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Teaching by Peter Hunter and blog in both Danish and English

Book Review #1: Three Seductive Ideas

Blog (EN)

Book Review #1: Three Seductive Ideas

Peter Hunter

Recently I read a psychology-book for the first time since finishing Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann. That must-read book is an information-packed run-through of an entire career of influential and highly innovative work. So for a while I didn’t feel a need to pick up lighter psychology-books, which seemed shallow and cheap compared to the weight and depth of Thinking, Fast and Slow. But eventually I found Kagan’s book on my shelf. It has proven to be a worthy read.

A short background: Jerome Kagan is an acknowledged professor of developmental psychology at Harvard University. Among lots of praising comments, the book has gotten an especially positive review from Antonio Damasio, a famous professor of neurology and author of Descartes’ Error.

As the title suggests, Kagan has identified three general ideas, which each have lots of intuitive appeal among laypeople and academics. But the attractiveness of these ideas does not correspond to their truth-values - and in the book Kagan discusses how and why. Each idea is discussed in detail in three separate chapters, entitled

1.       A Passion for Abstraction (70 pages)

2.       The Allure of Infant Determinism (68 pages)

3.       The Pleasure Principle (44 pages)

Lets get an overview of each idea before diving into it.

The first flawed belief is that “most psychological processes generalize broadly”. Kagan is very critical of drawing broad conclusions from studies regardless of the agent and the context. An agent is an entity taking some kind of action, and in psychological literature, typical agents include animals like rats and monkeys, besides of course human beings. Agents take actions under certain circumstances, always. Disregarding the context in which an agent, animal or human, is operating, seriously confuses things, because of the high uncertainties regarding transfer of behavior patterns from one context to another. The prime example in which agent and context are insufficiently addressed is the concept of general intelligence (called g), the idea that one mental process is responsible for the huge variety in cognitive skills. Other examples of our attraction to broad categories are also covered in this chapter.

The second chapter is about infant determinism (ID), the idea that some experiences during the first two years of life are preserved indefinitely. Objecting to this idea is certainly controversial, as most people find it reasonable that what happens to an infant somehow lays the ground for all future experience. Also, parents likely have a psychological need to see a causal relationship between good parenting and establishing (permanent) healthy qualities in the child. Parenting must be seen as useful. Another important reason for the attraction to ID is, according to Kagan, the dominating ideal of equality in society. Shortly put, if good parenting of infants creates good children and persons, then everyone is equal in this oppurtunity. But if, on the other hand, “the frustrations of poverty and prejudice could produce psychological discontinuities in adolescence despite a benevolent infancy, the egalitarian premise would be threatened”. So the importance of “good parenting” (which is in no way a bad thing!) is used as a way for society to avoid confronting social inequality, which has a huge effect on development.


Finally, a lot of clear thinking is used to decipher the phenomenon ID itself – since it is highly ambiguous. To avoid going in circles, we must be precise: “As long as the adult qualities supposedly determined by infant experience remain general... we have no way to refute the notion that early experience is contributory.” Besides the above critique of ID (via negativa, attacking viewpoints), Kagan also discusses three important influences on development that only occur in later childhood (via positiva, proposing viewpoints).

The third and final chapter of this book addresses the Pleasure Principle. Is most human action motivated by a desire for sensory pleasure? Are all volitional actions have the purpose of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? To answer these questions Kagan dives into history and the theory of evolution to highlight humans inherent ability to label experiences, things and actions as “good” or “bad”.  We do not merely behave socially (and ethically) to avoid punishment, but because we have a natural wish to view ourselves as “good”, and accordingly harbor the need to be kind, loyal and loving. Rather than getting very philosophical about ethics and morality, Kagan describes how it is a biological feature of ours to hold ethical positions at all.

Before finishing off this teaser, let me share the three larger principles of psychology that underlie each chapter. In the prologue, Kagan describes these, starting with 

all behavior is influenced by the person’s psychological construction of the immediate situation, which in turn is influenced by the objects and people in the perceptual field and by memories of both the immediate and the distant past.

Remember the two keywords? Agent and Context. The lesson is: take them into account!


events which are discrepant [differing, disagreeing, inconsistent] from what has been experienced, or what is expected, are the most important causes of thought feeling, and action. Surprises motivate interpretations and interpretations are the critical determinants of what will be felt, remembered and done.

If you have ever read even just a little about memorization techniques, you will have heard that the brain loves novelty (prioritizes surprise). Followingly, we adapt to consistent experiences, which explains how an infant might not interpret predictably severe parents as very severe, whereas unexpected punishment from milder parents will generate much more powerful emotional responses. This leads to an interesting principle, which generally is true:

interpretation of event > event itself

mind > matter

Finally, a principle also established in Thinking, Fast and Slow, is the general quality we humans have of being risk averse. 

Humans would rather avoid the varieties of regret that follow a loss than gain the variations on joy that follow attainment of a desired goal.

Why? Because pain lasts longer than joy. Or put differently, pain is more painful than pleasure is pleasurable. This connects to our ethical tendencies: “Suppression of behaviors that might bring on guilt and shame serves a motive... for virtue that is the basis of human morality.”

If you are satiated with psychology for now, I hope you leave this little introduction with some valuable insights. If you, on the other hand, are interested in getting an overview of the science and arguments that Kagan uses in each chapter, the next three sections will take you deeper into each specific topic. My hope is to give you the best possible chance to either agree or disagree with Kagan’s views in an educated way.

After all, these are complex subjects, and unlike physics, which has a massive body of observable facts and confirmed experiments, psychology has “no large body of impeccable, interrelated facts surrounding human emotions, the role of early experience, and morality that can be arranged into logically powerful arguments”. A very frustrating feature of psychological phenomena is that these processes are inherently nonvisualizable. So the young science of psychology has an interesting and demanding way ahead.

If you have forgotten everything above, here is a short refreshment of the conclusions Kagan presents to us:

many psychological processes do not generalize broadly... most adaptive adult characteristics are not determined by experiences of the first two years... the majority of our daily decisions are issued in the service of gaining and maintaining a feeling of virtue