[Update at the end]
On Monday, the Toronto Star printed an article which delighted liberals and lit up the conservative blogosphere with indignation. In the article, How to spot a baby conservative, Kurt Kleiner reports on a study in the Journal of Research Into Personality which purports to show that:
Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.
At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.
Apparently, Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) have been following approximately 100 young people from nursery school to the present as part of a general study of personality. Unfortunately there is no link to the original article and I could not find the Journal of Research Into Personality on-line. As I have stated in the past, newspaper reports of scientific articles that do not link to the original article are highly suspect and should never be considered valid or reliabe without extensive clarifying information. Reading the entire article brings to mind Wolfgang Pauli's famous quote:
This isn't right. This isn't even wrong.
Bear with me a bit and allow me to elucidate.
Before getting to the heart of the matter, in order to get the full flavor of the article and the research I have included some more tidbits from the article.
The kids' personalities were rated at the time (nursery school) by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings ? the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.
A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.
The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.
Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.
Kleiner makes an egregious error in a "scientific" report. He fails to do the most fundamental work of any scientific article, ie define the terms. We do not know what the study author means by "liberal" and "conservative"? Is this a cultural, political (small government conservative? authoritarian conservative?), or temperamental designation?
Stella Chess and her husband, Alexander Thomas, studied temperament in a large cohort of infants starting in 1956, and followed them for many years, in The New York Longitudinal Study. They discovered that temperament tends to be stable; further:
Stella's concepts of temperament and goodness or poorness of fit offered a paradigm shift for understanding the child's behavior—from a prevailing psychoanalytic model of a basic intrapsychic conflict and anxiety in the child to a new model in which the child's intrinsic patterns of behavior came first, followed by parental goodness or poorness of fit. Any parental mismatch and disapproval that might emerge might then generate anxiety and subsequently give rise to behavioral symptoms in the child, especially when the parent's anger mounted. Nowadays, the goodness of fit transactional model is one of the basic models used in a broad spectrum of child mental health services, ranging from children's psychiatric inpatient services to pediatric practice and work in schools.
The article also does not give more than the barest of identifying data as to the subjects. If, as is often the case in child studies conducted by academics, the children are children of colleagues, then it would be reasonable to assume that somewhere north of 85% of the parents were "liberals" or "progressives" since Berkeley was a hotbed of such politics in the 1960's. The political orientation of the parents has been shown to be an extremely important indicator of children's political tendencies. Of the 100 children, how many came from liberal homes? If there were only 15 or less conservative families and/or children, what does this say about the validity of the conclusions? We cannot know from the article crucial data about the context in which the children lived, their parent-child relationships and how this would affect the data interpretation.
Further, I would suggest that the author's terminology is hopelessly contradictory. If "the whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults" in Berkeley, wouldn't that mean they are far left adherents of the party line? After all, that is the predominant political culture in academic Berkeley. In Berkeley, a true non-conformist would most likely be a neocon and a Berkeley radical would be a religious Jew or Christian!
I cannot tell if the error is Kleiner's or Block's but it is a fundamental error to assume that a political liberal is more or less rigid than a political conservative; if anything, adaptability and the creation and adoption of new ideas is much more prevalent on the Conservative side of the political divide than the Liberal side. As even Democrats have remarked, they don't even know what they stand for any more, beyond a rigid and reflexive anti-Bush stance. Progressives and conservatives have switched places around the world.
Just one example: Once again, Paris is burning, and the fires this time are being set by the university age children of the comfortable middle class who have grown up in a Socialist state where jobs, when they are available, are for life, and where all one's needs are met by the state. It is unquestionable that Berkeley liberals would point to the French as the height of progressive thought and culture on the planet. Yet the paradox here is that the French rioters are not only anything but non-conformist, they are anxious, rigid, and terrified of change; they are violently reactionary. Joe N. at No Pasaran captures their mindset brilliantly, in Life is static. Nothing should ever change. Feed me.
Of course, we should never question social psychologists in their line of work. They are, after all, professionals. So the idea that perhaps a small number of kids from the Berkeley area may not be a truly representative slice of the American population is just silly. Professor Jack Block, the author of the study, defends his work by explaining to the Star that "within his sample....the results hold." Surely, his statistics professor is very proud.
In other words, those who have an advanced sense of right and wrong at age three or four... have it when they grow up. Those who expect authority to actually respond when boundaries are crossed in the pre-school classroom (he stole my blocks!)... have similar expectations when boundaries are crossed in the real world (he's building nuclear weapons and threatening to destroy Israel!) "Little conservatives" believe in rule of law - holding high expectations for a systematic, fair and unambiguous response to law-breaking behavior at multiple levels. They appear 'insecure' only because that label has been placed on them by a liberal educational establishment unable to see how the moral vacillation of a feckless teacher might in fact be contributing to it.
But Fausta absolutely gets the penultimate word on this story:
Forgive my whiny ignorance, but this sounds like psychobabble for: the liberal kids haven't got around to finding a job yet.
Finally, two caveats:
First I would suggest we be careful about accepting a reporter's view of a research study that does not include a link to the original. This should be an absolute minimal expectation of any on-line article, and URLs should be included even in old media reports. The absence of a URL is instructive.
Even more significant is the possibility that the Social Scientist may well have gathered some evidence that anxious children grow up to be rigid, perhaps authoritarian, adults. That does not preclude the delicious possibility that Block, without any conscious awareness, has described a situation in which he unknowingly inverted the meaning of "liberal" and "conservative."
Update: Michelle Malkin received an e-mail that confirms some of my conjectures about the subjects of this study. It is always nice to see one's speculations confirmed.