Thursday, April 3, 2014

Tough problems, common factors, social themes

What does it take to address intractable social problems? We might start by acknowledging a few common themes.

Consider our toughest, most enduring problems. Economic failures. Justice system failures. The school-to-prison pipeline. Education failures. School violence, and bullying. The suicide rate. Food deserts. Health disparities. Prescription drug deaths. Addictions.

We tend to discuss these issues separately. Each has a set of experts, with specialist vocabulary, measurements and techniques. It’s impossible for any one person to know exactly how to solve any of these issues (they are called difficult social problems for a reason), but there is good research today that connects these issues and reveals common themes.

One key theme is trauma. Exposure to trauma reduces cognitive capacity, especially executive function, the ability to find a way forward when the path is uncertain. Trauma also affects social connectedness. Another theme is resilience, the experiences that build capacities or buffer the effects of trauma, and help people make progress. The most basic factor is attachment in early childhood. Responding positively and promptly to an infant’s needs helps children learn to regulate their emotions. This has positive effects throughout the lifespan. Many factors of an ordinary, positive life help produce resilience. Good education, good role models, church attendance, safe neighborhoods, positive friendships, and good health are all on the list. Even what we do to overcome adversity adds to resilience. People learn and adapt. We succeed by solving problems.

We see these two themes playing out daily in our society. The net effect is that less of whatever is normal and positive in childhood leads to more of whatever is sick, unsuccessful, and unwanted as an adult. People who grow up in systems of failure can expect a lot of trouble in their lives. This is not about fault. It is about probabilities stacking up.

A third theme is social thinking. Everyone has habits of thinking that work socially, and are not exactly rational. For example, some individuals do escape from systems of failure, but we tend to overestimate their numbers, and minimize the effort that created the achievement.

People who succeed in the face of difficult circumstances are indeed exceptions. After all, there are only ten people on any Top Ten List, and millions of people read these lists. Every four years, at the Olympics, the world’s top athletes walk together around a stadium in about an hour, watched by billions of people in every corner of the world. Each athlete has done extraordinary things to get there. We develop a social attachment to our favorite competitors, and tend to ignore the pile of stacked up probabilities blocking the rest of us, and tune out the achievements the aspiring Olympians who did not make the cut.

We tend to enjoy shunning failures. The day after the Olympic parade, billions of people happily switch social gears, and engage in a process of separating the world’s greatest collection of athletes into winners and losers. As a species, we humans do tend to pile it on. It is human nature to blame victims, shun eccentrics, isolate the troubled, and punish failures.

The reason we find virtue in helping the poor, comforting the sick, and attending to prisoners is precisely because our common humanity makes this so difficult.

Photo of Corinna West from

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