Life Cannot Be Hacked

The secret of human development is that there is no one secret.

Posted Jul 29, 2020

Let’s look briefly at several true stories from the annals of developmental science. Pay attention: There is a test at the end.

1. In the early 70s, mother-infant 'bonding' became a hot issue after studies appeared to show that letting mother and newborn bond through physical contact in the minutes after birth predicted better developmental outcomes later on. These studies caused much excitement, because they appeared to have identified a simple, accessible key to the infant's future. However, within a few years, doubts emerged. By 1984, a review of the literature on the topic concluded that the evidence was "generally not supporting the notion that early and extended contact is crucial to the mother-infant bond." 

Today, we understand that mother-infant contact in first few minutes after birth, while often rewarding, is not a determinant of the mother-child relationship or an infant’s long-term developmental trajectory.

2. In 1986, a powerful and eccentric California politician by the name of John Vasconcellos—who years before, having studied under the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers, had become enamored with the human potential movement—managed to persuade the state's governor to fund a Task Force on Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility, to explore ways to raise the self-esteem of the populace. In his 1989 preface to the task force’s report, Berkeley sociologist Neil Smelser wrote: “The more particular proposition that informs our enterprise here is that many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society.” In short order, self-esteem mania was sweeping the nation: Politicians, scientists, and celebrities around the country came on board, and educators were told that teaching self-esteem was the way to facilitate children’s future success.

Needpix
Source: Needpix

Over time, however, doubts emerged. The early data on self-esteem, it was later found, showed mainly weak or mixed connections with favorable outcomes and had been misrepresented by Vasconcellos in the service of his agenda. Subsequent work showed that self-esteem was not the potent force for good it was said to be. Disappointing results accumulated.

A 2003 review of the research noted, "The modest correlations between self-esteem and school performance do not indicate that high self-esteem leads to good performance. Instead, high self-esteem is partly the result of good school performance. Efforts to boost the self-esteem of pupils have not been shown to improve academic performance and may sometimes be counterproductive." 

Today, while it is still being studied and debated, self-esteem is no longer regarded as a decisive agent of later success.

3. Since the 1980s, a body of research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck (motivated in part to refute self-esteem theory) appeared to show that children who were praised for effort rather than for outcome developed a ‘growth mindset,’ which enabled them to take on more challenging tasks in the future, thus facilitating their development and scholastic achievement. By the 1990s, Dweck's ideas were stirring much enthusiasm, sending educators and parents scrambling to get their praise-giving lingo just right.

Yet in time, doubts emerged, as new work failed to replicate the magnitude of Dweck's early results. The notion that growth mindset has a unique and powerful long-term impact on achievement has in recent years been challenged quite convincingly. Positive effects of mindset on academic performance, when found, were shown to be rather weak and highly context-dependent. 

Today, while it is still being studied and debated, the notion of growth mindset is no longer seen as an across-the-board game-changer toward optimal development.

4. You’ve probably heard about the famous marshmallow experiment. In the original work from 1990, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues found that the ability to delay gratification in childhood predicted later school and social success. In short order, ‘delay of gratification’ became a buzzword, promoted as an essential skill to be taught to children in order to facilitate their future success. Whole schools and interventions were designed around the premise.

Alas, over time, doubts emerged. More recent research has suggested that the predictive power of the marshmallow test was in fact rather weak, particularly compared to socioeconomic measures, and that the active ingredient in the equation was not self-control, but poverty. Children, it appears, form ideas about whether to delay gratification based on their experience. Those who come from stable, wealthier backgrounds are both better at the marshmallow test and better at school later. As researchers Laura Michaelson and Yuko Munakata note, "The marshmallow test is predictive because it reflects aspects of a child’s early environment that are important over the long term."

Today, while it is still being studied and debated, the ability to delay gratification in childhood is no longer seen as the secret sauce in the future success recipe.

5. For a time in the 90s, a phenomenon known as ‘The Mozart Effect’ became all the rage. It started when a set of studies purported to show that college students who were exposed to Mozart’s music showed surprising performance gains on spatial tasks. According to the studies, after listening to Mozart's music for 10 minutes, “normal subjects showed significantly better spatial reasoning skills than after periods of listening to relaxation instructions designed to lower blood pressure or silence. The mean spatial IQ scores were 8 and 9 points higher after listening to the music.” Before long, Mozart Effect products and toys were being sold to parents of young children with the promise of boosting their intelligence.

Alas, over time, further studies challenged and cast doubts on the early claims. By the turn of the 21st century, the so-called Mozart Effect was shown to be of short duration, limited generalizability, and nonspecific to Mozart’s music. "The Mozart effect,” concluded a 2001 study, “is an artifact of arousal and mood.”

Today, while it is still pleasant and rewarding in itself, listening to Mozart is no longer considered a key to improved spatial or any other development.

I could go on. But by now you can surely see the pattern.

Now, the test: What is the point I’m trying to make?

One may guess that it has to do with the precariousness of science, the oft-lamented fact that today's scientific ‘truths,’ dictates, and recommendations will change and be revised or tossed out altogether tomorrow. But this is not my intent. Indeed, scientific knowledge grows and changes. In the words of evolutionary scientist David Barash, "Science is not a ‘body of knowledge’ – it’s a dynamic, ongoing reconfiguration of knowledge and must be free to change." The process is often maddeningly slow, circuitous, cumbersome, fraught, and tedious, but we have no better alternative. Viewed correctly, science’s frequent errors and corrections are strengths, not weaknesses.

No, my point is not about the nature of science, but about human nature. Specifically, the above examples seek to illustrate a human folly that attends a wide swath of our endeavors, not merely in the realm of science: The belief in (and yearning for) the magic bullet, the winning ticket, the key to the kingdom, the pure and powerful secret, the trick to solving the puzzle. It’s an understandable impulse and an attractive fantasy, given the daunting complexity of the world in which we toil—which is why it’s so easy for us to fall for it again and again, and why we will continue to do so.

Alas, the sober fact is that we will not find the magic bullet, because it doesn’t exist. There is no secret, only secrets, and they whisper to each other, often beyond the earshot of our instruments. Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” When it comes to making lasting, meaningful changes in human lives, efforts that target one point in time, one skill, or one aspect of the environment alone will mostly fail. Our complexity cannot be hacked, short cut, reduced to one ingredient, or solved with one trick. That's the simple truth. It cannot be made simpler.