Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future

Download Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future

Post on 09-Feb-2017

213 views

Category:

Documents

0 download

TRANSCRIPT

  • This article was downloaded by: [Stony Brook University]On: 15 October 2014, At: 17:26Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for theAdvancement of Psychological TheoryPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hpli20

    Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict theFutureMichael LewisPublished online: 19 Nov 2009.

    To cite this article: Michael Lewis (1998) Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future, Psychological Inquiry: AnInternational Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory, 9:2, 105-108, DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0902_6

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0902_6

    PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE

    Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the Content) containedin the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis, our agents, and our licensors make norepresentations or warranties whatsoever as to the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of theContent. Any opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors, andare not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content should not be relied upon andshould be independently verified with primary sources of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable forany losses, actions, claims, proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoeveror howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arising out of the use ofthe Content.

    This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any substantial or systematicreproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing, systematic supply, or distribution in anyform to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

    http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/hpli20http://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1207/s15327965pli0902_6http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0902_6http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • COMMENTARIES

    Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future

    Michael Lewis Institute for the Study of Child Development

    Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

    Krantz's arlicle on chance is an interesting one be- cause it presents the question of chance from two points of view. To begin with, there is the psychological resistance to admit to chance as influencing our lives because to do so would mean loss of control. Krantz does a nice jot) in demonstrating the need that people have for control. Although I agree that control is an important issue in discussing chance as it impacts on human lives, I think he has played down an even more important need: the threat to self-identity that chance affords us.

    The second aspect of his article has to do with the nature of the world itself, whether there are really chance events and whether chance as opposed to chaos does exist. This issue, too, I agree is important. In fact, Krantz's article comes at a particularly interesting mo- ment for me because I have just published a book on a very similar topic called Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future (Lewis, 1997). I, too, am interested in the problem of chance and hold, as does Democritus, that "Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity."

    In my discussion of chance I take a developmental perspective. The subtitle of my book, "Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future," is an attempt to introduce the idea that chance plays a critical role in under- standing the developmental process. It has been argued that development is a sequence of small progressions, that it has directionality, and, therefore, an end point, and that it is ca-nsal; that is, earlier events are connected to later ones. This unidirectional bounded process of change leading to some goal called "maturity," where earlier events are related to later events and, therefore, later events can be predicted from them, has often been called the organismic model (Overton & Reese, 1973). In contrast to this view, developmental change may be the result of complex emerging connections that are often random, and certainly unpredictable. Despite my long-held belief in the organismic model, I have come now to offer what James (1975) called the pragmatic model and what is referred to as contexualism, to use Pepper's (1942) term. A contextual model does not require progress or that earlier events are connected to later ones. It requires only adaptation to current context. There are sufficient problems that are inherent in the organismic model that make contexualism worthy of greater consideration. This is especially so because our

    social policies in regard to children's needs and how to parent are determined largely by our organismic view.

    Let us understand what the developmental organis- mic model means. The organismic model, which can be characterized by the idea of inoculation, holds that if children receive the proper care early in childhood, however we might define proper, the care endows the children with certain characteristics that may make the children invulnerable to the subsequent environmental factors that may impinge on their lives. Indeed, devel- opmental psychopathology utilizes both concepts of invulnerability and vulnerability to argue for this inocu- lation idea. Consider the consequences. Years ago I visited a program in Philadelphia designed to foster the socioemotional development of children of teenage inner-city mothers. The program consisted of placing the naked newborn child on the naked belly of the child's mother in the hope that successful early bonding between the two would inoculate the child against the demands of the environment. This early action would alter the child's potential dysfunctional developmental course (see Klaus & Kennell, 1976). Even though this child will live in a poverty-ridden environment often filled with violence, drugs, and disease and it will be raised by a mother with little schooling and no job, this act of early bonding should affect both infant and mother now and affect what happens later in life. How- ever, if we acknowledge the possibility of radical dis- continuity, obstacles, chance encounters, and unavoid- able accidents, it is hard to believe that this intervention could be effective. It has not been (Lamb & Hwang, 1982).

    Most of us still hold to these ideas about develop- ment: Change is gradual and continuous; it has direction and an end point so that we can talk about progress toward that point; earlier events cause or are precursors of later events and in this chain of events, those that occur earlier have the most impact. These ideas that we hold so dearly are in direct opposition to what we know about our own lives and those of others. We all realize that life is dangerous and capricious. A potentially huge number of people and events can and do intervene in our lives, throwing us off course and redirecting our destiny. How, then, can the events of childhood be expected to maintain such a tenacious hold on us? Accidents, wars, famines, disease, and chance encoun- ters have always been our fate. These unexpected and

    Dow

    nloa

    ded

    by [

    Ston

    y B

    rook

    Uni

    vers

    ity]

    at 1

    7:26

    15

    Oct

    ober

    201

    4

  • COMMENTARIES

    unpredictable events punctuate our lives and should cause us to question why we think that life is a con- nected, predictable, steady, and orderly succession of events. Nevertheless, most of us still believe in the predictable model of development over any other pos- sibility. Why do we hold to this organismic view of development and why do we believe there is ample evidence to support it when, in fact, there is not? I believe that our choice of predictability and order is, in fact, part of our psychological need. It is the need we have for explaining ourselves. Our need for identity, that "I remain me no matter what" takes precedence over all other possibilities. This, too, is what fuels our strong belief in the predictable, gradual, and orderly progression of lives.

    A recently published autobiography of Edward 0. Wilson underscores how elusive predictability is and how important it is for each of us to explain our lives. Wilson wrote his story "to understand how . .. (the) apparently unlikely connections (between events) makes sense in hindsight" (Diamond, 1995, p. 16). Wilson's early life reads like a story of a man who would not amount to anything. His family was unedu- cated and none had ever gone to college. He came from a divorced family with an alcoholic father who commit- ted suicide. He suffered many physical ailments includ- ing mild hearing loss and near blindness in one eye. Moreover, he was a poor student. When asked, few of us would predict that such a history would lead to a distinguished academic career. In fact, we often use circumstances, such as lack of education, family back- ground, early parental death, divorce, and alcoholism as examples of the possible causes of poor school or work performance. Yet Wilson did succeed and his autobiography is an attempt to explain how this came about. Many of us would argue that for Wilson there was some predetermined path that accounted for his particular outcome. Something in this man, a trait or characteristic found early, determined what he was to be. No matter what particular challenge or random event occurred, this attribute would always lead him back to his predetermined path. Thus, although Wilson confronted many challenges, the characteristics he pos- sessed allowed him always to come out right. Such an argument would have us believe that accidents and chance encounters influence us only as long as we let them. Letting them applies a process that itself is influ- enced by our past and that allows only certain events and not others to affect us.

    Wilson's attempt to make plausible the connections between his early life and how it has come out forms his personal narrative. These life narratives, as Krantz suggests, are a way for us to account for and put in order the events of our lives. They are important to all of us

    because they provide us with a history and explanation for the way we are. These narratives carry our identity. They explain to us and to others what we are by account- ing for how they came about. Their importance for people is not whether they are correct but whether the story they tell is satisfying. In Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the Future, I question the claim that such narratives represent the early events in our lives and have somehow caused our later behavior. Although the narratives are important in their own right, their veracity should be questioned because they rest on our memories of our past. This is because memories of the past, themselves, serve our current narrative. We remember or even reconstruct memories that fit with what we think about ourselves now. Our reconstruction of our past and how it leads to what we are now is our best and only explanation. The causal path forward in time, the prediction of the future given the past, is complex.

    History allows us to reconstruct how life progresses but it does not allow us to predict its progress. Because we have cells and minds it may be difficult to show that early events have an impact on subsequent events. The self and its construction of reality interrupts the chain of events between past and present. We give meaning to our behavior, both in the past and in the present. The task of the self is to construct a narrative that allows us to explain events as they are occurring now. This expla- nation may require that we reconstruct our past to make it fit with what we are now, a point made by Kierkegaard (1846) in his description of existential contingency. Developmental processes serve the pragmatic function of allowing us to adapt to the present so we might say that the end point of development is the need for mean- ing now. Moreover, because we are constructing organ- isms, we are capable of having an enduring idea about ourselves and we have a need to find meaning that will preserve that idea.

    The preservation of our identities is necessary for adaptation. How could we exist in a world if we did not know who we are? The stories we create about our lives are narratives allowing us to reconstruct our histories to fit with what we are now or want to be in the future, thus to preserve our identity. Our idea of a good story, whether it be of our own life or some other person, is one in which the pieces fit together. They touch and one event flows into another. So we create our histories, even as historians do, by tying the actual discontinuities together to make them match our perception of human lives as continuous and directional. These life narratives also fit with our notion of causality and that events that happen earlier affect events that happen now. Our per- sonal life narratives must explain how we got from one point to another so they are likely designed to eliminate

    Dow

    nloa

    ded

    by [

    Ston

    y B

    rook

    Uni

    vers

    ity]

    at 1

    7:26

    15

    Oct

    ober

    201

    4

  • COMMEN TARIES

    discontinuities. Our narratives are by their nature at- tempts at continuity because it is our unique nature, at least in this age, to think of ourselves as a unity even though we may contain conflicting parts. No matter how difficult these parts may be to reconcile, in the picture we paint of ourselves all the disparate parts somehow get together and form a single "me," a per- sonality we c;m understand. We need to maintain our identity and our narrative serves that need by showing how we are the same, or if we are different how that difference came about.

    Of course, it does not have to be this way. We do not need to construct a narrative that has continuity as one of its chief features. We could live with the idea that what we are now bears only a slight resemblance to what we were:. If that was so we would need a good explanation for the change. This shift in perspective about ourselves would have great impact on our notions of causality and chance, and on our notion of self. It would violate our belief that we have a history whose parts fit in some linear progression.

    In what way can we truly view ourselves as being the same people we were when we were 3 years old? We do not look, act, think, or feel like the 3-year-olds. It is our memo~ry that helps us identify ourselves in those earlier individuals. How can we do this? Following Nozick (198 I), perhaps we can understand this problem if we use a rowboat rather than a person as an example. Imagine we have a rowboat built of wood and that each year we replate one board of the rowboat with a new board. At the end of 50 years none of the original boards of the rowboat remain, yet at no point in this sequence of events have we said that this is not "the same row- boat," nor for that matter would we think that there was not a continuo~us change in this boat. However, if we had replaced all1 of the boards of the rowboat at once we would say that "this is not the same rowboat" and that change was not continuous. When the parts of the rowboat were s~lowly replaced with new ones, which we have called gradualism, we were willing to assume a continuous process of change that was not chance be- cause it was orderly. However, when we change the boards too quickly, we see that identity and continuity cannot be maintained and, thus, chance becomes a more likely explanation. In like fashion, people are willing to assume that the changes that occur over their 50 years are continuous and, therefore, do not alter their identity.

    In this regard it is interesting to note that if change occurs too quickly, if there are too many events in any unit of time, then we are likely to experience disconti- nuity. There are at least two periods in the life cycle when this is likely to occur, adolescence and middle age. In adolescence the physical bodies change rather quickly, and both emotional and psychological events

    also appear to undergo rapid alterations. The same is true in middle age. When we start to lose our physical abilities or our body shape changes, at such a point one of the most noticeable characteristics is the loss of identity. That is, when the changes occur very quickly, as in the rowboat, the ability to maintain identity be- comes difficult. Chance challenges our identities.

    The belief that earlier events affect later behavior is as ingrown, as fixed, as certain as any idea we have concerning human life. The history of such a belief can be found in many ideas of thought. It seems as if we have always believed it true. Freud's earliest writing in The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud, 1950) deals with the determinism of dreams. For Freud, accidents, slips of the tongue, and dreams were deterministic and had meaning. He argued against randomness. Little in our psychic lives is random, he believed. If there are no accidents, if dreams and slips of the tongue, or even hurting oneself has a cause located in our early experi- ences, then the idea that chance or accidents can deter- mine lives is much deflated. I can think of nothing more powerful than the idea that there is no such thing as an accident or a slip of the tongue to support the argument for determinism (and against chance) based on early experience. In more modern times the idea of personal- ity has come to dominate our view of human behavior. Personality can be considered the relatively fixed nature of behavior in the face of changing situations. We see ourselves as having a set of fixed attributes that are likely to lead us to behave, think, or feel the same way no matter what situation we find ourselves in. The idea of a fixed personality is very potent and powerful. At its heart is the claim that attributes or traits exist and so future behavior can be determined if we understand what they are. As Krantz points out, over a decade ago Bandura wrote an article called "The Psycholagy of Chance Encounters and Life Paths" in which he said "psychological theories have neglected the fundamen- tal issue of what determines people's paths. Essential thesis . . . is that chance encounters play a prominent role in shaping the course of human lives (Bandura, 1982). Such an idea, when introduced into the study of devel- opment, forces us to reflect on the possibility that development is a series of changes, best understood by looking backward and accounting for what has tran- spired, rather than looking forward to predict what will occur.

    As I have suggested, the complexity of causes, the number of events and interactions, and chance and accidents over time make it difficult to predict the course of human life. This is not much different than evolutionary biology where explanation of what has happened rather than prediction is sought. The problem that applies to evolutionary time also applies to a human

    Dow

    nloa

    ded

    by [

    Ston

    y B

    rook

    Uni

    vers

    ity]

    at 1

    7:26

    15

    Oct

    ober

    201

    4

  • COMMENTARIES

    life. Random events outside our lives, such as wars, famine, disease, accidents, and death, act on our lives. Like the meteor that crashed into earth killing the dinosaurs and giving birth to mammals, these chance events are all capable of altering our lives in unimagin- able ways and they occur around us all the time. Even the genes we are born with randomly mutate and in their change alter our lives. Complexity, multideterminism, accidents, and chance encounters are just some of the problems inherent in the study of development. What I have left for last in the study of people's lives is the problem of consciousness-the fact that we are not merely grains of sand or laboratory rats but creatures who can think and are capable of thinking about our- selves. Having consciousness means that we can think about the past, present, and the future. We can plan, desire, and have a moral sense. Consciousness allows us to separate the past from the present and the present from the future. We can alter our lives by wishing, hoping, planning, and remembering. Consciousness al- lows us to try to predict our lives as well as to intervene in altering the events that have not yet happened.

    The model that depicts development as a trajectory undisturbed by surrounding events, although created from those events earlier in time, needs reconsideration. I have proposed that in its place we consider chance and with it the idea of contexualism, an idea that does not require historicism. Individuals develop in the presence of random events and lives are more characterized by zigs and zags than by some predetermined connected and linear pattern. It is only when we understand how organisms are influenced by their environments now and how their ideas for their futures can affect their desires and behaviors that we can understand the nature of development, how we got to be where we are, and how we might go about making a more perfect and just society.

    We need to recognize that randomness really does exist. Although chaos theory suggests complexity, it does not argue that truly random events or chance exists and affects our lives. Given the existence of chance, no predictive course of development is likely to be possible. Studies of time, evolutionary biology, and complexity theories lead us away from the organ- ismic model of development and give us a new way of

    thinking about human development. Sudden change, chaos, chance encounters, and random accidents need not leave us feeling ungrounded and fearful. The con- textualism of James (1975), a view that Darwin (1859) also held, a view that emphasizes the role of current adaptation, presents us with a model that allows for more optimism than does historicism. Our lives are determined by the adaptive necessity of our current context, which is open to chance.

    Note

    Michael Lewis, Institute for the Study of Child De- velopment, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, 97 Paterson Street, CN19, New Brunswick, NJ 08903.

    References

    Bandura, A. (1982). The psychology of chance encounters and life paths. American Psychologist, 37, 747-755.

    Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by meam of natural selection. London: John Murray.

    Diamond, J. (1995, January 13). Portrait of the biologist as a young man. New York Review of Books.

    Freud, S. (1950). The interpretation of dream (A. A. Brill, Trans.). New York: Modem Library.

    James, W. (1975). Pragmatism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Kierkegaard, S. (1846). Thepresent age (A. Duc, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

    Klaus, M. H., & Kennell, J. H. (1976). Maternal-infant bonding: The impact of early separation or loss on family development. S t . Louis, MO: Mosby.

    Lamb, M. E., & Hwang, C. P. (1982). Maternal attachment and mother-neonate bonding: A critical review. In M. E. Lamb & A. L. Brown (Ms.), Advances in developmental psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 1-39). Hillsdale, NJ: LawrenceErlbaum Associates, Inc.

    Lewis, M. (1997). Altering fate: Why the past does not predict the future. New York: Guilford.

    Nozick, N. (1981). Philosophical explanation. Cambridge, MA: Belkings.

    Overton, W. F., & Reese, H. W. (1973). Models of development: Methodological implications. In J. R. Nesselroade & H. W. Reese (Ms.), Life-span developmental psychology: Methodo- logical issues (pp. 65-86). New York: Academic.

    Pepper, S. C. (1942). World hypotheses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Dow

    nloa

    ded

    by [

    Ston

    y B

    rook

    Uni

    vers

    ity]

    at 1

    7:26

    15

    Oct

    ober

    201

    4