action is predictive of any clear outcome independent of how a child views it, and a child's interpretation of events will always trump that of a parent or observer.
If there is a central motif to these wide-ranging essays it is the exquisite importance of context in shaping both deep-seated beliefs and scientific "facts." Kagan questions the utility of extrapolating from animal models to complex traits found only in humans, and archly notes that many a neuroscientist's standard disclaimer is, "Yes, there must be differences between apes and humans, but not in the part of the brain that I study." Psychological terms such as stress can mislead because they evoke subjective interpretations that terms like default network or dopamine do not. And because the terminology of neuroscience borrows the language of everyday experience in attempting to describe brain circuitry, even though brains are never truly "fearful" or "nostalgic," Kagan argues that nothing short of a new vocabulary is warranted to describe what truly occurs when an emotion or thought is produced by neurocircuitry. He wonders whether scientists and the media are too quick to explain personality traits as primarily biological when the same trait might manifest in two individuals for entirely different reasons. "An affluent white lawyer who was continually suspicious of her employer and the shopkeepers she patronized would be diagnosed as having a paranoid personality," he writes. "Social scientists from Washington University in St. Louis argue that this diagnosis is inappropriate for poor black adults who hold the same beliefs, because they have a more realistic basis for their suspicions."
Kagan is relentlessly, refreshingly diachronic in his thinking, and he's fond of describing "cascades" of events. How much did chance encounters with peers and professors turn Stalin from a conscientious seminary student into an ideological psychopath; Herbert Hoover from an orphan into a man who fortuitously hit it rich in Australia, enabling him to enter politics; or Kagan himself from a child scarred by the Depressioninto a biochemistry enthusiast who took a detour into the developmental amphitheater? The answer to each is in an absolute sense unknowable, but it is some combination of temperament, aptitude, personality, values, cognitivestyle, self-concept, and ultimately, if latter-day excoriations of George Washington are to be believed, the historical milieu in which a biographer works. This book is a paradigm-shattering guide to the rich mystery of each human mind.