Magazine article Psychology Today

Prophesy and Retrodiction

Magazine article Psychology Today

Prophesy and Retrodiction

Article excerpt

BY SOME MEASURES, we have entered the century of the unvanquished underdog and the imperiled elite. j

Seventy percent of The New York Times's best books of 2014 for used on the ordeals of victims, as did half the Oscar-winning films in the first decade of this century. At the same time, eminent developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan notes in On Being Human: Why Mind Matters, there's a drive to demote historical and contemporary elites. The most recent biographies of George Washington, he points out, relish details of his vanity and status-consciousness, characterizations that somehow escaped report for two centuries. Kagan writes that back in 2000, at the last Harvard faculty meeting he attended, the subject of debate was whether to send out death notices, printed on costly paper, to alert the community to a retired faculty member's death. The junior faculty argued that all employees, including janitors and buildings-andgrounds officers, deserved such honor.

Kagan's attention to the contemporary status gradient has nothing to do with snobbery. He is best known for longitudinal studies that begin in infancy and trace the development of personality well into adulthood. The interaction of temperament and parenting style are the variables most commonly teased out in his work, yet Kagan believes that early identification with a social class and family pedigree are important and vastly understudied influences on people's self-concept. He goes so far as to surmise that membership in a blue-blooded family was characterologically defining for Charles Darwin and Winston Churchill. These iconoclasts' willingness to pursue radically unpopular ideas would not have been predicted based on the men's temperament or parental input, respectively. Darwin was famously anxious and Churchill endured parenting so neglectful that Kagan finds it "impossible" to explain Churchill's adult personality without factoring in his youthful identification with an elite family.

In Kagan's essays one encounters a thinker galvanized by the existence of complex processes that emerge over time. He is eager to unpack the human genome and quick to marvel that our present-day longevity results from a mere century of medical advances-in a species that is more than 100,000 years old. Kagan has spent his career mapping subtle, overlapping inputs on human development, and he applies this same long lens to the workings of society, reaching across the centuries for insight. In thinking about increased hostility to the elite, for example, Kagan doesn't simply identify a trend, such as the growing refusal to accord politicians, doctors, or Harvard professors special status. He wonders where it will lead, drawing parallels to the Reformation, on the one hand, in which challenges to authority resulted in equality and opportunity for more individuals; and to the fraying of the social contract on the other, wherein discredited professionals essentially conform to lowered expectations, casualties of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Kagan's own work centered on infant temperament and revealed its predictive limits, signal research that has repercussions for anyone interested in personality or resilience. …

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