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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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.