Michael Lewis

Why The Past Does Not Predict The Future, Part I

VTR Date: September 10, 1997

Dr. Michael Lewis discusses his rejection of historicism.


GUEST: Dr. Michael Lewis
VTR: 9/10/1997

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I daresay that any distinguished researcher and scholar who seriously and systematically calls into question the philosophical and psychological “givens” or assumptions on which we base much of what we think about the nature of human nature and of human development, and then what we do or do not do about it, demands and deserves our fully open-minded attention.

Well, my guest today is just such a scholar: Michael Lewis, University Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and Director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. His compelling new book, Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future, poses for us the absolute need to reassess much of our thinking about what to do, and to what end, in any number of troublesome areas of our national life.

Now, of course, I was trained as a historian. And though I know full well that only historians repeat themselves; history doesn’t. The very sense of an inexorable causal movement from past to present to posterity tends to dominate my own thinking. Which is why I’ve been so intrigued by my guest’s rejection of historicism, and his insistence upon altering, instead of accepting, man’s fate.

Indeed, let me first ask Dr. Lewis what the likely social and political consequences are of what Jerome Bruner calls my guest’s “rejection and refutation of simple causal models of human development.”

LEWIS: Well, the first problem is, of course, to get people to reconsider widely held and deeply held assumptions about that the past affects the future. But if we should be fortunate enough to be willing to consider that, the implications, I think, are enormous. They involve both how we parent as well as how the society decides to treat children and families.

HEFFNER: In what way? How do they impact?

LEWIS: For example, our social policy is really based on a simple kind of model that I have called “inoculation model.” As you know, in medicine, we inoculate children in order to prevent them from becoming diseased later. And in human-development models, we claim we can do the same thing. We claim that, if we give children either very good early childhoods, or unfortunately they receive very bad ones, they are then doomed for the future.

Our social-policy model is based upon the idea of let’s give children in the first few years of life some very good experiences. We will therefore inoculate them against all sorts of hardships and misfortunes which may or may not befall them in the future.

Now, it turns out that not only does that model not work, but it also turns out, interestingly enough, it’s a model on the cheap.

HEFFNER: What do you mean?

LEWIS: Well, if you think about it, if we have a limited amount of money to spend in our society on children (and, unfortunately, we spend far too little), then we will say, “Well, how can I spend my dollar in the best way?” And such a model of historicism says, “Well, the best place to spend that dollar is in early childhood.” If, in fact, you don’t believe that early childhood will, in fact, inoculate a child against the potential misfortunes that may befall it later, then you have to be prepared to spend more than that dollar in early childhood. You have to be prepared to spend it throughout the child’s life.

You know, it’s somewhat like going to a rich school system. I live in Princeton, New Jersey, and it’s a rich community. And going to the school board and say, “Well, folks, you should only be spending your money on the first few grades of school. Now, you can now withdraw all that money, and we can spend it on roads or more traffic lights, or what we’d like, because we don’t need to spend it. Let’s give the children very good kindergarten, first- and second-grade experiences. And we don’t have to worry about them in high school.”

HEFFNER: But, you know, it’s funny. As I read Altering Fate — and it is a fascinating book — I thought to myself, “This scholar is spitting against the wind,” because there are so many people today, and in the academic, and in the foundation world, who say, “Shame on us. Shame on America. We do not spend enough on the early years. We do not pay enough attention to those crucial, crucial years,” following the model that you deplore. That if we do it once and for all at the beginning, with that inoculation, as you call it, we’re home safe. But they maintain we don’t even do that.

LEWIS: Yes. Certainly one is not going to make a claim where the limited dollar should be spent. If the book, if the idea has any impact, it should be that we don’t spend enough money on our youth, on our children, on the resource for the future. And that, not only should we spend it in early childhood — I have no argument with that — but that that is not sufficient, that won’t do the trick.

You know, many years ago I was consultant for a project in Philadelphia. And they took teenage moms with no education, from poverty environment, and they thought, “Well, let’s take the baby at birth and put the baby, naked, on the mother, also naked.” And they called that “bonding.” And they really believed that if they gave that child and that mother five minutes of physical contact at the beginning of life, that that child and mom would be fine, in spite of the fact that that mom was going to leave that hospital, was going to go home to a crime-ridden community, that she wasn’t well educated, unlikely to find a job.

Now, anyone who would think that that early experience could impact forever on that child and mom’s life is simply not looking at what turns out to be a rich data source which says that doesn’t work.

HEFFNER: Well, this determinism — and it is a kind of determinism; you do this, and everything will be all good, or all bad, as you suggested, for the rest of the child’s life — you obviously have fixed your canon against determinism of any time.

LEWIS: I have, because I believe that one of the major characteristics of human beings is adaptation. Borrowing from evolutionary theory, from Darwin, I believe that the human species’ most powerful capacity, the brain, is designed as an organ, not to breathe, not to digest food, but to adapt to environments. And over and over again we are confronted with the capacity of that organ to alter behavior on the basis of what is required in the present moment.

HEFFNER: Wouldn’t that make you, philosophically, psychologically, politically, the darling of the right?

LEWIS: It’s an interesting question you pose. Indeed it has set me, by taking this nondeterministic point of view, and by arguing against the first three years as the determinant, has, in fact, put me against many of my friends, colleagues, and marching friends. I consider myself politically progressive. And I don’t think that it is, in fact, a position of the right.

Let me explain…

HEFFNER: Please.

LEWIS: …by taking the child who has a bad few years in the first few years of life. Given the determinist model, given this model that the early years are going to determine the future, what we have here is a child who is likely, under this view, to simply not ever be able to succeed. One would argue that one should therefore not spend any money on them. Why bother? It’s been a spoiled childhood. In fact, even among the middle class, among people who parent well, the fear of parents that somehow they didn’t give their children what they needed in those first few years, and therefore their children are doomed, is a very negative view. From the point of view of a political stance, one could argue, from a determinist perspective, “We don’t have to spend any money on them.” I’m arguing just the opposite: That there’s always a chance.

HEFFNER: That’s the absolutely intriguing point that I find in the book. That’s ridiculous to say. There are many intriguing points. But, as I read you, it’s quite clear you’re saying, “Do more. Do it constantly.” And when you, in your chapter on “Cure or Care,” you really bring us to the point where we see the hypocrisy involved in the notion of, “We’ve got to cure, because if we don’t cure, and we really don’t care after that, and we don’t have the obligations.” You put your emphasis more upon the moral obligation to look after our children than the psychological obligation. Is that a fair way?

LEWIS: I think so. I mean, one of the things that I find very striking is a contradiction within the field itself. And I’ll use psychoanalysis as an example for us. Freud, on the one hand, had a very deterministic kind of theory of development in which it wasn’t the first three years, in his case; it was the first six. In Bolbley’s attachment view it’s the first year. In the bonding literature, it’s the first five minutes. But, no matter what, those early years were going to determine the characteristic of the adult: Who you were going to marry, what kind of life you were going to have. So, on the one hand, you have a very deterministic theory to explain how the child develops.

On the other hand, you have psychotherapy. And psychotherapy says, “I have an environmental procedure — now, it’s a unique procedure, but nonetheless a procedure — which can alter the past’s effect on the future.” So the practice of therapy belies the theory that underlies it. It’s been a contradiction in psychoanalytic thought, which, after all, is a very powerful idea with a very powerful developmental theme. It’s been that contradiction; it’s been in place from the very beginning.

HEFFNER: How do you explain it? Not in terms of what you just said about Freud and the others. But how do you explain the continuing presence of that very obvious contradiction?

LEWIS: I think that part of that explanation is, indeed, what has happened in the last hundred years. We have had a very powerful set of theories which have argued for, in fact, continuity and for determinism. We didn’t have this earlier. The view of the child as determining one’s future is a relatively new idea. Its power to capture our imagination is more recent. So that we are not talking from an historical perspective of the last 500 years that the childhood determined the adult. And, indeed, it is some very powerful theory, psychoanalytic being one.

Remember, the determinist nature of psychoanalysis is very powerful. All of us believe that slips of the tongue are no longer accidents. All of us believe that accidents may not be accidents. All of us believe our dreams have meaning. What Freud did, what the power was in the idea, was to make deterministic all of our behavior. You and I, in a casual conversation, would accept that immediately and have trouble believing that it wasn’t simply accident or chance.

The best example I can give you is the recent tragedy of the Princess of Wales. The fact of the matter is, when a figure falls, when fate intervenes, we seek explanation. It couldn’t have been an accident; someone has to be at fault, whether it’s the photographers, or the driver, or the conditions of the road. We are unable, as human beings, to believe that we live in a somewhat, in a world in which things can happen to us, even though we may not wish them. And especially in Western society, where disease and famine, wars, have been greatly reduced.

Imagine us being in Sarajevo a decade ago, having a conversation such as this, and now being in Sarajevo after a war. Imagine leaving the studio and having to go and get water, and being shot for getting water, and having to worry about that. We want an ordered world. We want prediction.

HEFFNER: Well, the idea of progress, which you analyze here, and the assumption that one goes causally from this point to the next point to the next logical point to into the future, it seems to me that opposed to that is, in a funny way, a much more optimistic point of view that you embrace. Because you say that, at any point, I, we, all of us, can do almost anything. We can change. We’re not bound by that inexorable fate. How do your colleagues in the scientific community react to that notion today?

LEWIS: I actually thought that I would receive much more criticism than, in fact, I have. I think it’s becoming quite clear two main facts. The first is that, by knowing something about children in the early years of life, we will know very little about them as adults, against all theoretical views. And that comes about because, in the last 30 years, a great deal of research has been done. Now, people love to interpret what are findings according to their own theory. But the data are becoming too overwhelming. Everyone worried childcare in infancy, whether daycare would affect children. And our government has undertaken a massive study to look at the effects of infant daycare. The theories saying if you’re not with your mom all the time, you will end up in trouble. Well, the results are partially in, and it shows, no, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the quality of the care. But it doesn’t have to be mom giving it.

These kinds of findings are beginning to sink in. The problem is we don’t spend enough money on our children. The society isn’t committed to our youth. If we were, we wouldn’t have the argument. Because, as you realize, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t give children good experience in the first few years of life. Of course we should. No one would argue that point. What I am saying is that simply won’t do.

HEFFNER: The trouble there, of course, I’m sure any number of your colleagues and others who are concerned with social justice, the trouble for them has to be that we are such a pragmatic people that, if you can’t guarantee, if the scientific community cannot guarantee if we spend our dollars here we will have this result, if we want to avoid juvenile delinquency, if we want to avoid increasing violence in our society, spend the money early on. And it is in that way in which you fly against or in the face of a felt need.

LEWIS: Right. The danger is to say, and that would be what I think might be from the political right, “Well, if those first few years aren’t going to inoculate the child against poor school performance, delinquency and so on, why spend it at all?” And the answer has to be: That’s not what the message is. But I’m very concerned that, after enough research showing that spending the money in very early childhood doesn’t do the trick, that, in fact, the pragmatics of the society will lead us to say, “Well, let’s not spend it.”

HEFFNER: Yes. I think you have every reason to be concerned. And that’s why I wondered what the impact of your studies, and particularly of this book.

LEWIS: Yes. I think that that is a concern, and that may well happen. I think the thrust at the moment is to argue from a variety of points of view that those early years make a difference. A few months ago, several of our weekly popular journals, Newsweek, Time, ran big stories on how the brain is determined in the first few years of life. Well, I tried to write a long letter to the editor, and in Newsweek, in fact, I did have the opportunity speak my peace in print. But it’s simply not true. The data are only half presented. We know that the brain is capable of enormous flexibility. We know it’s capable of change and learning in adulthood. And so, while there are certain changes that we can recognize in early childhood, those changes continue.

HEFFNER: Well, if fear is the spur, certainly the reformers, the humanitarians, the do-gooders, the “let us look into those first years and do something about it,” if fear is the spur, you’re taking away that spur. You’re saying, “We needn’t fear about the future delinquent society because we’re not paying enough attention early on, because at some future point we can intervene.” That means really no intervention at all.

LEWIS: Yes. And certainly there’s an out. And if we decide that our intervention is going to be reformatories, or whatever we call them, or prisons, then indeed we don’t do any reforming. The question is (and it’s been raised politically): If it costs $30,000 a year to incarcerate someone, could we not spend that in a better way? Now, some people have suggested, well, spending that 30,000 a year in early childhood, and thus prevent that from occurring. No one has proposed, and indeed, a natural conclusion would be from the book, “Well, why don’t we take that $30,000, and this person, this young man or young woman is going off to jail, and spend it on rehabilitation a year for them, spend it on producing environments such as jobs and adult education, which might impact?” We certainly know that $30,000 a year in prison doesn’t do any good, because we know recidivism, the repeat of crime, the repeat of going to prison, is very high. So we’re not very successful in that as an intervention. And maybe, indeed, what we need to do is to start to think about what we do with people who, in fact, have had problems and, in fact, are not behaving as citizens ought.

HEFFNER: Well, isn’t the net result of your studies, your thinking, an emphasis upon rehabilitation that we’ve just about abandoned in terms of criminals?

LEWIS: We have abandoned it in terms of almost everything. In terms of criminal behavior, in terms of therapeutic behavior, with the new movement in medical payment, the number of therapeutic sessions are decreasing. There are new journals, called The Journal of — I’m paraphrasing it — Quick Therapy. Because if you want to get ten therapeutic hours…

My point in the book is fundamentally this: If you alter environments that people live in, people’s behavior will change. Over and over again we see this. We have just finished a long-term study of children in New Jersey. Interested in the question of volunteerism. Let’s take a positive. Who are the young adults who volunteer to help others in this society? An important thing to find out, because we want people to help one another. And one of the things we did is we looked in their early childhood, we looked in their middle childhood, to see if we could find: Do parents do something to children to produce a child who will end up being a volunteer? And the answer is no. Do you know what predicts volunteerism? It’s whether or not that child is in a structure in which volunteering is required. So, if you belong to a church group, you belong to the Scouts, you belong to some organization whose purpose is to volunteer, one of its purposes, at least, then, indeed, these children volunteer. That is the most predictive. Not what happened earlier. Not whether you treated your child kindly, and therefore hoping that your child will treat others kindly. It’s what the child is doing now.

HEFFNER: The nice thing about that message is that there’s always hope. And I’d like to go on with that discussion, if you will. We’re at the end of our program. Stay where you are, and we’ll continue next week.

Thank you, Dr. Michael Lewis, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.