Scott Alexander, (NO_ITEM_DATA:alexanderWhatDevelopmentalMilestonesAreYouMissing2015)


Developmental psychology never struck my interest in the same way as a lot of other kinds of psychology. It didn’t seem to give me insight into my own life, help me understand my friends, or explain weird things about society.

I’ve changed my mind about all of that after reading David Chapman’s Developing Ethical, Social, and Cognitive Competence.

[Alexander’s link is dead, so I’ve replaced it with my own]

First, a refresher. Developmental psychology describes how children go from helpless infants to reasonable adults. Although a lot of it has to do with sensorimotor skills like walking and talking, the really interesting stuff is cognitive development. Children start off as very buggy reasoners incapable of all but the most superficial forms of logic but gradually go on to develop new abilities and insights that allow them to navigate adult life.

Maybe the most famous of these is “theory of mind” [Theory of mind], the ability to view things from other people’s perspective. In a classic demonstration, researchers show little Amy a Skittles bag and ask what she thinks is inside. She guesses Skittles, but the researchers open it and reveal it’s actually pennies. Then they close it up and invite little Brayden into the room. Then they ask Amy what Brayden thinks is inside. If Amy’s three years old or younger, she’ll usually say “pennies” – she knows that pennies are inside, so why shouldn’t Brayden know too? If she’s four or older, she’ll usually say “Skittles” – she realizes on a gut level that she and Brayden are separate minds and that Brayden will have his own perspective. Sometimes the same mistake can extend to preferences and beliefs. Wikipedia gives the example of a child saying “I like Sesame Street, so Daddy must like Sesame Street too.” This is another theory of mind failure grounded in an inability to separate self and environment.

Here’s another example which tentatively sounds like a self-environment failure. Young children really don’t get foreign languages. I got a little of this teaching English in Japan, and heard more of it from other people. The really young kids treated English like a cipher; everybody started out knowing things’ real (ie Japanese) names, but Americans insisted on converting them into their own special American-person code before talking about them. Kids would ask weird things like whether American parents would make an exception and speak Japanese to their kids who were too young to have learned English yet, or whether it was a zero-tolerance policy sort of thing and the families would just not communicate until the kids went to English school. And I made fun of them, but I also remember the first time I visited Paris I heard somebody talking to their dog, and for a split second I was like “Why would you expect your dog to know French?” before my brain kicked in and I was like “Duuhhhh….”

The infamous “magical thinking” [Magical thinking] which kids display until age 7 or so also involves confused self-environment boundaries. Maybe little Amy gets mad at Brayden and shouts “I HATE HIM” to her mother. The next day, Brayden falls off a step and skins his knee. Amy intuits a cause-and-effect relationship between her hatred and Brayden’s accident and feels guilty. She doesn’t realize that her hatred is internal to herself and can’t affect the world directly. Or kids displaying animism at this age, and expecting that the TV doesn’t work because it’s angry, or the car’s not starting because it’s tired.

Relevant: Child development stages.

Psychology textbooks never discuss whether this progression in and out of developmental stages is innate or environmental, which is weird because psychology textbooks usually love that sort of thing. I always assumed it was innate, because it was on the same timeline as things like walking and talking which are definitely innate. But I’ve been moved to question that after reading some of the work comparing “primitive” cultures to primitive developmental stages.

This probably isn’t the most politically correct thing to do, but it’s notable enough that anthropologists have been thinking about it for centuries. For example, from Ethnicity, Nationality, and Religious Experience (a):

Primitive people are generally as intelligent as the people of any culture, including the contemporary industrial-electronic age cultures. that makes it all the more significant that their publicly shared cognitive style shows little identifiable formal operational thought. The probable explanation for this, if true, is simply that formal operational thought is more complexly difficult than earlier modes of thought and will be used in a culture in a publicly shared way only if that culture has developed techniques for training people in its use. Primitive cultures do not do that, and thus by default use easier styles of thought, ones closer in form to concrete oeprational and even pre-operational thought, as defined by Piaget.

Primitive cultures certainly exhibit the magical thinking typical of young children; this is the origin of a whole host of superstitions and witch-doctory. They exhibit the same animism; there are hundreds of different animistic religions worldwide. And although I didn’t talk much about theories of moral development, primitive cultures’ notion of taboo is pretty similar to Kohlberg’s conventional stage.

But if different cultures progress through developmental milestones at different rates or not at all, then these aren’t universal laws of child development but facts about what skills get learned slowly or quickly in different cultures. In this model, development is not a matter of certain innate abilities like walking “unfolding” at the right time, but about difficult mental operations that you either learn or you don’t depending on how hard the world is trying to cram them into your head.

This reads to me as supporting the idea that Culture is the secret of humanity’s success. Cultures don’t all have the same zeitgeist, etc. Culturally-driven adaptations, lessons, etc, will be absent or less pronounced in individuals who grew up in cultures which lack them.

I remember reading this piece by Nathan Robinson, where he compares his own liberal principles saying that colleges shouldn’t endorse war-violence-glorifying film “American Sniper” to some conservatives arguing that colleges shouldn’t endorse homosexuality-glorifying book “Fun Home”:

It is hypocrisy for liberals to laugh at and criticize the Duke students who have objected to their summer reading book due to its sexual and homosexual themes. They didn’t seem to react similarly when students at other universities tried to get screenings of American Sniper cancelled. If you say the Duke students should open their minds and consume things they disagree with, you should say the same thing about the students who boycotted American Sniper. Otherwise, you do not really have a principled belief that people should respect and take in other opinions, you just believe they should respect and take in your own opinions. How can you think in one case the students are close-minded and sheltered, but in the other think they are open-minded and tolerant? What principled distinction is there that allows you to condemn one and praise the other, other than believing people who agree with you are better?

He proposes a bunch of potential counterarguments, then shoots each counterargument down by admitting that the other side would have a symmetrical counterargument of their own: for example, he believes that “American Sniper” is worse because it’s racist and promoting racism is genuinely dangerous to a free society, but then he admits a conservative could say that “Fun Home” is worse because in their opinion it’s homosexuality that’s genuinely dangerous to a free society. After three or four levels of this, he ends up concluding that he can’t come up with a meta-level fundamental difference, but he’s going to fight for his values anyway because they’re his. I’m not sure what I think of this conclusion, but my main response to his article is oh my gosh he gets the thing, where “the thing” is a hard-to-describe ability to understand that other people are going to go down as many levels to defend their self-consistent values as you will to defend yours. It seems silly when I’m saying it like this, and you should probably just read the article, but I’ve seen so many people who lack this basic mental operation that this immediately endeared him to me. I would argue Nathan Robinson has a piece of theory-of-mind that a lot of other people are missing.

Actually, I was kind of also thinking this with his most recent post (a), which complains about a Washington Post article (a). The Post argues that because the Democrats support gun control and protest police, they are becoming the “pro-crime party”. I’m not sure whether the Post genuinely believes the Democrats are pro-crime by inclination or are just arguing their policies will lead to more crime in a hyperbolic figurative way, but I’ve certainly seen sources further right make the “genuinely in favor of crime as a terminal value” argument. And this doesn’t seem too different from the leftist sources that say Republicans can’t really care about the lives of the unborn, they’re just “anti-woman” as a terminal value. Both proposals share this idea of not being able to understand that other people have different beliefs than you and that their actions proceed naturally from those beliefs. Instead of saying “I believe gun control would increase crime, but Democrats believe the opposite, and from their different perspective banning guns makes sense,” they say “I believe gun control would increase crime, Democrats must believe the same, and therefore their demands for gun control must come from sinister motives.”

(compare: “Brayden brought the Skittles bag with him for lunch, so he must enjoy eating pennies.” Or: “Daddy is refusing to watch Sesame Street with me, so he must be secretly watching it with someone else he likes better instead.”)

[Broken links replaced]

Related to this idea: Ian Danskin | Always a Bigger Fish. I’m still not sure where I fall on this issue. On the one hand, The purpose of a system is what it does. On the other hand, the world is complex and the outcome may not have been entirely understood, predictable, or independent (in that the resulting effect was the result of more than just the single policy). As an example, take the Southern strategy. It’s explicit goal was to gain voters by appealing to their racism. However, you can’t come right out and say that or you’ll lose votes. So they used Dog whistles – at least until they could kill the euphamism.