A Challenge to Some Well-Accepted Beliefs. – Review – book review

Mark Durm

Three Seductive Ideas. By Jerome Kagan. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000. ISBN 0-674-89033-7. 232 pp., Paperback, $14.95.

Ideas can seduce society. Ideas can seduce scientists. Ideas can even seduce skeptics. To this point, Jerome Kagan, a world-renowned developmental psychologist, writes, “… Sadly, the gut feeling that an idea is right is a poor guide to truth.” Kagan, in this provocative and powerful work, challenges three well-respected and accepted beliefs. Not only does he challenge the gut feelings of social and behavioral scientists, but he bravely challenges the philosophical foundations upon which these sciences are built.

Just what are these three seductive ideas of which Kagan is skeptical? They are: (1) the universal appeal of psychological processes; (2) “infant determinism,” and (3) the “pleasure principle” as the origin of moral behavior. He says Three Seductive Ideas was written with skepticism. His conclusions are: (1) that many psychological processes do not generalize broadly; (2) that most adaptive adult characteristics are not determined by experiences of the first two years; and (3) that the majority of our daily decisions are issued in the service of gaining or maintaining a feeling of virtue and nor in gaining or maintaining pleasure.

I’ll rake up each of Kagan’s challenges in order individually.

(1) “Many psychological processes do not generalize broadly.”

Kagan strongly believes, and offers ample documentation, that abstract processes such as intelligence, learning, communication, memory, depression, cooperation, avoidance, and fear are not measurable entities as usually considered by today’s social scientists. Kagan writes “… if psychology (like philosophy) is to be informative, it has to descend from a global to a more local level.”

An example, according to Kagan, of an abstract psychological process that has been generalized too broadly is “fear.” He believes that in everyday conversation certain words are used to stuff dissimilar phenomena into the same drawer for the sake of efficiency.” For example, “fear” to a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist is a patient describing a phobia of restaurants while to a neuroscientist it is a rat freezing when a tone associated with shock is presented. Kagan believes that a problem with the scientific literature is that scholars use words and sentences in a global nature for the sake of efficiency. When “fear” is used to describe and measure many things that are dissimilar, it doesn’t adequately describe or measure a thing. Therefore, “fear” should specify the class of agent (rats or humans), the context (a laboratory or a restaurant), and the source of the evidence (freezing to a tone or ordering from the menu). Thus, “fear” does not generalize broadly.

Another example of a psychological process that has universal appeal is “intelligence.” Kagan argues that “g” (general intelligence) has never been proven. He writes, “The defenders of g … fail to appreciate that organs and physiological systems develop independently. No single general factor can represent the growth rates of the diverse classes of cells, tissues, and organs in animals or humans. The description “intelligent” is frequently found in sentences that are indifferent to the age and background of the person (or sometimes the animal species) or the evidential basis for the assignment.” Thus, again, a psychological process does not generalize broadly. Although Kagan never uses the two German terms, he argues that social and behavioral scientists deny the zeitgeist (“spirit of the time”) and ortgeist (“spirit of the place”) when defining the psychological processes they study.

(2) “Most adaptive adult characteristics are not determined by experiences of the first two years.

Kagan strongly argues against “infant determinism,” the idea that the first two years of a human’s life is a very critical period in development. Kagan writes, “To the disappointment of many, it has proven difficult to find critical periods in human development that are as robust as the discoveries

with ducklings and kittens.”

He adds:

… the evidence does not support infant determinism…. The thousands of infants who will be born today across the world will experience very different environments in their first two years. Some will be raised by surrogate caretakers in kibbutzim; some will be cared for by grandmothers or older sisters; some will attend day care centers; some will remain at home with their mothers. Some will have many toys; some will have none. Some will spend the first year in a dark, quiet hut wrapped in old rags; some will crawl in brightly lit rooms full of toys, picture books, and television images. But despite this extraordinary variation in early experience, excluding the small proportion with serious brain damage or a genetic defect, most will speak before they are two years old, become self-conscious by the third birthday, and be able to assume some family responsibilities by age seven. The psychological differences among these children are trivial when compared with the long list of similarities.

Kagan doesn’t deny that infant experiences have influence, but does deny the fixity of the first two years. He claims that good rigorous research does not support the proponents of connectedness who believe that early experiences will be neither transformed nor eliminated by later events.

There are, however, three aspects of human existence that Kagan does believe are very critical. They are birth order, identification, and historical era (again, historical era refers to the zeitgeist and ortgeist of an individual). He supports his belief in these three areas by quoting well-documented and rigorously researched studies.

(3) “The majority of our daily decisions are issued in the service of gaining or maintaining a feeling of virtue.”

In this last challenge, Kagan refutes the “Pleasure Principle.” This is the idea that when a person consciously selects one act over another, he does so to attain a conscious feeling of pleasure that originates in changes in one or several sensory modalities. Those who adhere to this concept believe that sensory pleasure is the basis of all morality, that is, a child experiences a reduction in fear and thus an increasing sensory pleasure when he conforms to adult demands. Over time, obeying family and community standards becomes a habit, a moral. Moreover, the pleasure principle postulates the continuist premise, which is evolutionary in nature. Darwin believed that conscience or ethics in humans was a product of the social behavior of animals. But which ethics of humans?

Kagan writes:

Anyone with a modest knowledge of animal behavior and only minimal inferential skill can find examples of animal behavior to support almost any ethical message desired. Those who wish sanctify the institution of marriage can point to the pair bonding of gibbons; those who think infidelity is more natural can point to chimpanzees. If you believe that people are naturally sociable, point to baboons; if you think they are solitary, point to orangutans. If you believe sex should replace fighting, point to rhesus monkeys; if you prefer the father to be the primary caretaker, point to titi monkeys. If you believe that surrogate care is closer to nature, point to lionesses. If you are certain that men should dominate harems of beautiful women, point to elephant seals; if you believe women should be in positions of dominance, point to elephants. Nature has enough diversity to fit almost any ethical taste.

Kagan says that it is an error to assume that any human ethic is a clear product of some particular class of animal behavior.

How then does Kagan believe a human’s conscience develops? He gives it a very cognitive orientation:

The human capacity for a moral motive and its associated emotions took from our primate ancestry a keen sensitivity to the voice, face, and actions of others but added five unique abilities: (1) to infer the thoughts and feelings of others; (2) to be self-aware; (3) to apply the categories of good and bad events and to self; (4) to reflect on past actions; and (5) to know that a particular act could have been suppressed. The combination of these five talents created a novel system that first emerges in children in the second year and matures during the decade that follows.

Thus to Kagan, a neurological foundation shaped by familial and sociological expectations creates virtue in the human species.

In an epilogue, Kagan offers four constructive maxims for those who work in social and behavioral sciences: (1) Full sentences, please–meaning that social and behavioral scientists should state in more detail the specific form of the association between past and present in order to generally claim that early events must have some future consequences; (2) A plenitude of procedures that includes verbal statements, observed behaviors, and measurement of central and peripheral physiology which should all be used when describing the habits, feelings, and contents of the mind; (3) Consider categories of qualitative aspects of individual differences as well as quantitative variations. For example, each current personality type should be replaced with categories that recognize the person’s temperament, developmental history, and adult characteristics; and finally, (4) acknowledge minds by urging those who study humans to seek how the person interprets experience and the differences between experiences. Kagan believ es that humans interpret change in complex, symbolic methods that are impossible in other animals.

Ideas can seduce, but scientists, society, and especially skeptics may be now less vulnerable, thanks to Jerome Kagan. May it be recognized that feeling an idea is right can be a poor guide to truth and that well respected and accepted beliefs should be challenged.

Mark Durm is a professor of psychology at Athens State University, Athens, Alabama.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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