Posts Tagged ‘Born to Rebel’

Two Books by Judith Rich Harris

September 16, 2017

Today, I recommend two excellent books on psychology, both by Judith Rich Harris, an American freelance researcher. The Nurture Assumption (1998; subtitle: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do) had been lying around in my bookshelves for several years until I stumbled upon a commendatory mention in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (also interesting but not as important and revolutionary). My interest having been reawakened, I finally started reading it. I devoured the book. Immediately after finishing with it I ordered her second (popular) book: No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (2006). It, too, was a very good read, highly interesting and illuminating. (If you’re German, you may prefer the German translations, whose titles are Ist Erziehung sinnlos? and Jeder ist anders.)

The topic of Harris’s books is the question of what factors govern the development of personality, i.e., of the more or less stable and measurable characteristics of ourselves that determine how we usually tend to feel, think and act. For virtually all of us, the first answer that comes to mind will be that a central factor is the way children are raised in their families, or more general, the experiences they make with their parents (or foster parents, as the case may be) and siblings (if such there are). This is “nurture”, but of course there is also “nature”, as most of us are nowadays ready to admit (though not all – read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate): our genetic endowment also influences how we turn out. This latter thesis is quite well corroborated scientifically. The received view in psychology is that the former thesis (the “nurture assumption”) is true as well, so that our genes and our family environment together determine what kind of adult we become. Psychologists believe that they have verified countless ways in which the home environment shapes personality.

The books I am writing about have two central purposes. One is, to discredit the nurture assumption and the studies that allegedly support it: the family environment is actually irrelevant in the long run. The other is, to explain where the many nongenetic differences between individuals come from. What is it that makes even identical twins raised in the same family grow into adults who are markedly different from each other? (This is the leitmotif of No Two Alike.)

The studies usually read as supporting the nurture assumption have serious flaws. For example, they ignore possible genetic determinants of behavior (e.g., is the child aggressive because the parents behave aggressively – or because it has inherited their propensity to aggressiveness?) or they interpret B‘s being statistically correlated to A as B‘s being caused by A, where it is just as possible that A is caused by B or that both are caused by a third factor (e.g., is the child difficult because the parents are strict – or are the parents strict because the child is difficult?). What these studies do is that, in interpreting their data, they already presuppose the nurture assumption; thus it is small wonder they obtain it as a result. In some places the intricacies of Harris’s explanations of statistical interrelations are a bit hard to follow for laymen such as me. I guess that’s due to the books being aimed at not just lay but also academic readers. But never mind if you do not perfectly understand those parts; the majority of the content is about things much more interesting and much better comprehensible than those fine points of statistics.

After trashing the nurture assumption, Harris attempts to supplant it with a viable alternative explanation of how children are socialized and personality is developed. Where does this happen, if not in the family environment? In the peer group, she suggests: in the group(s) of children the child plays with and goes to school with. She calls this group socialization theory in her first book. The idea is roughly that children adopt the behaviors, ideas and values of the childrens’ group(s) they belong to, while also trying to set themselves apart from groups they see themselves as decidedly not belonging to (e.g., girls vs. boys, jocks vs. nerds). Harris often juxtaposes this process with that of language acquisition (which might be considered as just a part of socialization): if the language (or dialect or accent) spoken at home is different from the one spoken in the peer group then what becomes the child’s native tongue is the language, not of the home, but of the peer group. She also motivates her account of socialization by recourse to evolutionary considerations: it wouldn’t make evolutionary sense for the child to adapt to an environment and a culture other than the ones she will have to function in as an adult.

Then, in No Two Alike, Harris presents her account of how we develop our personalities. You have to persevere through the first five chapters, where she knocks out the competition – endure the statistics! The really interesting stuff starts in Chapter 6. Here, she relies heavily on evolutionary psychology, in particular the theory of the modular mind, which says that the mind/brain is not a uniform all-purpose organ but rather made up out of lots of specialized sub-organs, or modules, each with its own specific purpose and method of operation and also with its own weaknesses (read, e.g., Pinker’s How the Mind Works). She postulates three such modules. The relationship system is interested in individual people: what should I expect him to do? how should I deal with her? The socialization system is interested in types of people: what types (what social categories) are there? what is the prototypical member of a given category like? what is the appropriate behavior for him or her? which categories do I belong to? Its purpose is to make you conform to the norms of the group(s) you belong to. Lastly, there is the status system. This system makes you compete for higher status within the group. It is interested in your rank in the group’s pecking order and how to raise it: do the others dominate you or look up to you? do they pay attention to what you say? do they look at you often? what are you good at, compared with the other members of your group? what style of interaction (aggressive, deferential, funny …) works for you, in the group? what activity is it worth for you to specialize in? what goals are attainable for you? In the end, this system makes you carve out (depending on your strengths and your weaknesses) your own personal niche in your group and in society – including your character or personality.

Both books are very well written and fun to read (although, reading No Two Alike, I sometimes felt that there could have been better transitions between paragraphs, to make it easier to see how the next one connects logically to the previous one). Along the way you learn lots of interesting stuff besides the central points. But most importantly, these books revolutionize our understanding of personality and psychological development, and that is why I strongly suggest reading them.

In a way, it is ironic that I recommend Harris’s books so warmly, because some years ago I recommended, equally heartily, Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel – and that is a book Harris tears apart. It is about the hypothesis that personality is strongly influenced by birth order: that firstborns tend to be dominant and conservative, while laterborns tend to be cooperative and open to revolutionary ideas. But Harris argues that Sulloway’s meta-study is deeply flawed in many ways (statistics again …). What really can be inferred from the studies is that, while birth order does have effects of the kind mentioned within the family context, it does not have them outside, and so it doesn’t help determine your character but just the way you treat your siblings.

I was dissatisfied with Harris’s characterization of autism in the books (she mentions it two or three times), but that may be just because the scientific understanding of autism has changed a lot in the last few years. For her, autism entails “mind-blindness”: being incapable of understanding what goes on in other people’s minds, maybe even of recognizing that other people have minds in the first place. But nowadays autism is considered rather as a spectrum of disorders, where mind-blindness is an extreme manifestation. Autists do have difficulties reading people’s emotions off their faces, and interpreting what they think and want, but these difficulties need not be severe. Nevertheless Harris’s point that autists are (more or less) ill equipped for social interaction and thus ill suited for socialization, remains valid: they are less interested in what others want and think, what others approve and disapprove of; and insofar as they are interested they are less capable of finding out. This weakness of the socialization system also impairs the functioning of the status system. I do not understand these matters well, but I think that they illuminate a fact about myself I noticed years ago (I’m rather sure I’m an autist myself, to wit, an Asperger): I was for a long time uncertain (that is, more uncertain than most other people, I believe) about what sort of person I am – e.g., nice or selfish, weird or ordinary – and what I am good at, and how good. If one obtains this sort of knowledge by interpreting others’ reactions to oneself, and if you are bad at doing that, then you will know less than other people, or know it later. I suppose my self-knowledge and my self-appreciation still reside more on an intellectual level than being deeply ingrained as gut feelings.

Another point of detail: In No Two Alike, Harris coins the term “anti-meme”, and as I am quite interested in memes (not in the modern sense of internet crazes but in Dawkins’ original sense; read The Selfish Gene) I was eager to learn what that was supposed to mean and what she was going to do with it. This was a double disappointment, however. The first disappointment was that Harris gave an incorrect or at least misleading characterization of memes:

Cultural transmission by memes is analogous to genetic transmission by genes: bits of culture are passed from one generation to the next, with successful variations promulgating themselves and unsuccessful ones dying out. (No Two Alike, p. 157)

For one thing, it would be better to say, “cultural transmission of memes”: the memes are what is transmitted. Second, memes are not only passed from one (biological) generation to the next but can rather be passed every which way. Third, Harris makes natural selection among memes sound tautological, because for a meme to promulgate itself just means that it is successful. It would be more correct to say that variations well-suited (“well-designed”, “fit”) to promulgate themselves tend to do so.

The other disappointment was that neither are anti-memes clearly explained or defined (what does an anti-meme do, in contrast to a meme?) nor is the term really useful, in my opinion. The phenomenon to be explained is well captured by Harris’s concept of “group contrast effects”: when two separate, disjoint groups of people are salient, their members tend to emphasize and amplify the existing cultural differences, with the result that contrasting group (sub)cultures develop. And I think this already contains all the term “anti-meme” is intended to convey: If you believe that meme X is typical of the other group then, wishing to emphasize how different your group is from theirs, you declare the meme anti-X to be typical of your group. Thus the meme anti-X spreads in your group, because the other members want to be good members, fully exemplifying the group culture. By having been declared part of the group culture, anti-X becomes an attractive meme in your group (it becomes “memetically fitter” than X and any intermediate variant in that environment), and thus anti-X becomes part of the group culture as embodied in the members’ behavior. So, all you really need is the concept of meme. – However, I see now that I have probably misunderstood Harris’s idea. I thought she wanted to introduce a new category of things, distinct from memes, but it seems what she really wanted was to introduce a kind of function on memes (like the mathematical function that maps each number to its square, e.g., 3 to 9): for some (or all?) memes X there is an opposite meme, which you might call “anti-X“, and in group contrast effects a group adopts the anti-memes to those of the competing group.

So, this disappointment has been mostly resolved (she could have expressed this more clearly and I could have read her more charitably), and anyway these are all just minor misgivings. Overall, these are great and important books and you should go and read them (or put them on your reading stack) ASAP.