The Magazine

Their Right Stuff

The evolution of the Harvard guinea pigs.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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In the 1930s, a group of psychologists and physical anthropologists at Harvard chose 268 students whose medical, amatory, and career experiences they wished to document over the remaining decades of their lives. Department-store mogul W. T. Grant, who bankrolled the study, was curious about what made a good commanding officer or retail manager—more generally, a good leader of men. The Grant study is now ending, as its youngest subjects pass 90. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who has directed the study since the 1960s and published periodic updates on its findings, offers a final report in Triumphs of Experience. Turns out the main thing the study has discovered is the corruption of the various worldviews in the name of which it was conducted.

The Harvard Swim Team

The Harvard Swim Team

Corbis

Even at the height of the egalitarian New Deal, professors were certain that the place to find leadership material was in the high-achieving segment of the upper classes. Since this was to be a study of optimal, not average, development, it was screened even further. Future Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee ’42, scion of the Crowninshield family of Massachusetts, was among those whose features piqued the interest of investigators. Neither Leonard Bernstein ’39 nor Norman Mailer ’43 made the cut. 

Not to beat around the bush, the Grant study was a study in eugenics, as that term was understood in the 1930s. This was just a decade after Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding Virginia’s sterilization policy on the grounds that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” One of the study’s early leaders, the anthropologist Earnest Hooton, hoped it would lead to “effective control of individual quality through genetics, or breeding.” 

A mesomorphic (muscular) body type was a sign of the right stuff; blubbery endomorphs and gangly ectomorphs were less promising. But Sigmund Freud had made inroads into American academia, too. So the Grant study was, from the outset, an uneasy mix of phrenology, somatotyping, race theory, and psycho-analysis. Not only did the young men have their skulls, pulses, and scrota measured; they also took Rorschach tests and filled out questionnaires about how they’d been toilet trained and how often they masturbated. 

The study was barely a decade old when the revelations of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement brought its original eugenic slant into disrepute. But there had to be some use for those hundreds of blue-blood men on the hook to be studied intimately for a lifetime, and a use was found. In 1954, the tobacco industry gave the study money to look for “the positive reasons” that people smoke. For a decade after 1972, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sponsored its research, and Vaillant published his book The Natural History of Alcoholism in 1983. At big research universities, intellectual curiosity waits on grant money, and not vice versa.

Through every change of focus, the study continued to take its bearings and biases from psychiatry. In the second half of the 20th century, Harvard’s psychology department was under the sway of Erik Erikson, a protégé of Freud’s daughter Anna. Erikson’s vision focused on relationships and life “tasks,” such as intimacy, “generativity,” career consolidation, and “guardianship.” Back then, this seemed an open-minded alternative to the penile dogmatism of Freud; today it sounds only marginally less nuts. When Vaillant writes about coding subjects “for the highest Eriksonian psychosocial task they had mastered,” readers will be reminded less of social science than of those glossy-magazine features about Scientology that appear any time Tom Cruise acts up. 

As with orthodox Freudianism, there is a hedonistic bias to the ideal of maturity that the study proclaims. To blossom is to shed “rigid” attitudes. There is nothing more contemptible than an “inhibition.” Perhaps you think that, in a free society, in-hibitions are good since they spare us from having to submit to others’ pro-hibitions. But if that is how you think, you will find this book’s system of values un-intelligible. Vaillant sees evidence of one Episcopal minister’s maturation in the way “he had put aside absolute convictions about faith, morality, and authority in favor of a new appreciation of their relativity and mutability.” If this book has a hero, it is a meathead named Boatwright, who says, “I don’t give a damn if I’m remembered for anything. I’ve enjoyed my life and had a hell of a good time.”

Harvard social scientists have a track record of tarting up ruling-class preferences to look like hard-won common sense. The thought has dawned on Vaillant, too, and he is on the lookout for his own biases. “I held a deep belief,” he writes, “that Republicans are neither as loving nor as altruistic as Democrats.” To his credit, he frets at the way his sample of the best and brightest somehow wound up even more wildly skewed than anyone would expect it to be. Seventy-one percent describe themselves as “liberal.” Ninety-one percent favored de-escalation in Vietnam in 1967—a time when national majorities remained hawkish. 

Vaillant is no apostle of hardline Freudianism, but there are certain parts of it he means to defend to the bitter end. He recognizes that most mid-20th-century psychoanalysts’ bogeymen have turned out, upon further examination, to be figments of the academic imagination. “Even that old standby, the cold, rejecting mother, failed to predict late life emotional illness or poor aging,” he admits. 

Like a progressive Christian or a Gorbachevian Communist, Vaillant aims to defend his religion’s ethics while disbelieving its revelation. He demands credit for Freudianism’s good intentions. He wants to keep the Freudian typology of oral, anal, and phallic personalities: “Orality,” he writes, “is more usefully seen as a metaphor for the longing of hearts that have not learned to fill themselves with hope and love.” (Society at large is having a similar difficulty weaning itself off the word “anal” as a synonym for “neat.”) 

Vaillant is particularly insistent that “defense mechanisms”—character adjustments that allow psycholo-gically wounded humans to adjust to, and overcome, their pain—“are not just one more dogma of the psychoanalytic religion.” He even developed a four-stage hierarchy to prove that mature defense mechanisms, such as humor and altruism, produce a better adjustment to life at age 65 than immature defense mechanisms, such as psychotic distortion and hypochondria. In other words, his study has proved that an ability to adapt predicts an ability to adapt.

Vaillant’s boldest conclusions generally take this form: tautologies presented as if they belong in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He sets up a “Decathlon of Flourishing”—a rather redundant list of career, health, and family outcomes—and then speaks of a “capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” Since Vaillant has already defined flourishing as an ability to enter and nurture relationships, this is not a surprise. He also establishes that a person who is well-integrated (i.e., able “to surmount common problems which confront him such as career choice, competitive environment, and moral and religious attitudes”) is more likely to flourish later in life. In other words, people who are good at addressing life’s problems do better at life than those who are not. 

The study does deliver surprises in describing the effects of alchoholism. Vaillant may be boasting when he writes that his work was able “to disprove the illusion that securely diagnosed alcoholics can return to successful social drinking” since that illusion had been long-dispelled by the 1980s. But he is right that alcoholism is “the most ignored causal factor in modern social science.” In this study, alcoholism is the most important factor in divorce. (Certainly it causes marital problems; it may also cause problem marriages in the first place.) Booze also affects longevity considerably more than total cholesterol, frequent exercise, and obesity do. 

In its alcoholism data, the Grant study has something precious that very few studies of alcoholism have ever had: reliable blind data on alcoholics before they became problem drinkers. It is the tendency of drinkers to say that they drink to remedy unhappiness, and of those around them to say that there was always something funny about Old Jack, even before he began falling over at Rotary Club breakfasts and making passes at the boss’s wife. 

These impressions turn out to be quite false. The only important way in which alcoholics differ from non-alcoholics before they become addicts is in their dramatically higher tolerance for booze, which is inherited. This does not justify calling alcoholism a “disease”—“condition” would be a better word—but it does point to a strong genetic component. The Grant study has recently set out to collect DNA samples from all of its surviving subjects. The study has also made the bizarre discovery that subjects’ late-life mental health is strongly associated with the longevity of maternal grandfathers. That indicates a link to both traits somewhere on the X chromosome. 

Vaillant is led to the uncomfortable conclusion that there are certain grounds on which nature is always more important than nurture. Having arrived at the Grant study after it rejected the idea that biology is destiny, he has presided over biology’s return. “In retrospect,” he writes, “I can see that environmentalism in the post-war social sciences was just as extreme as the pre-war hereditarianism had been.” What a come-uppance. Gene science has brought a partial vindication of the men with the skull-clamps and the scrotum-calipers. 

Just as communism, according to an old Hungarian joke, was the long road from capitalism to capitalism, psychiatry now looks like the long road that led from Darwinism to Darwinism.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.