19 December 2008

Nature and Context

The notion that you earn and determine how your life turns out, is taking hits on both the nature side and the nurture side.

Appreciating the Power of Nurture

On the nature side, genetic and psychological research into individual traits like IQ and psychopathy how powerful impact on people's lives.

Research is more and more conclusively establishing that some people are smarter, and hence more likely to be successful in our society, from very early in life -- if not genetically, or during pregnancy, at least, early childhood. Research I saw in the last month indicated that even the factor associated with "general intelligence" may be under inclusive. Men with higher IQs also have sperm that are more fit according to criteria decided before the link was studied, and it may be the case that some of what is called IQ is an even more unfair general "fitness" factor. Recent research has also shown that the hereditary component of IQ actually increases as people age, rather than decreasing as a result of people's life experiences and other environmental factors.

The recurring theme of measure after measure of educational achievement is that a large number of factors that should be important to educational outcomes, like teacher training, per student education spending, and other school operations inputs, are dwarfed in importance by the socio-economic backgrounds, IQs, school attendance, and the length of time a child stays in the same school. Only the very worst and the very best schools and teachers tend to do much to push children far off the educational achievement course they are predisposed to follow.

Likewise, it is increasing clear that some people, at a very early age show the lack of conscience and empathy that strongly predisposes them to psychopathic criminal conduct later in life. These traits also start to manifest in early childhood. Moreover, a handful of other tendencies with strong hereditary influences, like untreated mental illness, predisposition to addictive behavior, impulsivity, and lack of anger control play a strong role in the criminal histories of many inmates without a lifelong history of psychopathic behavior.

Even the researchers that most heavily emphasize the power impact of genetics on how people become, however, acknowledge that even genetically identical people, like twins, can turn out very differently in important ways.

Appreciating The Importance Context

Outside the realm of genetics, however, there is also a growing body of research that indicates the importance of context in how people act.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (and along with Stanley Milgram, who died twenty-four years ago tomorrow), have made names for themselves establishing how powerfully social context could coax ordinary people to do evil things, a concept sometimes called the "banality of evil," and its flip side, the "banality of heroism," that suggests that many heroic acts are the product of ordinary people placed in unusual extraordinary situations. Many people who recognize a situation that urgently requires action and see no one other themselves in a position to act, will sacrifice themselves or put themselves at risk for the greater good. Few people (themselves, in part, determined by the social circumstances) resist following orders issued by someone who appears to be in a position of authority, until resistance to that authority is established.

Context reinforces and supplements the impact of personal charactistics in one's propensity to crime crimes. Most people who commit economic crimes, like larceny and drug dealing, do so to a great extent because they are poor and lack another livelihood. Domestic violence rates have been linked to economic stress. A great deal of serious crime is a product of illegal activity by gang members and other organized crime participants, whose involvement is often closely related to the neighborhood where they grew up or went to school, a phenomena sometimes known as sociopathy.

Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers has likewise made the case that being in the right place at the right time with the right social connections and upbringing, is critical to extraordinary success. Of course, certain abilities and certain kinds of hard work are necessary to achieve greatness in particular areas. Short guys who don't practice don't become professional basketball players. But, neither great ability nor hard work are sufficient, and one doesn't have to be the best to achieve the greatest amount of success.

Some of the context that is important, at least, makes sense in a logical way, even if it is unfair. For example, the social capital inherent in being born rich helps on succeed. But, some of the important context is far less logically obvious. For example, according to Gladwell "hugely disproportionate number of professional hockey and soccer players are born in January, February and March."

Similarly, most new industries and institutions have "founder effects" that give an edge to those who are the first to implement a new idea or take a leadership role in a new agency. My father-in-law's radiology practice thrived, in part, because it was one of the first to make new technologies available in greater Buffalo. My father's career in academic environmental science was not unrelated to the fact that he was present and part of the movement on the first Earth Day, when the field of environmental science hadn't yet come into being. Much of the institutional culture of the Central Intelligence Agency arises from the decision to recruit many of its first agents from Ivy League colleges. Much of the institutional culture of the Federal Bureau of Investigations flows from the decision to recruit many of its first agents from the ranks of lawyers and accountants.

One of the most interesting studies in the sociology of complex organizations and academic business management compared two factories built in different countries from precisely the same blueprints to produce precisely the same product. Despite the identical physical circumstances of the workers at each, the way that the two factories operated was profoundly different, as a result of the different social contexts of the two plants.

One of the smarter things the Denver Public Schools have done was to completely shut down Manual High School before reopening it, initially with just a single class of freshmen, and a new freshman class added each year as the existing students advanced, to give the school's failed institutional culture a cold restart from scratch.

What's Left?

Neither the proponents of heredity, nor the advocates of the importance of context say that either factor is destiny. In Stanley Milgram's famous experiment, a few people did resist authority. In fascist Japan, there was a civil servant who defied orders from his superior issuing immigration papers to two thousand Jews. Not everyone presented with an opportunity to be a hero take it. There are plenty of brilliant people who do not achieve comparable socio-economic success. There are people who manage to upset the apple cart in old institutions to give them revived institutional cultures. People pre-disposed to be fat can lose weight.

The decisions you make in your life do matter. But, the legal ideal of equality of opportunity turns out to be the exception, rather than the rule in real life. The choices that life gives you an opportunity to make are not the same for everyone, and how you react to the opportunities that do present themselves to you are heavily influenced by the way that you were born.

Personal responsibility makes fine rhetoric and assuming that people have complete freedom to make choices may be the practical thing to do in many situations. But, claims that someone is successful as a result of extraordinary virtue, or in trouble as a result of willful bad decision making should be taken with a grain of salt.

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