Not Just Kids at Heart
Have you bumped into full-grown adults lately who seem to have missed the maturity train? Maybe you’ve been one. I know I have. I’m not talking about kids at heart. I mean kids in most all behaviors including these.
- short attention spans
- unexplainable sense of fashion
- heightened need for fast action, novelty, and sensation
- lack of respect for tradition
- unpredictability, and lack of balance in priorities
- a tendency to overreact
When I was a kid, we had a name for when we acted too much that way.
I found out his week — weÃ¢â¬â¢re no longer brats!
Now at least one scientist, B.G. Charlton, is saying that immature behavior is the best thing going for the human race.
Forgive Us, We Have “Unfinished Minds”
Many discussed Charlton’s theory a few months ago. Being a
brat — someone with a short attention span, etc. — I didn’t catch it until recently. I was busy being playful, joyful, and filled with wonder.
The theory is called psychological neoteny. Bruce Charlton, its creator, is a professor in the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Charlton’s theory is that in a world of uncertainty, psychologically immature humans adapt, thrive, and succeed. The term itself, neoteny, is zoological. It describes adult animals, such as salamanders, that retain the characteristics of the immature species.
According to Warren Bennis in Geeks and Geezers,
We discovered that every one of our geezers who continues to play a leadership role has one quality of overriding importance: neoteny. The dictionary defines neoteny, a zoological term, as Ã¢â¬Åthe retention of youthful qualities by adults.Ã¢â¬Â Neoteny is more than retaining a youthful appearance, although that is often part of it. Neoteny is the retention of all those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth: curiosity, playfulness, eagerness, fearlessness, warmth, energy.
You might not know that last March Joi Ito’s incubator, Neoteny, received $20 million in VC funding.
So Persuade Me
Seriously, I’ve always believed in the power of retaining the positive values of childhood, but I draw the line at thinking there’s value in immaturity.
A Ã¢â¬Åchild-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledgeÃ¢â¬Â is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, Ã¢â¬Åunfinished.Ã¢â¬Â
I still say it was too many Ã¢â¬Åself-esteemÃ¢â¬Â classes as children. . . . I’m just a little at odds with Professor Charlton’s theory.
Ã¢â¬ÅThe psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product Ã¢â¬â the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,Ã¢â¬Â [Charlton explains].
His point is that continuing with formal education forces us to keep a child-like receptivity to learning and cognitive flexibility. He says that when education continues beyond physical maturity it counteracts the psychological maturity that would otherwise come with it.
I have trouble believing that a bias toward formal learning somehow forms a barrier to maturing. I think our brains have more capabilities than having to choose one over the other. People have been going to college for a very long time now. I’m not sure that folks such as Jonas Salk, Colin Powell, or Diane Sawyer would agree with Mr. Charlton’s theory either, though they might find it interesting.
Would that flexibility explain rudeness and tantrums from young adults that my mom wouldn’t have taken from any kid on our block? And if it does why isn’t every college graduate also showing the bad habits of immaturity that Charlton admits come along with the good by-products of neoteny?
Though weÃ¢â¬â¢re all constantly learning throughout our lifetimes, Charlton argues that in a stable environment, our human minds would be able to reach psychological maturity. He suggested that the hunter-gatherers did so.
IÃ¢â¬â¢m confused about how adults managed during times of, say, the Vietnam War, WWII, WWI, the Fall of the Roman Empire?
I don’t believe that the hunter-gatherers thought they lived in a stable environment.
Charlton says that in our unstable world, true maturity could actually counteract our ability to adapt. He suggests that our bias toward innovation and cognitive flexibility makes it possible that our genes may adapt to favor immature traits that thrive and succeed.
Brats — The High-Adapted, New Model Human.
I don’t think that’s what I want to be.
I guess the options left are to
- Get the Book — Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior
- cling to my values and hold to my wonder. Work for and hope to earn the kind of investment that Joi Ito has achieved.
- become a salamander. (see Science and Technology entry)
I don’t really like it when I’m misbehaving. I’d rather be the nice one.
Do read the comments at the Slashdot reference. They’re entertaining.
–ME Ã¢â¬ÅLizÃ¢â¬Â Strauss
Trendspotting Ã¢â¬â Where 97.9% Fail
Trendspotting: How to Crawl into PeopleÃ¢â¬â¢s Heads
Chris Cree says
Liz, I think the thing about this is that it is OK to sometimes be childlike but we don’t want to be childish in the way we go about it.
It is fun and often attractive to have a silly fun loving childlike approach to life. But if that ever turns into childish selfishness that disregards how it impacts others it crosses the line into the undesirable.
And sometimes I think that our education system is designed to break us of our childlike approach to things. Maybe that’s one reason why it can be so refreshing when we see it in action.
Up to a point, he has a point. Retaining some qualities from childhood is a good thing. A sense of fun, a sense of wonder in the world, the willingness to try new things.
Temper tantrums, and childish behavior, however, are certainly at odds with species survival.
He talks about “hunter-gatherers”. Most “primitive” societies had coming-of-age ceremonies, especially for males. That was the time they put childhood behind and became adults in their society.
The most well-known, of course, is the Bar Mitzvah for Jewish boys, and the lesser-known Bat Mitzvah for Jewish girls. These have survived down the centuries, although now it is more a tradition than a formal introduction to adulthood.
Being psychologically mature is being balanced between the positive aspects of childhood and the insight and judgment of an adult. Being willing to accept something new, but only after mature consideration.
Our society, however, doesn’t foster that. Everything is focused on the self. Enjoy yourself, “you deserve a break today”, indulge, etc. In that atmosphere, it’s no wonder more adults are behaving like spoiled brats.
ME Strauss says
Yep! There’s a definite difference between child-like and childish in my book too! I’m just not sure I buy the part where continuing to receive formal education is detrimental to achieving maturity in an unstable world. 🙂
In fact, I think you make that point beautiful when you say that education actually does the opposite in many cases, And sometimes I think that our education system is designed to break us of our childlike approach to things. Maybe that’s one reason why it can be so refreshing when we see it in action.
Just my thoughts . . .
ME Strauss says
It’s no wonder adults are behaving like brats. I’m with you there. I don’t see it serving the species either. They say Charlton is a evolutionary psychologist or something of that nature. But I’ve never found a formal title in my research. . . . I want to say to him “You made this up!!!”
Chris Cree says
I don’t have so much of a problem with him making it up if his theory fit the observable facts a little better. It is almost like he is trying to come up with some “scientific” rationale to give some sort of legitimacy to selfish, destructive behavior.
ME Strauss says
Yeah, Chris. It does kind of make me wonder just what his philosphy of life is. I’d love to know more about him as a human being. People should come with an About Page. 🙂