Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 | 2:01 a.m.
Nearly every parent on earth operates on the assumption that character matters a lot to the life outcomes of their children. Nearly every government anti-poverty program operates on the assumption that it doesn’t.
Most Democratic anti-poverty programs consist of transferring money, providing jobs or otherwise addressing the material deprivation of the poor. Most Republican anti-poverty programs likewise consist of adjusting the economic incentives or regulatory barriers faced by the disadvantaged.
As Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution pointed out recently in National Affairs, both orthodox progressive and conservative approaches treat individuals as if they were abstractions — as if they were part of a species of “hollow man” whose destiny is shaped by economic structures alone, and not by character and behavior.
It’s easy to understand why policymakers would skirt the issue of character. Nobody wants to be seen blaming the victim — spreading the calumny that the poor are that way because they don’t love their children enough, or don’t have good values. Furthermore, most sensible people wonder if government can do anything to alter character anyway.
The problem is that policies that ignore character and behavior have produced disappointing results. Social research over the past decade or so has reinforced the point that would have been self-evident in any other era — that if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.
Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood. Carol Dweck’s work has shown that people who have a growth mindset — who believe their basic qualities can be developed through hard work — do better than people who believe their basic talents are fixed and innate. Angela Duckworth has shown how important grit and perseverance are to lifetime outcomes. College students who report that they finish whatever they begin have higher grades than their peers, even ones with higher SATs. Spelling bee contestants who scored significantly higher on grit scores were 41 percent more likely to advance to later rounds than less resilient competitors.
Summarizing the research in this area, Reeves estimates that measures of drive and self-control influence academic achievement roughly as much as cognitive skills. Recent research has also shown that there are very different levels of self-control up and down the income scale. Poorer children grow up with more stress and more disruption, and these disadvantages produce effects on the brain. Researchers often use dull tests to see who can focus attention and stay on task. Children raised in the top income quintile were 2 1/2 times more likely to score well on these tests than students raised in the bottom quintile.
But these effects are reversible with the proper experiences.
People who have studied character development through the ages have generally found hectoring lectures don’t help. The superficial “character education” programs implanted into some schools of late haven’t done much either. Instead, sages over years have generally found at least four effective avenues to make it easier to climb. Government-supported programs can contribute in all realms.
• First, habits: If you can change behavior you eventually change disposition. People who practice small acts of self-control find it easier to perform big acts in times of crisis. Quality preschools, KIPP schools and parenting coaches have produced lasting effects by encouraging young parents and students to observe basic etiquette and practice small but regular acts of self-restraint.
• Second, opportunity: Maybe you can practice self-discipline through iron willpower. But most of us can only deny short-term pleasures because we see a realistic path between self-denial now and something better down the road. Young women who see affordable college prospects ahead are much less likely to become teen moms.
• Third, exemplars: Character is not developed individually. It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders. The centrist Democratic group Third Way suggests the government create a BoomerCorps. Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65; some of them could be recruited into an AmeriCorps-type program to help low-income families move up the mobility ladder.
• Fourth, standards: People can only practice restraint after they have a certain definition of the sort of person they want to be. Research from Martin West of Harvard and others suggests that students at certain charter schools raise their own expectations for themselves, and judge themselves by more demanding criteria.
Character development is an idiosyncratic, mysterious process. But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.