Psychology is the Physics of the 21st Century

“It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

A few months back, I was asked, “What do you think we’ll look back upon centuries from now and marvel that we didn’t understand?”  There are plenty of things we know are bonkers, but which were considered normal in the past–the value of bleeding the sick, for example.

After thinking about if for a few minutes, I concluded that future generations will look back upon our era and marvel at our ignorance of human behavior.  The rise of positive psychology and behavioral economics represent a new human science that promises changes as vast and impactful as physics in the 20th century.

I even created a slideshow summarizes the principal findings for newcomers to the topic.

This morning, I ran across a David Brooks op-ed that argues that emotional intelligence has dramatically increased in the past 50 years as our conception of manliness and family has changed.  We no longer expect or even praise cold, distant fathers who ignore their families.

The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.

Body type was useless as a predictor. Even social class had a limited effect. But having a warm childhood was powerful. “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.

Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.

Not only have our values changed, but even people who grew up under the old system have the ability to change and improve.

I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how the world changes when we begin to remake the world to fit how our minds work, rather than vice versa!

3 thoughts on “Psychology is the Physics of the 21st Century

  1. I am fascinated by the Grant study – thank you for pointing me to this op-ed, which I hadn't read. Did you read the Atlantic article on it, a few years ago? I am heartened by Brooks' findings, both about the power of a warm home life in childhood and about the human capacity to continue growing and changing throughout the years.

  2. Yes, I'm a big fan of the study, and of Vaillant, who has been a great advocate for it.

    I also enjoyed Brooks' "The Social Animal," even though it got mixed reviews.

  3. Anonymous

    Great post: provocative, informative, brief. Indeed the trajectory of history shows increasing understanding and subsequently, control of nature. The 20 watt processor we call the "brain" is responsible for our progress as a species thus far. Modern neuroscience is quickly revealing all of its quirks/tendencies. Harnessing/comtrolling these will guide us to our destiny.

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