Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

December 13, 2012

Social science research has much in common with detective investigations: a search for unexpected connections and the crucial finding that will explain all. Once found, the solution seems obvious and disproportionate to the effort spent. Unusually, George Vaillant’s book on the development and well-being of a longitudinal sample of men, now in their nineties and studied regularly since they were undergraduates at Harvard University, also reads like a riveting detective tale, despite revealing the solution at the start: “Happiness is love.” As Vaillant notes, Virgil said much the same thing a long time ago: Omnia vincit amor - “Love conquers all.” But whereas Virgil had no data to back him up, with this book Vaillant offers plenty: 75 years of regular individual and family interviews, tests, scale constructions, qualitative, statistical and multidisciplinary analysis, and a sample with an exceptionally high attrition rate. The study’s superficially simple message is engagingly delivered by its author, a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist and skilled social researcher who has followed the cohort for most of his own adult life. He has a thought-provoking story to tell about the lifelong significance of loving care.

There are advantages in studying a homogeneous group over time. As with studies of twins, it facilitates the search for significant differentiating factors and outcomes that the homogeneity cannot explain. Although the subjects of this study were economically and educationally advantaged, their childhood environments were not all the same, and by early middle age they had not all developed in the same way. The narrowness of the sample is to some extent compensated for by the later addition of a longitudinal sample of less privileged men, and by comparisons with a similarly aged cohort of highly gifted women.

The social and economic conditions for the maintenance of nurturing love in intimate partnerships and professional relationships are probably a bit more complex than this study lets on. But there is enough differentiation in the cohort (many attended Harvard on scholarships) to show that wealth and status do not significantly relate to having grown up in a nurturing environment, or to being cherished and fulfilled in old age. Nor did those advantages protect against the effects of a bleak childhood or the physical and emotional dangers of alcoholism and other forms of addiction. There is dark irony in the fact that tobacco companies, responsible for the death of so many of this generation, for a time sponsored the project.

Brief life-story vignettes illustrate movingly how adult development and maturation is a lifelong process that strongly relates to the transformative power of receiving and giving love. There is, it seems, such a thing as becoming “wiser”. But Vaillant’s discussions of the multifaceted origin of these mini-stories also show how misleading biographies can be without the overall corrective of a behaviourally anchored statistical framework capable of testing the validity of causal assumptions. There are many examples here of both subject and researcher interpretations and predictions that were later shown to be wrong, often because of changing perspectives on “maleness”. The serious long-term impact of alcohol is one. Another is the positive impact in later life of the development in childhood of good defence mechanisms, whose restorative capacity is shown to matter throughout life’s hardships. The more status-inclusive analysis shows that education, unlike wealth as such, also offers some remedial protection. Early project assumptions about the predictive power of “masculine” traits in determining “officer material” or managerial effectiveness were soon proved wrong, with the more contextual traits of social integration shown to be more important. Incidence of post-traumatic disorder was shown to have less of a relationship to personality than to the nature of the subjects’ exposure to combat. In all, explanations in terms of “personality traits” do not stand up to Vaillant’s scrutiny very well.

Social science research is at its best when it is presented as a discourse between different times, researchers and individual research subjects. This particular discourse is not a quick read, nor does it offer quick fixes. But its well-evidenced wisdoms on the significance of nurturing relationships offer new multidisciplinary perspectives on the complex issue of nature versus nurture (much needed at a time when medical science and genetics once more dominate studies of human development) and on the lifelong costs of childhood emotional neglect. The book’s cover recommends it to those preparing for the last quarter of life. It should also be read by students in their first quarter, as it may make them think twice before drawing casual causal inferences about the behaviour of others, or ordering another drink.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

By George E. Vaillant

Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 480pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780674059825

Published 25 October 2012

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