The Cat in the Cradle Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree?, or, Advances in Behavioral Science

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A Berkeley professor finds that whiny, insecure kids grow up to be conservatives–in Berkeley, at least. In that context, it's hard to imagine that growing up right-wing wouldn't be some sign of a staunch independence of character and unwillingness to go with the herd. Still, Dr. Jack Block says

The whiny kids [he started following in the 1960s in Berkeley nursery schools] 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.
…….
There was a .27 correlation between being self-reliant in nursery school and being a liberal as an adult. Another way of saying it is that self-reliance predicts statistically about 7 per cent of the variance between kids who became liberal and those who became conservative. (If every self-reliant kid became a liberal and none became conservatives, it would predict 100 per cent of the variance). Seven per cent is fairly strong for social science, but it still leaves an awful lot of room for other influences, such as friends, family, education, personal experience and plain old intellect.

[Link via Rational Review.]

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  1. What about Whiny Liberals? Who’s going to think of The Children?

  2. “Seven per cent is fairly strong for social science”

    Wow. I’m not going to take social science very seriously if a .27 correlation coefficient is enough to establish a link.

  3. There are conservatives in Berkeley? mild surprise

  4. The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests.

    All this goes to show, is that ‘social science’ is still mostly social and relatively free of science. Biased language like the above should never make it past peer review. Also a .27 correlation is meaningless. It may well be “fairly strong for social science”, but again, this only proves that social scientists don’t know very much about what they are talking about.

  5. I bet that whiny kids that grow up in conservative regions end up liberal.

    I’m partially kidding and I agree that this is garbage science (and maybe not really science at all).

  6. If Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University released a study finding a correlation between atheism and unflattering personality traits, everyone would laugh at it. A Berkeley study on conservatives is no more credible. Berkeley has established an institutional identity for itself, which has certain advantages, but it makes it impossible to take them seriously as an objective academic institution. Like it or not, branding has costs.

  7. Take some statistics, people.

    A weak correlation that dependably shows up isn’t a fluke, but a demonstration of a real, though not controlling, influence.

    It would be overreaching to claim that the childhood personality distinctions explain all or most of the political differentiation during adulthood, but studies keep coming back clustered around the .27 variance, than it is real, even if it is small.

    And the word you’re looking for, Warran, isn’t “biased.” It’s “subjective.” And subjective categories are real nonetheless. “Pretty” is a subjective judgement, but you’d be a fool to conclude that it is useless to do studies that compare those considered pretty with those considered not-pretty.

  8. I think he’s got his causation arrow pointing the wrong way.

    Would it be a shock to learn that in a heavily and vocally left-liberal environment like Berkeley, the liberal kids turned out confident, while the conservative kids, beset on all sides by an intolerant orthodoxy, were defensive (“whiny”)?

  9. RC,

    The studies looked at kids who were defined as “confident” and “whiny” by their pre-school teachers. I’m pretty sure whiny four-year-olds didn’t become so because they were vocal about being Republicans.

  10. I detect a cornucopia of confounding variables in all this.

    I assign exactly 2 grains of salt to this study.

  11. joe,

    I don’t think they’re discussing toddler Republicans versus toddler Democrats. Like RC Dean suggested, their worldviews and experiences are in the minority perhaps, and therefore on the defensive, hence “whiny”.

  12. If I had to live in Berkeley, I would probably whine, too.

    I’d be interested to see if there was any difference between genders – I didn’t see any mention of that in this story.

    I wonder what childhood traits indicate libertarianism. Maybe the kids selling their cookies at snack time.

  13. Does this mean that conservatives get all of their whining out of the way in their toddler years?

  14. Re Social Science:

    I read a quote somewhere (and I can’t remember who said it) that any field that feels compelled to put “science” in its name isn’t really science.

    Of course, I’m in Computer Science, so there you go.

  15. Considering previous Berkeley studies on conservatism, I suppose this proves that Hitler and Mussolini were whiny toddlers as well.

  16. Are young libertarians more or less whiny than young conservatives? Enquiring minds want to know.

    This:

    “The whiny kids [he started following in the 1960s in Berkeley nursery schools] 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.”

    seems more than a little silly. I see an implication of bright = liberal, liberal = non conforming (with each other?), and conservative = uncomfortable with ambiguity. I’m not comfortable with any of those as general rules.

  17. Joe’s dead right about the statistics. .27 may not be much, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. How real it is depends on its statistical significance or confidence, but as usual that information is omitted from the popular press account.

  18. “There was a .27 correlation between being self-reliant in nursery school and being a liberal as an adult.”

    And to think that the Republicans thought the welfare was full of Democrats!

    With this new-found knowledge, do the Democrats have any chance of ever winning another major election? I mean, sure, they’ll get the self-reliant upper-middle class entrepreneurial vote, but that’s not enough to win.

  19. “The studies looked at kids who were defined as “confident” and “whiny” by their pre-school teachers. I’m pretty sure whiny four-year-olds didn’t become so because they were vocal about being Republicans.”

    But an adult or adolescent might become so in a hostile environment, and therefore bias the comparison between ages.

  20. It would be interesting to see this experiment repeated in a red state.

    The idea that whiny kids seek the support of the status quo doesn’t make sense if these kids grew up in Berkeley. Perhaps the whiny kids seek the outsider status that being a conservative in Berkeley would provide.

  21. All preschoolers sound whiny to me.

  22. Not being a scientist, I nonetheless have to admit that dividing people into such categories as “whiny” or “self-reliant”, while useful and unavoidable in a social context, doesn’t seem to be either in a scientific one. Like Joe said, it is authentic to run tests on subjective standards (say people seen as “pretty” and “ugly”), but the results always say more about the people who label than the ones labeled. I would like to see what a “whiny” kid in Berkeley is– and then the next step would be to see if that is what “whiny” is all throughout the country.

  23. If this study had turned out opposite, we no doubt would be hearing how obnoxious arrogant bullying know it alls grow up to be conservative and more sensitive thoughtful children grow up to be liberals. What a waste of time.

    I agree with Eric and Joe’s points about how the term “whinny” is hardly scientific. Can we please stop calling “social science” “science” now?

  24. Putting aside the questions about what it means to be ‘liberal’, ‘classic liberal’, blah blah, what on gods green earth is ‘self reliant’ about a modern liberal?

  25. Perhaps whiny kids issue from whiny parents, conservative kids issue from conservative parents, and self-confident conservatives are likely to find a place more friendly than Berkeley.

    That this study came from so archetypically one-sided a community makes small correlations mostly garbage.

  26. It would be overreaching to claim that the childhood personality distinctions explain all or most of the political differentiation during adulthood, but studies keep coming back clustered around the .27 variance, than it is real, even if it is small.

    What’s whiny, what’s self reliant, how did he control his subjects? Joe, I can generate a study that shows all kinds of crazy things about ‘personality traits’ which would come out ‘statistically significant’.

    Meaningless.

  27. Steven Pinker mentions some research in one of his books that correlated right or left political beliefs with birth order: first borns tended to be conservative as adults, last borns were radicals. This is exactly true of my own children, for what it’s worth.

  28. Can we please stop calling “social science” “science” now?

    I second that motion.

  29. If I had to live in Berkeley, I would probably whine, too.

    Hence your conservatism.

    I give this study no more consideration. It’s done, stick a fork in it.

  30. Steven Pinker mentions some research in one of his books that correlated right or left political beliefs with birth order: first borns tended to be conservative as adults, last borns were radicals. This is exactly true of my own children, for what it’s worth.

    But could a last born be radically conservative? Like, what if you lived in a place like, oh, France. Would it be subversive and ‘really out there, man’ to be a conservative?

  31. Like Joe said, it is authentic to run tests on subjective standards (say people seen as “pretty” and “ugly”), but the results always say more about the people who label than the ones labeled.

    Precisely. Maybe the ‘whiny’ kids didn’t believe in recycling, or maybe they didn’t want to spontaneously go into ‘shape of tree’ when the Berkely pre-school teacher shouted ‘Tree!’. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable healing their owies with acupuncture. Maybe they didn’t want to quit playing legos to engage in a ‘teach-in’ about multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome. All these things could add up to the perception of whiny behavior by the Berkely (lord help the little ones) preschool teacher.

  32. “Steven Pinker mentions some research in one of his books that correlated right or left political beliefs with birth order: first borns tended to be conservative as adults, last borns were radicals. ”

    I believe the research you’re talking about is elaborated upon in a book titled Born to Rebel. Michael Shermer also uses that research in connection with Scientists who discovered new and initially controversial scientific paradigms/discoveries, (Darwin Einstein etc.). From what I understand though, the research into birth order is supposedly hardly conclusive evidence of anything.

    For what its worth, I’m the older of two brothers and my younger bro is a hell of a lot more conservative than i am when it comes to social issues.

  33. As Mr. Twain has been quoted; “Figures don’t lie, but liars sure can figure.”

  34. “A weak correlation that dependably shows up isn’t a fluke, but a demonstration of a real, though not controlling, influence.”

    Key word being dependably.

    “It would be overreaching to claim that the childhood personality distinctions explain all or most of the political differentiation during adulthood, but studies keep coming back clustered around the .27 variance, than it is real, even if it is small.”

    I think you’re missing an “if” between the words but and studies.

  35. I’m going to take a wild, non-scientific guess and say that the political identity of the parents is the #1 factor in the political identity of the children, regardless of whether they are whiny or perfect little angels.

    For what little it’s worth, the whiniest children I’ve noticed seem to belong to the most tereotypical lefty types who don’t seem to want to discipline them. That’s just in my experience, though. In my observation, whining is something that only lasts if it gets results, i.e., if the parents cave in.

  36. Another problem is that, in many aspects of our current society/govt, it is “conservatives” who want change and “liberals” who want to preserve the status quo. eg, Social Security, abortion, cultural acceptance of homosexuality, and obscenity/indecency laws. Even if a researcher used a rigorous methodology in a study like this, (s)he would have to contend with the fact that the political labels and personality types do not have the same meaning.

  37. My research seems to indicate children who are douche-bags tend to grow up to be liberals and children who are dick-heads tend to grow up to be conservative.

  38. it doesn’t particularly surprise me that someone who spends a long time in a position of weakness (i.e. an insecure child) would grow up to be a supporter of whatever portions of the status quo they have managed to use to their advantage. if you grow up insecure, you spend a lot of time trying to find security in the context of the society around you. once you find that modicum of security in your world, you obviously wouldn’t want the structures that provide that security to go away. conservatism makes sense as a response to insecurity.

    but then again, i don’t know how they are defining conservatism and liberalism, and i haven’t bothered to read all of the study. If it has to do with voting then it’s safe to say that the results are meaningless, but if it’s based on an evalution of the subjects’ attitude toward change in general, i say my point holds.

    also, i’d bet (a little bit of) money that there’s a correlation between extreme self-confidence and libertarianism. maybe also extreme insecurity… libertarianism could be overcompensation.

  39. The correlation coefficient isn’t the most helpful measure of predictiveness with a binary outcome, since it’s dependent on the prior probability. It’s easy to get non parametric measures like the KS 2 sample test statistic.

    Thoreau back me up while I RTFA.

  40. what on gods green earth is ‘self reliant’ about a modern liberal?

    When liberal kids go to pick up their welfare checks, they get on their bicycles and pedal themselves there, whereas conservative kids borrow Mommy and Daddy’s SUV and drive.

  41. 95 kids from the Berkeley area
    Move along. There is nothing to see here.

  42. Hey who’s highjacking my nome de plume?
    I think it is dumb-asses who end up conservative and smart-asses that end up liberal… and the jack-asses end up?

    JohnL,
    I would back you , but I doubt that there was really a binary outcome in the study… more likely this was a piece of a large multivariate analysis. But I haven’t read the study, so what’d’I’know… can’t tell from the article what other categories they used.

    What I would like to see would be effect sizes with confidence intervals.

  43. Putting aside the questions about what it means to be ‘liberal’, ‘classic liberal’, blah blah, what on gods green earth is ‘self reliant’ about a modern liberal?

    I have a better one. If you study a group of people from Berkeley how on god’s green earth can you label the liberals among them “non-conforming?”

  44. Science – I would expect a dichotomous outcome, otherwise they are in even worse shape with regards to degrees of freedom than the “95 kids” suggests. then it’s probably a multiple regression model. Not really worth looking into since there is no way 95 kids is going to support a confidence interval around an R of .27 that doesn’t include 0.

  45. (Tried to post this earlier, but the squirrels were uncooperative -)

    Go to Berkeley. Tell people you’re working for the NRA, or you’re a big Bush fan. See how “bright” and “non-conforming” the adults act.

    Pretending that you can scientifically study utterly subjective and relative categories like “liberal” and “conservative” is purest horse-hockey.

  46. I’ve noticed an extremely high correlation between Berkeley professors and studies trying to suggest that left-wingers have various desirable traits and right-wingers have various unsavory traits.

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