altering fate: why the past does not predict the future

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  • Altering Fate: Why the Past Does Not Predict the FutureAuthor(s): Michael LewisSource: Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1998), pp. 105-108Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 01:14

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    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 article 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 job 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 causal; 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 tlhat 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 concepits 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. HIow- ever, if we acknowledge the possibility of radical. dis- continuity, obstacles, chance encounters, and unavoid- able accidents, it is hard to believe that this intervenition 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 precuirsors of later events and in this chain of events, those that occur earlier have the most impact. These ideas thaet 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


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    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


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