Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Nurture Effect

The Nurture Effect is a thoughtful book about the psychological theory of behaviorism, and how it could be used to help reduce crime, improve health, and allow people to thrive. It was fascinating to read and it inspired me to hope that small changes in our society could create a better, safer world. However, I do feel the author should do more to address criticisms of behaviorism, including research  published by Carol Dweck and Alfie Kohn.

Anthony Biglan, the author, does an excellent job of explaining the origins of behaviorism and its primary ideas. Effectively, behaviorism is the idea that human beings are shaped by their environments. For example, if a child grows up in a nurturing, loving environment with rich opportunities, he or she will likely thrive. But a child who grows up in an abusive or deprived environment will suffer terrible effects from it, and without intervention will likely engage in negative behavior like taking drugs, committing crimes, and using violence in their personal relationships.

Biglan begins by describing how behaviorism applies to one on one human interactions, particularly within families. He notes that families with high amounts of conflict and adverse events tend to produce aggressive children who are more likely to commit crimes or fail in school than children in low-conflict families. Biglan then gradually expands his thesis to how the science of behaviorism applies to organizations like schools or hospitals, then society as a whole. He passionately believes that broadly applying behaviorist principles will create a happier, healthier, more harmonious society. He gives plenty of evidence to support his thesis, including multiple scientific studies and case histories from successful programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership and campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking.
Where I feel the book falls short is his dismissal of critiques of behaviorism. Alfie Kohn, a major critic of behaviorism, argues that using rewards like gold stars and excessive praise drains kids of motivation and leaves them feeling manipulated. Though he grudgingly admits his own son did not respond well to his excessive praise, he mostly dismisses Kohn's argument. He doesn't even mention Carol Dweck, though her research indicates that telling children things like "You're smart!" can actually have negative effects on their self-confidence. I think the author could easily address some of these criticisms. For example, Dweck's research indicates that children do best when they're praised for their effort rather than their innate intelligence--this kind of praise leads to a "growth mentality" which reassures children that their success depends on their efforts. Likewise, Kohn makes a thoughtful distinction between praise (which he considers empty and manipulative, like mental candy) and positive feedback, which research shows is enormously effective (positive feedback differs from praise in that it's specific). I think Biglan's book would have benefited from him making distinctions between positive feedback and praise, as well as addressing how many of the successful programs he mentions are the opposite of manipulative. In fact, I was struck by how programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership or the child-centered parenting methods show so much compassion and respect for their clients.

Overall, this is one of the most inspiring scientific books I've ever read. It gave me a great hope for our future. As the parent of a toddler, it also had some great practical ideas for building loving and harmonious family relationships, using positive discipline, and helping my little girl become a thriving, prosocial, happy adult. I'd highly recommend it to anyone.

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