The Human Spark

The science of human development

Contexts Matter

Events in a setting are the proper concept in theory

The statement that every event occurs in a particular setting is a banal observation. European and American psychologists prefer to award causal power to a person’s stable traits and ignore the settings in which individuals act.  Neither Freud, Jung, nor Bowlby paid much attention to the influence of a child’s social class or ethnic group, which represent distinctive home, school, and neighborhood settings. I suspect that very few psychologists under age 40 are familiar with the writings of Kurt Lewin, a twentieth century German psychologist who was one of the few social scientists who recognized the importance of the setting. Each culture during a particular historical era presents its members with a collection of contexts that some find easy and others find difficult to manage. The  contexts in contemporary Haiti pose challenges that are very different from those found in Japan.

The regions within a large nation often contain slightly different contexts. The variation in suicide and homicide rates across the contemporary United States furnishes an example. One half of all suicides are committed by white American males older than 45 years. The suicide rates in the rural western states, which have low population densities, long , cold  winters, and a large proportion of men who own firearms (for example,  Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana), are twice as high as  the rates in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, which are more urban, have denser populations, less  harsh winters, and a smaller proportion of men with firearms. Although a serious or debilitating disease is the best predictor of suicide in contemporary Sweden, foreign born adults who grew up in a neighborhood in which they were a distinct minority were more likely to commit suicide than foreigners who grew up in a neighborhood that contained many from their ethnic group or nationality. Location matters!

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After viewing Andy Warwhol’s 1964 simulation of a Brillo box in a gallery, the art critic Arthur Danto suggested that the contemporary classification of an object as art depended on the setting in which it appeared. A brillo box or a urinal placed in a gallery of a museum  would be  regarded as art. The same objects made by the same persons would not be art if found in a commercial establishment.  

The contexts for empirical scientists refer not only to the properties of the place where observations are gathered, but also to the procedure that  generated the observations. The psychologist Stanley Milgram attained celebrity in the 1960s when he demonstrated that ordinary Americans would obey an adult posing as an authority who told them to administer what they believed were extremely painful electric shocks to a stranger when the latter made an error in a learning task. Actually, the stranger was a confederate of the psychologist and was not receiving any shocks. Although a majority administered painful shocks to the confederate, which were accompanied by screams of pain, the features of the setting had a definite influence on the level of conformity. Adults were most likely to administer the strongest shocks when the stranger was located in a separate room, his cries of pain could be heard, and the experimenter acting as an authority figure was present in the room. The  subjects were least likely to administer strong shocks when the confederate was sitting next to them, the experimenter was not regarded as an authority, and he gave the orders by telephone from another room.

Many psychologists use one procedure with one species or one category of person (for example college students) in one setting, but  imply that the same result would occur if the subjects, procedures, and settings were different. One team wrote as if the pattern of brain activity observed in men whose penises were being stimulated by a spouse or lover while they lay on their back in the narrow tube of a noisy scanner would resemble the pattern generated when the same men were being stimulated by the same person in the privacy of  their bedroom. Others assume that the adults who make extra money by answering questionnaires on the internet  whose answers implied an extraverted personality would display the sociability and friendliness of extraverts if they were observed at a party or at work.

The bullies in American schools tend to come from disadvantaged families and attend large urban schools. Finland, however, is ethnically more homogeneous and has fewer youth growing up in poverty. The typical bullies in Finnish schools  are popular with their peers and attend small schools. This fact means that the consequences of either being a bully or a victim are likely to differ for youth in the United States compared with Finland.   

Each neighborhood, community, region, or nation during an era  represents a context. The prevalence of mental illness is typically higher in large cities than in small towns, in part because social support from friends or relatives is more frequent in the latter settings. A high frequency of binge drinking or drug use among youth in a school tempts other adolescents to adopt the same habit. Had the latter youths attended a school with low levels of drug use they would have been less likely to adopt these practices.

One team of  investigators visited a large number of cities across the world and observed three types of  helping  behavior  a pedestrian might show toward a stranger. The actions were  returning a pen to a person who had dropped it, helping a person with a lame leg retrieve some personal items, and assisting a blind person across a street. Pedestrians in Latin American cities, especially Rio de Janeiro and San Jose, Costa Rica, were the most helpful.  Adults in Kuala Lumpur and New York were least helpful. American pedestrians in New York, Los Angeles,  and Philadelphia were minimally helpful; those in Rochester (New York),  Houston, and Nashville the most helpful. These facts do not mean that adults who live in New York do not help friends, colleagues, and relatives. It only means that when the setting  consists of  a stranger walking on a busy street who appears to need help  New York  onlookers are unlikely to stop and behave altruistically. The same New Yorker might be helpful if he or she were vacationing in Rio de Janeiro and a citizen of Rio vacationing in New York might not help a blind man cross a street.

Even the probability that a child will receive a diagnosis of autism is higher (at least in California) if the child lives within a mile of another child who received  the same diagnosis. And the likelihood of a doctor diagnosing a child with Attention-Deficit- Hyperactivity- Disorder (ADHD) is higher if the doctor and child live in North Carolina than in California.  

Erik Erikson’s writings on the concept of identity in the 1950s had the ring of truth  because many first generation youth born in America to  European immigrants were brooding on the psychological categories to which they belonged. Were they Americans first or were they Poles, Jews, Irish, Italians, Germans, or Swedes? In addition, large  numbers of men from blue collar families returning from military service in the second world war had to decide whether to return to the trades of their fathers or train for a profession with the help of the GI bill. And many women who had been working in defense plants were faced with a choice of  remaining in the work force or returning to a traditional female role. Erikson’s  preoccupation with the concept of identity in his influential  book “ Childhood and Society” struck a familiar chord in members of these groups. I suspect that if he had written this book in 1930 or 1990 it would not have attracted the same degree of interest.        

Some cities possess for one or two generations an ambience of tolerance toward minority groups along with an admiration for intellectual accomplishments. This combination makes it likely that talented adults who are victims of  prejudice in their home cities  will be allowed to attain eminence for an achievement if they migrate to the tolerant city.  Nineteenth-century Budapest from 1867 to the beginning of the first world war was  such a setting and it was the adult  home of the physicist Leo Szilard, the mathematician John von Neumann, the biologist Albert Szent-Gyorgi, and the writer Arthur  Koestler.   

The birthplaces of the Nobel Laureates in Physics, Chemistry, or Physiology/Medicine provide persuasive support for the claim that  the values and institutions of a country or region can create an ambience that favors certain careers. The six nations with the largest number of Nobel Laureates in one of the natural sciences, excluding the United States which has the largest number, are Germany (82), United Kingdom  (82), France (36), Switzerland (20), the Netherlands(16), and Sweden (15). These countries do not have larger populations than Spain (2), Italy  (12),  Norway (3),  or  India (4).  A similar asymmetry applies to the birthplaces of American presidents elected before 1900. Almost half of these men were born in either Virginia or Ohio.      

Not surprisingly, a person’ s social mobility depends on where he or she lives. The probability that an American child born into a family whose income was in the lowest 20th percentile would become  an adult with  an income in the top 20 percent is much higher for those who live in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, or New York (odds are about 1 out of 10), compared  with Atlanta, Detroit, Cincinnati, or Cleveland (where less than 1 out of 20 improve their status by that much).  

An increase in the number of  contexts in which an action is permitted is a distinctive mark of modernity. Few  Americans  in 2013 are  surprised by seeing, or learning about,  someone eating steak from a paper plate while walking on a sidewalk; sleeping in the vestibule of an office building; firing bullets at young children in a schoolroom, or raping three young women  held  captive  in a home in Cleveland. Hannah Arendt anticipated a permissive attitude toward horrendous acts of cruelty when she wrote of “ the banality of evil”.

Urination, defecation, and sexual behavior are among the small number of actions that occur in only a small number of specially  designated  settings. As a result, seeing  their display  in an atypical setting, say  during the day in a public park with strangers present, is such a serious deviation  from the schematic prototype of most adults, they classify this action as disgusting. Contemporary Americans would be revolted by seeing a lion maul a man in a circus routine. Ancient Romans did not find the same scene disgusting because corpses lying  by the side of the road were common sight. 

East Asians are more sensitive to the context than Europeans.  Americans and  Europeans are socialized to be loyal to their private conscience and to maintain the same  persona across settings in order to avoid being labeled a hypocrite.  Asians understand  that a person need  not behave the same way in all contexts. A woman is a mother at home, a lawyer at work, a guest at a party, and a wife when alone with her husband. The opinions and behaviors displayed in one setting are often inappropriate  in another. The Chinese language supports this understanding by making  it  difficult to talk or write about abstract concepts, such as  “affectionate” persons.  Whereas Americans say, “Alice is affectionate”, the Chinese are apt to say, “Fei hugs her friends at parties”.

The cultural variation in  the concern with context is  revealed  in an important difference  between Western and Chinese law.  An American who steals $300 has committed the same crime and is subject to the same punishment, whether the victim was a stranger or a cousin .   Chinese law regards stealing from a member of the family as a different crime than stealing the same amount from a stranger.

Most  industrialized democracies in 2013  are characterized by 12 features that, when combined into a pattern, create a context that is probably unique in human history.

  1. The interests of the members of the society younger than age 40 dominate those of older citizens.
  2. The proportion of the population older than 65 is larger than it has ever been; whereas the proportion younger than age 5 is smaller than it has been and growing smaller.
  3. Instant global connectivity of information and financial transactions.
  4. The assumption that all individuals  are entitled to equal dignity,  justice, freedom,   access to education and medical care, despite palpable differences in education,  ethical values, skills, wealth, and contribution to the society.
  5. A world population larger than 7 billion and growing, with two-thirds of this population concentrated in regions east and south of Istanbul.
  6. Natural scientists declaring that the presence of life is an accident with  no special purpose or meaning.  
  7. A growing awareness of climate change and pollution of earth, air, and water.
  8. An anti-elitism that resists awarding privileged  status to  persons in positions of responsibility. 
  9. Intellectual skills are more relevant for adaptation than physical skills or endurance and greater reliance on scientific facts when individuals or governments make decisions.
  10. A large and growing level of economic inequality among and within the world’s societies.
  11. Geographic mobility  resulting in the highest  levels of ethnic and religious diversity within many nations in human history. 
  12. A growing acceptance of the assumption that each person ought to put their own self-interest first.

Youth who accept these facts, and the premises they imply,  make decisions that the youth of Puritan parents  in colonial Massachusetts  could  not have made, including the basis for selecting a spouse, choosing a  vocation, or announcing one is gay. Perhaps the  two most profound consequences of this pattern of conditions are a  dilution in the shame evoked by  violating an ethical belief and the assumption that aggrandizing self’s  pleasures ought to be the major guide to decisions and actions.

Study of the historical and cultural settings in which lives are planned and  government decisions made has not received the attention it deserves by scientists trying to predict and understand human nature. Paul Volcker is fond of a joke that satirizes the economist’s attraction to recommendations based on abstract theory that ignores the specific characteristics of a society.

A squirrel who wanted to add fish to his diet consulted a wise owl who he hoped might help him satisfy this desire. The owl thought a while before telling  the squirrel that the solution was to scamper up a tree and imagine being a kingfisher. The squirrel climbed a tree and tried to implement the owl’s advice.  After several failures, the squirrel complained  to the owl  that his advice was of no help. The owl, irritated  by the criticism, replied, “ You came to me with a problem, I gave you what I believed was a useful  policy recommendation. The rest is operational detail.”

 

 

Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and one of the pioneers of the field of developmental psychology. His latest book is The Human Spark.

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