Sunday, February 19, 2012

Building Self-Control, the American Way

This is the title of a NYT article written by a molecular biologist and a science journalist. They offer a response to all the hype surrounding the publication of “Bringing Up Bébé,” in which an American expat shares her admiration for the effortless way in which French parents project authority and help their kids develop patience and self-discipline. So, what is the American way?
Very simple: you can eat your cake and have it, too: “Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure. Behavior is powerfully shaped not only by parents or teachers but also by children themselves. The key is to harness the child’s own drives for play, social interaction and other rewards. Enjoyable activities elicit dopamine release to enhance learning, while reducing the secretion of stress hormones, which can impede learning and increase anxiety, sometimes for years.” A skeptic could object that the pursuit of “enjoyable activities” over the last half century or so has not exactly spurred stronger self-control across most sections of American society. But never mind – the science says otherwise. And, in any case, steadfast self-discipline may have an unsuspected downside. And there may be another problem with the NYT piece. The authors state with confidence that increased self-control, which comes with constant, preferably joyful, practice, “improves life outcomes.” As Jonah Lehrer explains on his blog, however (“Why Being Sleepy and Drunk Are Great for Creativity”), self-control can in fact block the free play of associations which underlies true creativity. If this is the case, then China, which still places so much more emphasis on effort and self-denial, may indeed have trouble moving up the value-added food chain that is now spanning the globe.