Jr. Brim, Orville (Gilbert), Jerome Kagan

Constancy & Change in Human Development

VTR Date: September 9, 1980

Guests: Brim, Orville (Gilbert), Jr.; Kagan, Jerome


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Dr. Orville Brim, Jr. with Jerome Kagan
Title: Constancy & Change in Human Development
VTR: 9/9/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our program today derives from a fascinating inquiry, one essentially into the nature of human nature. How malleable is it, are we? Should we look to constancy as the major element in human development, or to change? Now a volume of research into the compelling research in this are has just been published by Harvard University Press. It’s title, Consistency and Change in Human Development. It’s authors are my guests today: Dr. Orville G. Brim, psychologist, sociologist, long-time president of the Russell Sage Foundation, and now President of the Foundation for Child Development; and Dr. Jerome Kagan, Professor of Human Development at Harvard University, a much published expert in genitive and personality development in the first decade of life.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. Dr. Brim, Dr. Kagan, I’d be foolish to try to get into the more difficult and technician aspects of this volume. I don’t know enough to. But as a social scientist I had to note in the introductory chapter that you two gentlemen constructed, when you talk about planned social intervention and social policies for children, you say, “The chapters in this volume clearly have implications for policies of social investment in human development.” And I wondered precisely what you mean. What are the implications of the research into constancy and change, as you see them. Either one of you gentlemen perhaps begin.

BRIM: The main conclusion of the chapters of reviews of research suggests that the effects of early experience, early childhood experience are not as enduring nor as determining of how people will be later on when they become adults. So that the argument that one should invest heavily in childcare in order to produce strong healthy adults no longer has the research base that it did before. And this causes some consternation and some concern about what kind of policy there should be for children. What now are the promises, the assumptions on which one can invest in childcare? And it points towards a policy in this nation of childcare which treats children as ends in themselves. That is, children are to be cared for because they are alive and human beings and deserve the same care as anyone else. Not because they are some promise of fulfilling some adult plans for contribution to society.

HEFFNER: Does that mean that this volume undermines the efforts that I as a citizen might make or as someone watching might make to urge social agencies to invest more? You would urge the nation to invest more in programs that help children because change is itself so constant and we needn’t worry so very much about those early years? Is that…


HEFFNER: Dr. Kagan?


HEFFNER: That seems to be the implication.

KAGAN: No. I don’t think that is the implication. There are two issues here. Let’s deal with the one you first brought up with Burt, the cost benefit question. Because it has been a long tradition in the west to minimize the effect of external institutions, of the external context in which the child or adult operated, and to maximize his or her long history, when the society in the 19th century or part of the Second World War worried about school failure or a delinquent or an act of neurosis or psychosis, it asked first: What about the history of that person? Since it assumed a continuous line with no break, it was reasonable and logical to conclude that all this began in the beginning we would prevent all problems. I confess to you, Dick, that’s why I decided to become a child psychologist. I believe that. Now, what has happened is that we are gaining a richer appreciation which the east has always had. But institution, social arrangements, social contexts are very profound. And therefore, to be concrete, if the problem is vagrancy and delinquency among adolescents, maybe if we have a limited amount of resources to spend on prevention and cure, it is now reasonable to ask what I would want, what we would not do in the 19th century, maybe we should invest it in the structure of our schools rather than telling mothers what to do with their babies in the first year of life. That doesn’t say that what happens to babies in the first year is irrelevant; it just says perhaps the later events and structures are of greater importance. Now, that’s an important change.

HEFFNER: I remember first discussing this subject with Burt Brim some couple years ago and coming away from that discussion feeling that you were constructing in your researches a very optimistic approach to human development. Not a deterministic one, or at least determinism is spread over a lifetime, not focused in those first three years. What led to this change? This sounds a little bit like mea culpa I, in my early years, felt this way, and now know better. What led to a sense for change rather than constancy?

KAGAN: I think two things. One, events in the society. Educated adults like the three of us and all our colleagues out there saw well-brought-up, well-mannered, well-educated students suddenly show disruptive, discontinuous behavior. Seizing university buildings, going on drugs, dropping out of the society. That kind of discontinuity would lead anyone to question how constant certain dispositions are. That in my opinion was the most important fact. The second, fortunately, is more scientific. The first products of the longitudinal studies that were established in the United States during the ‘20s and early ‘30s, those first products were published. These were studies at Berkeley, in Denver, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where children, essentially middle-class, were followed for 20 or 25 years of life. And the results revealed a surprise to man social scientists. The surprise was that if you looked at gross, at what social scientists call normal behavior variables – how intelligent are you, how dependent are you, how passive are you, how aggressive are you, do you lose your easily – and try to trace the variation on those properties to what the children arrive during the first three years of life, because those did and were available, the results of these studies reveal that you could not predict from what the child was like at age three those adult properties. And those two facts have led to the questioning.

HEFFNER: You mean the old notion of the church: Give me a child until the age of three or four or five and we shall have molded the adult? That no longer holds?

BRIM: Yes. I think there’s something in addition that Jerry said that’s going on. And I think of it as an intellectual revolution taking place in the western world which we’re only now beginning to se the components of. In addition to the new scientific evidence that Jerry referred to, more people are trying to change themselves to be something more than they are today. When the work on the “Me generation” or the cultural narcissism and the popular works on people being concerned with themselves miss the point, I believe that what they’re trying to do is improve upon themselves, and I don’t view that as selfish. They’re trying to become something more than what they were before. That’s new in history. Earlier in history it was mainly the churches or other organized groups trying to change other people to make them conform to change in the direction that somebody else wanted them to be. This is internally paced change. Secondly, there’s a vast technology that’s arrived in the past 25, 30 years that involves neurochemistry and behavior modification and behavior therapy, gene transplants, different kinds of surgical techniques, so that biology and psychology, they used to be the sciences that studied the limits of human capacity to change, now there are great sources of power to change the human being. There are also a lot of social groups that have sprung up. Some say 6,000 national organized groups now exist to help support people in their desire to change themselves. And these range all the way from Alcoholics Anonyms, which is the preeminent, prototypical such group, to an organized group that would help you change almost any characteristic that you wanted to, including the new groups that will help people with terminal illness plan and follow through on their own suicide. The autumn of discontinuity, as we would say.

And finally social norms are easing up with respect to requiring certain kind of behavior of certain ages. The redistribution of work and education, leisure across the lifespan so that it doesn’t come in three limps correlated with the beginning, the middle, and the last part of life. You do not hear often that what someone does is not acting his or her age. There’s a great new technology, there is an internal wish to change, there are new social supports, there’s a loosening of social norms. They combine with the evidence that is reviewed in this volume. The evidence may indeed be new evidence. It may be that at another time, another era, another culture, the continuity from early infant experience to later life was greater because society was more stable. We live in a very fast-moving society. So that the evidence itself may be new and changing is the point. Scientists, not scientific evidence for once and all. But it’s clear that the opportunities for continuing investment after infancy through the social agencies, through the schools, other kinds of programs to intervene and help remedy and improve upon the quality of human development after infancy is the kind of child development policy we want, and it’s based on a new concept.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me that this volume appears now at a time when in our political life there seems to be every evidence of profound antagonism toward the kind of social engineering that the emphasis upon continuity being as inadequate assumption, and the assumption instead that change goes on from infancy through to the end of our lives. It seems to me that politically there have been so many people who have been saying we have tried to engineer too much. And you seem now to be offering a rationalization for engineering even more not just in those early years but beyond, way, way, way beyond. Now, how are we going to reconcile the political facts of our present lives with your research? Or do you feel that that’s not a valid…

KAGAN: I don’t think, Dick, that’s a valid…

BRIM: Sort of gerontology…

KAGAN: Yeah. I don’t think that’s a valid criticism. The point is that society has changed factually. More people live away from their family of ruling than have in a long time. More people travel. Divorce rates are high. People are adopting deviant – not in the valuative sense – that is less, non-normative styles of living.


BRIM: That affects everyone in the society because it leads every citizen to ask, “Well, look how that person changed.” There is a capacity for change. Now, that’s apolitical at the moment. As a matter of fact, often the politics will follow that social event.

HEFFNER: But politically it would seem in our country today that we’re listening to those who are saying there has been too much social engineering, that for the last half-century we’ve made every effort, we’ve made every effort, let’s say, in Headstart, going back to the younger years of our lives. And we’ve failed. We haven’t succeeded. We’ve interfered too much. We’ve aggregated ourselves knowledge of how to manipulate or engineer, and we haven’t done so very successfully, so let’s draw back.

KAGAN: Well, people forget that Headstart is alive and well. There are stills hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children in Headstart programs. It’s as strong as it was in the ‘60s. I don’t think it’s demonstrable that it failed. I think that new data show that the effects tend to be of longer term than we thought. They depend on the children being placed in the supportive social system, as common sense would tell you, if you have to have a follow-through with the school system. I think if you think not just in children but through the lifespan that the radical gerontology movement, the Gray Panthers and all, have brought about legislation which mandates intervention to improve the course of human development of the older population in this society to an extent never seen before in human history. And I think we haven’t seen but the beginning of the kind of political sponsored social intervention that will take place on behalf of older people. If you think of the support in adult education as a third of the population at any time in colleges are adults, that’s all, a lot of that is social engineering and social sponsored. So far as children are concerned, I think that there is some resistance to federal intervention with policies, but not on the grounds that families, that the boundary war between the family and the state which is enduring and has been for thousands of years continues as to who is going to do what to the nation’s children. And at the present time for the past five or six years I think there’s been a gaining on the part of the family defense of its boundary, so to speak, against the state attempt to introduce health programs, educational programs. But I think long term, the evidence clearly indicates that it’s possible to improve upon the course of human development through planned social programs, and that’s the way this country and the western world is going.

KAGAN: I’d just add one, Dick.


KAGAN: Take the change in the legal status of women. Politically to have women enter West Point, for example, so that women and men, that the old sex type standards will vanish, which is a product of political action, is one of the best examples of the relationship between the politics of the society and its receptivity to change. Because the sex roles represent one of the last bastions of the belief in continuity of certain attitudes, motives and behaviors.

HEFFNER: Well, then let me ask this question: Has the emphasis, the shifting emphasis from constancy, emphasis upon those first three years, first four years, first five years, to change throughout life, has that change been a function of success or of failure? Has it been a function of such great success with the first three years and the first four years that now we march on throughout man’s development? Or has it been a function of, “That hasn’t worked as well as we had hoped it would. Perhaps it hasn’t worked well at all. Let’s move on to other years, the later years?”

BRIM: That’s interesting.

KAGAN: No, I don’t think…

HEFFNER: No? Is it failure or success that’s led to this?

KAGAN: I don’t think that’s a fair way to put it. I would say, all right, it is a failure of the first set of scientific studies, crude as they are, to verify the old dogma. Now…

HEFFNER: Because you yourself said you began with embracing the old dogma.

KAGAN: Fine. Yeah. All right. Failure to affirm the traditional assumption.

BRIM: Jerry has changed his mind. It’s important that, if we could get him to tell you a paragraph on an intellectual saga that he went through, because it’s well-known and it really epitomizes what happened, I think.

KAGAN: Yeah. I was trained in my university to be incontinuity, my coach had taught me continuity. So when I decided to be an empirical scientists, I decided what I would do is I would spend my career showing with good data what everyone believed to be true. And I spent 20 years, the best years of my life, trying and having nature tell me each time maybe the idea is less correct than you think. That’s what Burt’s referring to.

HEFFNER: So that it’s not fair then, you’re suggesting, to relate that to the new emphasis upon change? What I’m really asking is, you know, can you find anything that works, constancy or change? Or is there just a movement, a shrugging of the shoulders and saying, “That one sure as hell didn’t work. Let’s look to the other.”

KAGAN: Well, what do you mean by “works?” I don’t understand.

HEFFNER: That you develop evidence that indicates that social intervention based upon constancy…

BRIM: Something has a lasting effect.

KAGAN: Oh, I see.

BRIM: As contrasted with a human development policy that requires continual investment through the lifespan, monitoring the course, and not assuming that anything is ever fixed and stays in one place because of something that happened earlier.

HEFFNER: And demanding therefore so much more from society. Wouldn’t that be a fair characterization?

BRIM: You would say demanding more of society. I would say providing many more opportunities to intervene and correct a course of human development. And mind you, you asked about political there’s a very profound political point involved which is that the assumption that the characteristics of human beings are fixed once and for all because of how they were born or something that occurred in the first three years of life may be good for the church if the church says, “Give me your children and I will make them what I will,” or good for society if they want to produce certain kinds of citizens. But it permits society to sweep under the rug the problems of the poor and the problems of those born less fortunate with experiences and promotes a sexist and racist and an elitist philosophy of human development which allows the well-to-do and the elite to turn their backs after the age of three on all of society’s problems. That’s where a lot of that political reaction comes in. In that sense, the idea of a continuous and open development does put a demand on society to do more than it would otherwise, because it is remedial.

HEFFNER: You see, I’ve sat here week after week talking with many people in many different areas of life about subjects that relate to this. Let’s take the question of recidivism in terms of prison reform. And again and again there seems to be this combination of speaking poor and finding the justification for doing so and saying, “But they didn’t change anyway. I mean, there they are, if not by three by thirteen they’re a hardened criminal, that’s it. Lock ‘em up. Throw away the key.” You’re optimistic. You’re…

BRIM: Well, there’s a volume by Hugh Klein on the criminal career in this book, this chapter by Klein in this volume, demonstrates that there is no solid data that permits you to say that the same person who commits a crime in adulthood had any criminal behavior later or vice versa. That the young criminal, the child, the adolescent criminal engages in criminal behavior later essentially. It’s different people committing different crimes at different ages. So the recidivism argument and the fact that you can’t change people, which is what they usually say, therefore you shouldn’t try, does not stand up in the face of the data which is that youthful crime disappears by itself.

HEFFNER: How sanguine are you gentlemen that an emphasis upon change will be embraced by our society?

KAGAN: I am not sanguine, because America unfortunately is still social Darwinian. You said, “Capacity for change.” Let’s take the simple oyster, where you would expect constancy from that oyster, until you pollute the pond, and then soon you have no more constancy. What we don’t appreciate in our society, which the east does, is that a benevolent support of environment is necessary at all times. I am not sanguine, and it makes me sad because potentially we could be, because it is really an act of faith in the west, especially the United States, that a commitment to changing the environment toward more benevolent properties would work. And for that reason the capacity for change may not be realized.

HEFFNER: That question, I think, is very, very basic to this whole business. I read your volume or read through it with great interest and concern, and then wonder whether in reality you are reaching a public or can reach a public that is ready for this message, the emphasis upon change rather than constancy in human development. This is the point, of course, at which I have to say that our time is up, gentlemen. I do appreciate your joining me today, Orville Brim, Jerome Kagan. Thank you. I hope you come back again to The Open Mind.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will also join us again on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”