Dr. Kagan is a renowned developmental Psychologist and a key pioneer in the development of that field. He is professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and is most famous for his research on child temperament. What follows is a brief interview conducted by myself, Taylor Bourassa, with Dr. Jerome Kagan.
Q: What would you say was the catalyst that drew you to Psychology, particularly developmental Psychology?
A: My attraction to developmental psychology in 1954, when I made my career choice, was the belief, which was popular at the time, that the experiences of children during the first few years shaped future development. Discovery of these cause –effect relations would allow psychologists to inform parents of the proper behaviors. As a result, it was assumed that crime, psychosis, addiction, and other social ills would be reduced. Few believe that optimistic premise today, but many did in 1954.
Q: Who would you cite as your intellectual influences? This does not have to be limited to those within the field of Psychology.
A: Several people influenced my ideas. My mentor at Yale, Frank Beach, affirmed my personal preference for discovery of nature’s secrets, as opposed to affirming abstract a priori hypotheses. Bohr’s idea of complementarity and the principle that the meaning and validity of every conclusion depend on the source of evidence have had a profound effect on my thought. I have also been influenced by the many historians I have read. Their books taught me that historical events have a more serious effect on the psychology of individuals than most social scientists are willing to admit.
Q: You have completed a great amount of research in the field of developmental Psychology – is there any other stream that has or continues to peak your interest?
A: I continue to read genetics and history for both play important roles in the psychology of the person.
Q: You have a great many publications, including such works as “Growth of the Child”, and “Birth to Maturity”, which would you say you enjoyed writing, and researching for the most?
A: Because “Birth to Maturity” was my first major book and the project that led to the book my initial major investigation, I naturally hold a sentimental feeling for that text and the work that preceded it. I am proud of “ The Long Shadow of Temperament”, written with Nancy Snidman, because it summarized many years of research on the infant temperamental biases we called high and low reactive. I learned a great deal by writing “ The Three Cultures” because I had to read deeply in economics and the humanities.
Q: In the 1970s you conducted research with colleagues on daycare, where you created a daycare of your own, and compared the infants who attended said daycare to those who stayed at home with their mothers. Could you elaborate on the procedure, ie: what the structure of the daycare was, what sorts of activities were provided for the children. What was your inspiration for conducting this research? Do you think if the same study were conducted now, 40 years later, similar results would be shown?
A: The day care study, with Richard Kearsley and Philip Zelazo, was motivated by the historical moment. The Congress was considering sponsoring federal day care centers in the early 1970s because more mothers were working. Many psychologists, including me, were concerned about the consequences of day care on young infants. So NIH gave us a grant to assess the effects of day care on infants from 3 to 29 months of age. We established our own center in the South End of Boston in a working class neighborhood and recruited both European-Caucasian as well as Chinese-American families. The staff played with the infants and provided appropriate cognitive stimulation. A matched control group was reared at home.
We were convinced that we had to assess many infant behaviors directly, rather than rely on maternal reports as the bases for evidence. We also believed that the infant’s response to violations of discrepancy was an important trait. Hence, we devised many procedures to evaluate this property and we coded both behaviors as well as heart rate changes to the violations. Our surprise was discovering that at 29 months there were minimal differences between the infants in our center and those raised at home, but the Chinese and Caucasian infants differed in many traits. That discovery motivated me to study temperament. I believe that if the same study were repeated today the same basic results would be found.
Q: With the recent advances in, and research on, early childhood education, there have been varying views and arguments regarding its efficacy and necessity. I would like to get your point of view on the impact early childhood education programs have on a child’s development.
A: The results of the many intervention efforts with young children have been less effective than many hoped. Ken Dodge has pointed out that one reason for this fact is that the contexts in which the children lived and acted (classroom, playground, evening meal, with peers in groups) were not the contexts in which most of the interventions were implemented. Behaviors are affected by the local context! A child is more likely to hit a peer on the playground than when interacting with a stranger trying to teach them to read or control impulse. In addition, it was a bit naive to assume that 6 to 12 months of intervention experience (usually less than a few hours a week) could offset the effects of home and neighborhood experiences. Finally, it has proven difficult to change the practices of poor or minority parents if they have little faith in the premise that what they do will have a serious effect on their child. As a result, most of the programs that have been reported have had minimal long term effects on a majority of children. We need different kinds of interventions and have to assess a parent’s willingness and receptivity to change.
Q: In “A history in Psychology” you show that cognitive growth is malleable. In recent years the concept of neuroplasticity has become more and more popular- do you agree that our brains remain malleable throughout development, well into adulthood? If this is true, based on your studies in temperament, what would be your take on the idea that adults can alter their temperament?
A: Yes, the brain and behaviors are malleable, especially during the first decade. A temperamental bias for cautious, timid behavior can be changed easily, but that does not mean that the neurobiology that is the basis of the bias is equally malleable. Our results show that many of the children who had been shy, fearful two-year-olds but became sociable, non-timid adults retained the neurophysiology of their initial temperamental bias. The behavioral phenotype can change without a comparable change in the biology. A person with the genes for diabetes can avoid the symptoms by the proper diet even though he or she possesses the risk genes.
Q: What changes have you seen in the study of developmental Psychology from the time you began your career to the present day?
A: The main changes in developmental psychology over the past 60 years include a keen interest in the cognitive capacities of infants that are more complex than perception, studies of the consequences of the attachment bond of infants, concern with executive processes and regulation in older children, and measuring relations between brain states and behavior.
Thank you for answering my questions Dr. Kagan, and I have one more question for you. If there would be one piece of advice or suggestion you could give to aspiring or new Psychologists, what would it be?
A: My advice to the next cohort of psychologists is to be bolder and address more significant problems. Three such questions in developmental psychology are:
- How do the experiences of children from advantaged versus disadvantaged homes affect their development? This requires direct observations over time rather than verbal reports of parents. A child’s social class remains the best predictor of the risk for a mental illness, incarceration, and a metabolic illness.
- Development of procedures that measure a child’s identifications with family, class, ethnicity, and religion. These identifications have profound effect but we do not have methods to measure them with accuracy.
- Initiate studies of the large number of infant temperamental biases by observing infants directly, gathering biological data, and following the children for at least 10 years.