The Myth of Infant Determinism

Early childhood experiences do not determine adult outcomes

Posted Sep 26, 2010

You’d have to have lived under a rock, or perhaps as a rock, for the past 50 years not to know of the supposed causal link between childhood experiences and adult behavior. A fondness for this notion is a part of the American cultural identity kit, along with a terrifying lust for hamburgers, a soft spot for happy endings, and a strange preoccupation with cars, hair, and shoes. Apt deployment of this theme underlies the success of many movies, books, and prominent careers in politics and entertainment. You cannot go a single day in America without hearing some TV wonk wonking about how the shockingly tasteless behavior of the latest scoundrel celebrity/athlete/politician (Can you believe what he did? That’s disgusting! Let’s role the tape again in slow motion…) has its roots in the poor sap’s childhood.

Although he was not the first or only one espousing the notion of infancy’s unique contribution to future outcome, Sigmund Freud was perhaps most responsible for popularizing it in the U.S. For accuracy and full disclosure, we must admit that clinical psychologists, Freudian and post Freudian, have also helped perpetuate this notion. Mostly, this is because people who show up in psychologists’ offices often turn out to have had chaotic childhoods. From this observation, it is but a short, tempting leap to the conclusion that a chaotic childhood causes psychological disturbance. What such conclusion fails to consider is the fact that those who had chaotic childhoods and ended up untroubled do not show up at psychologists’ offices; and they happen to be the majority.

It turns out that the specific experiences of your early childhood predict much less of your adulthood than you’d think. In fact, to the extent that the past matters, it is usually the recent past, and the cumulative effects of varied historical influences, that matters, not early childhood.

For example, people who grow up and remain in poverty risk dying sooner than those who grow up poor and then become middle class. But the increased risk is caused not by bouts of disease in early childhood, shared by both groups, but by the aggregated effects of lifelong malnutrition on the impoverished. 

The role early experience may play in shaping adult outcome is heavily dependent on subsequent experiences and conditions, many of which cannot be predicted from (or controlled by) early experience. How a baby is treated cannot predict or control subsequent events such as parental divorce, depression, unemployment, war, or the child’s chance accidents and encounters—all of which may exert profound influence on what this baby grows up to be. Therefore, if I want to know whether you’ll be in jail sometime in the next five years, it will do me no good to find out about your tantrum habits at two-years-old, even if those were quite extraordinary, according to your mother. I will do much better to check your high school records for tales of schoolyard misbehavior. I will do even better to check out the crowd you’re hanging with right now.

But even if we could show a robust, direct link between present psychological and behavioral outcomes and some specific experiences in infancy, such a link could not be readily considered causal, and establishing it may be useless for the purpose of truly understanding and improving present circumstances.

This is because human beings are shaped more by present than by past circumstances. As the great theorist Gordon Allport has argued, adult motives are, “varied and self-sustaining contemporary systems growing out of antecedent systems, but functionally independent of them.” In English, this means that what causes a behavior to begin is not what keeps it going. Allport called this principle, “the functional autonomy of motives,” and its explanatory force is so clear once you think about it, that you may in short order find yourself hearing your favorite talk show host or TV therapist with new ears entirely, and not a minute too soon.

Consider, for example, anxiety. Tracing your current fear of dogs to an early childhood encounter with a scary poodle tells us why you got scared of dogs back then. It does not tell us why your fear continues today, after both your childhood and that poodle are long gone. What causes your fear now is in fact your avoidance. You’re afraid of dogs now because you avoid them.

This elegant principle applies well beyond infancy. Consider smoking. Most people who smoke began in their teens, for reasons that were compelling at that time: impressing the girls, defying the parents, and fitting in with the cool crowd. Bounce forward 50 years. Those who are still puffing are not doing so for the same reasons. The girls are neither impressed nor girls anymore; the parents are dead, and the cool crowd is eating organic lettuce. The old reasons for smoking are dead and gone, along with so many fellow smokers. The reasons the behavior continues now have much more to do with changes in brain chemistry that were not present at all at 15 but need to be tended to now if you are to have any hope of being able to quit.

Or ponder marriage, if you dare. The reasons you got married (it was time; you were in love; your parents insisted; her parents insisted; she was pregnant; her parents insisted that she get pregnant; Vegas) are not the reasons you stay married, given that, after so many years, you are no longer young, no longer ‘in love’ (in that knee-buckling, drunk-dialing way), your parents fret about their grandson’s tantrums, and Vegas is but a flickering memory from the days when getting drunk and losing money were considered fun. What keeps you and your spouse together has little to do with what brought you together.

All this means two things: 1) Early experience in itself does not determine later outcome and is not inherently more important to development than later or current experience; 2) When trying to understand and deal with problems in adulthood, looking for explanations in the distant past is of little utility, because, even if found, these explanations are neither necessary nor sufficient to affect change in the present time.