Psychologists today love to study self-regulation. It is important, they say, for people to be able to regulate their emotions, their impulses, and their behaviors.
The renowned child psychologist Jerome Kagan has a problem with the way some psychologists think about and study self-regulation. Actually, he has lots of problems with what lots of psychologists – including some of the most esteemed in the field – are doing in their research and theorizing. That was clear from the excerpt from his new book, The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development, published at Salon.
Kagan believes that psychologists assume too much consistency in our self-regulation. Citing research, he notes that:
“…Eli Tsukayama and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania found that few adults regulate inappropriate, impulsive decisions across the domains of work, social relationships, sex, gambling, and investing money. Most who admit to making impulsive decisions in one domain—say, eating too much at restaurants—are not impulsive when spending money or working. Tiger Woods effectively regulated impulsive decisions in most areas of his life but failed to activate that property when he was tempted by sexual desire.”
When psychologists speculate about certain children of “single parents” and their purported problems with regulation aggression, Kagan has a problem with that. Here he is discussing one particular subset of such children:
“It is misleading to argue, as a few psychologists do, that youths from poor, single-parent families living in urban neighborhoods with drug dealers, pimps, and rival gangs do not regulate their aggression as well as children from comfortable, affectionate, two-parent families living in safer small towns. The latter youths encounter far fewer occasions where they have to regulate inappropriate actions. A marble in a groove is not effectively regulating its perfectly straight motion.”
I love that last line. It reminds me of that quip about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.
By the way, there’s a provocative interview with Kagan at PBS. If you start reading it, don’t stop until you get to the end where he suggests solutions to the problems he’s discussing.
Mother and child on a bench image available from Shutterstock.