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August 17, search 1998
ANNALS OF BEHAVIOR

Judith Rich Harris and child development

1.

The idea that will make Judith Rich Harris famous came to her, cialis unbidden, on the afternoon of January 20, 1994. At the time, Harris was a textbook writer, with no doctorate or academic affiliation, working from her home in suburban New Jersey. Because of a lupus-like illness, she doesn’t have the strength to leave the house, and she’d spent that morning in bed. By early afternoon, though, she was at her desk, glancing through a paper by a prominent psychologist about juvenile delinquency, and for some reason a couple of unremarkable sentences struck her as odd: "Delinquency must be a social behavior that allows access to some desirable resource. I suggest that the resource is mature status, with its consequent power and privilege." It is an observation consistent with our ideas about what it means to grow up. Teen-agers rebel against being teen-agers, against the restrictions imposed on them by adults. They smoke because only adults are supposed to smoke. They steal cars because they are too young to have cars. But Harris was suddenly convinced that the paper had it backward. "Adolescents aren’t trying to be like adults–they are trying to contrast themselves with adults," she explains. "And it was as if a light had gone on in the sky. It was one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me. In a minute or two, I had the germ of the theory, and in ten minutes I had enough of it to see that it was important."

If adolescents didn’t want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children, and Harris realized that once you granted that fact all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing started to unravel. Why, for example, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accents of their parents? How is it that the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born? The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally–that what children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home. Harris was asking whether this was true more generally: what if children also learn the things that make them who they are–that shape their characters and personalities–from their peer group? This would mean that, in some key sense, parents don’t much matter–that what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

"I was sitting and thinking," Harris told me, looking bright-eyed as she clutched a tall glass of lemonade. She is tiny–a fragile, elfin grandmother with a mop of gray hair and a little-girl voice. We were in her kitchen, looking out on the green of her back yard. "I told my husband, Charlie, about it. I had signed a contract to write a developmental-psychology textbook, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I couldn’t go on writing developmental-psychology textbooks, because I could no longer say what my publishers wanted me to say." Over the next six months, Harris immersed herself in the literature of social psychology and cultural anthropology. She read studies of group behavior in primates and unearthed studies from the nineteen-fifties of pre-adolescent boys. She couldn’t conduct any experiments of her own, because she didn’t belong to an academic institution. She couldn’t even use a proper academic library, because the closest university to her was Rutgers, which was forty-five minutes away, and she didn’t have the strength to leave her house for more than a few hours at a time. So she went to the local public library and ordered academic texts through interlibrary loan and sent for reprints of scientific articles through the mail, and the more she read the more she became convinced that her theory could tie together many of the recent puzzling findings in behavioral genetics and developmental psychology. In six weeks, in August and September of 1994, she wrote a draft and sent it off to the academic journal Psychological Review. It was an act of singular audacity, because Psychological Review is one of the most prestigious journals in psychology, and prestigious academic journals do not, as a rule, publish the musings of stay-at-home grandmothers without Ph.D.s. But her article was accepted, and in the space below her name, where authors typically put "Princeton University" or "Yale University" or "Oxford University," Harris proudly put "Middletown, New Jersey." Harris listed her CompuServe address in a footnote, and soon she was inundated with E-mail, because what she had to say was so compelling and so surprising and, in a wholly unexpected way, so sensible that everyone in the field wanted to know more. Who are you? scholars asked. Where did you come from? Why have I never heard of you before?

At this point, Harris’s health was not good. Her autoimmune disorder began to attack her heart and lungs, and she sometimes wondered how long she had to live. But, at the urging of some of her new friends in academe, she set out to write a book, and somehow in the writing of it she became stronger. That book, "The Nurture Assumption," will be published this fall, and it is a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development. It begins, "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child’s personality–what used to be called ‘character’–is shaped or modified by the child’s parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child’s personality is shaped." On the back cover are enthusiastic blurbs from David Lykken, of the University of Minnesota; Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford; Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis; John Bruer, of the James S. McDonnell Foundation; and Steven Pinker, of MIT–which, in the social-science business, is a bit like writing a book on basketball and having it endorsed by the starting five of the Chicago Bulls. This week, Harris will travel to San Francisco for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, where she will receive a prize for her Psychological Review article.

"It’s as if the gods were making up to me all that they had done to me previously," Harris told me. "It was the best gift I could have ever gotten: an idea. It wasn’t something that I could have known in advance. But, as it turned out, it was what I wanted most in the world–an idea that would give a direction and a purpose to my life."

2.

Judith Harris’s big idea–that peers matter much more than parents–runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology and psychotherapy has told us about human development. Freud put parents at the center of the child’s universe, and there they have remained ever since. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do," the poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, and that perspective is fundamental to the way we have been taught to understand ourselves. When we go to a therapist, we talk about our parents, in the hope that coming to grips with the events of childhood can help us decipher the mysteries of adulthood. When we say things like "That’s the way I was raised," we mean that children instinctively and preferentially learn from their parents, that parents can be good or bad role models for children, that character and personality are passed down from one generation to the next. Child development has been, in many ways, concerned with understanding children through their parents.

In recent years, however, this idea has run into a problem. In a series of careful and comprehensive studies (among them the famous Minnesota studies of twins separated at birth) behavioral geneticists have concluded that about fifty per cent of the personality differences among people–traits such as friendliness, extroversion, nervousness, openness, and so on–are attributable to our genes, which means that the other half must be attributable to the environment. Yet when researchers have set out to look for this environmental influence they haven’t been able to find it. If the example of parents were important in a child’s development, you’d expect to see a consistent difference between the children of anxious and inexperienced parents and the children of authoritative and competent parents, even after taking into account the influence of heredity. Children who spend two hours a day with their parents should be different from children who spend eight hours a day with their parents. A home with lots of books should result in a different kind of child from a home with very few books. In other words, researchers should have been able to find some causal link between the specific social environment parents create for their children and the way those children turn out. They haven’t.

One of the largest and most rigorous studies of this kind is known as the Colorado Adoption Project. Between 1975 and 1982, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado, headed by Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading behavioral geneticists, recruited two hundred and forty-five pregnant women from the Denver area who planned to give up their children for adoption. The researchers then followed the children into their new homes, giving them a battery of personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals throughout their childhood and giving similar tests to their adoptive parents. For the sake of comparison, the group also ran the same set of tests on a control group of two hundred and forty-five parents and their biological children. For the latter group, the results were pretty much as one might expect: in intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the kids proved to be fairly similar to their parents. The scores of the adopted kids, however, had nothing whatsoever in common with the scores of their adoptive parents: these children were no more similar in personality or intellectual skills to the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them all their lives than they were to any two adults taken at random off the street.

Here is the puzzle. We think that children resemble their parents because of both genes and the home environment, both nature and nurture. But, if nurture matters even a little, why don’t the adopted kids have at least some greater-than-chance similarities to their adoptive parents? The Colorado study says that the only reason we are like our parents is that we share their genes, and that–by any measures of cognition and personality–when there is no genetic inheritance there is no resemblance.

This is the question that so preoccupied Harris on that winter morning four and a half years ago. She knew that most people in psychology had responded to findings like those of the Colorado project by turning an ever more powerful microscope on the family, assuming that if we couldn’t see the influence of parents through standard psychological measures it was because we weren’t looking hard enough. Not looking hard enough wasn’t the problem. The problem was that psychologists weren’t looking in the right place. They were looking inside the home when they should have been looking outside the home. The answer wasn’t parents; it was peers.

Harris argues that we have been in the grip of what she calls the "nurture assumption," a parent-centered bias that has blinded us to what really matters in human development. Consider, she says, the seemingly common-sense statements "Children who are hugged are more likely to be nice" and "Children who are beaten are more likely to be unpleasant." Sure enough, if you study nice, well-adjusted children, it turns out that they generally have well-adjusted and nice parents. But what does this really mean? Since genes account for about half of personality variations among people, it’s quite possible that nice children are nice simply because they received nice genes from their parents–and nice parents are going to be nice to their children. Hugging may have made the children happy, and it may have taught them a good way of expressing their affection, but it may not have been what made them nice. Or take the example of smoking. The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers, so it’s natural to conclude that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. In fact, a lot of parents who smoke feel guilty about it for that very reason. But if parents really cause smoking there ought to be elevated rates of smoking among the adopted children of smokers, and there aren’t. It turns out that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes, and the reason that so many children of smokers smoke is that they have inherited a genetic susceptibility to tobacco from their parents. David C. Rowe, a professor of family studies at the University of Arizona (whose academic work on the limits of family influence Harris says was critical to her own thinking), has analyzed research into this genetic contribution, and he concludes that it accounts entirely for the elevated levels of cigarette use among the children of smokers. With smoking, as with niceness, what parents do seems to be nearly irrelevant.

Harris makes another, subtler point about parents. What if, she asks, the cause-and-effect assumption with niceness and hugging can also go the other way? What if, all other things being equal, nice children tend to be hugged because they are nice, and unpleasant children tend to be beaten because they are unpleasant? Children, after all, are born with individual temperaments. Some children are easy to rear from the start and others are difficult, and those innate characteristics, she says, can strongly influence how parents treat them. Harris tells a story about a mother with two young children–a five-year-old girl, named Audrey, and a seven-year-old boy, named Mark–who walked by Harris’s house one day when she was out in the front yard with her dog, Page. Page ran toward the children, barking menacingly. Audrey went up to the animal and asked her mother, "Can I pet him?" Her mother quickly told her not to. Mark, meanwhile, was cowering on the other side of the street, and he stayed there even after Harris rushed up and grabbed Page by the collar. "Come on, Mark, the dog won’t hurt you," the mother said, and she waited for her son to come back across the street. What is the parenting "style" here that is supposedly so important in shaping personality? This mother is playing two very different roles–coaxing the frightened Mark and reining in the brash Audrey–and in each case her behavior is shaped by the actions and the temperament of her child, and not the other way around.

This phenomenon–what Harris calls child-to-parent effects–has been explored in detail by psychological researchers. David Reiss, of George Washington University, and Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist who headed the Colorado study, and a number of colleagues have just completed a ten-year, nine-million-dollar study of seven hundred and twenty American families. Thirty-two teams of testers were recruited, and they visited each family three times in the course of three years, giving parents and siblings personality tests, videotaping interactions between parents and children, questioning teachers, asking siblings about siblings, asking parents about children, asking children about parents–all to find out whether the differences in how parents relate to each of their children make any predictable difference in the way those children end up. "We thought that this was going to be a straight shot," Reiss told me. "The sibling who got the better micro environment would do better, be less depressed, be less antisocial. It seemed like a no-brainer." It wasn’t. Plomin told me, "If we just ask the simple question ‘Does differential parental treatment relate to differences in adolescent adjustment?’ the answer is yes–hugely. If you take negative parents–conflict, hostility–it’s the strongest predictor of negative adjustment of the siblings." But the study was designed to look at genetic influences as well–to examine whether children had personality traits that were causing parental behavior–and when those genetic factors were taken into consideration the link between negative parenting and problems in adolescence almost entirely disappeared. "The parents’ negativity isn’t causing the negative adjustment of the kids," Plomin said. "It’s reflecting it. This was a tremendous surprise to us." What looks like nurture is sometimes just nature, and what looks like a cause is sometimes just an effect.

3.

Harris takes this argument one step further. Consider, she says, the story of Cinderella:

The folks who gave us this tale ask us to accept the following premises: that Cinderella was able to go to the ball and not be recognized by her stepsisters, that despite years of degradation she was able to charm and hold the attention of a sophisticated guy like the prince, that the prince didn’t recognize her when he saw her again in her own home dressed in her workaday clothing, and that he never doubted that Cinderella would be able to fulfill the duties of a princess and, ultimately, of a queen.

If you think of the influence of parents and the home environment as monolithic, this tale does seem impossibly far-fetched. So why does the Cinderella story work? Because, Harris says, all of us understand that it is possible to be one person to our parents and another person to our friends. "Cinderella learned whenshe was still quite small that it was best to act meek when her stepmother was around, and to look unattractive in order to avoid arousing her jealousy," Harris writes. But outside the house Cinderella learned that she could win friends by being pretty and charming. Harris says that this lesson–that away from our parents we can reconstruct ourselves–is one that all children learn very quickly, and it is an important limitation on the power of parents: even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home.

The Cinderella effect shows up all the time in psychological research. For example, Harris notes that in the August, 1997, issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there is a study showing that the more mothers spanked their kids, the more troublesome the kids became. "When parents use corporal punishment to reduce antisocial behavior," the researchers report, "the long-term effect tends to be the opposite." These findings made headlines across the country. In the same issue of that journal, however, another study of children and corporal punishment reached the opposite conclusion: "For most children claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." The disparity is baffling until you remember the Cinderella effect. The first study asked mothers to evaluate their children’s behavior at home. Not surprisingly, it suggested that repeated spanking contributes to the kind of negative relationship that causes further misbehavior. The second study, however, asked kids how often they got into fights at school, and the world of school is a very different place from the world of home. Just the fact that a child wasn’t getting along with his mother didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t get along with his peers.

In another instance, Harris cites a Swedish study of picky eating among primary-school children. Some kids were picky eaters at school, some were picky at home, but only a small number were picky at home and school. A child who pushes away broccoli at the kitchen table might gobble it down in the school cafeteria. In the same way, a child might be shy and retiring at home but a chatterbox in the classroom. Harris applies the same logic to birth-order effects–the popular idea that a good part of our personality is determined by where we stand in relation to our siblings. "At home there are birth order effects, no question about it, and I believe that is why it’s so hard to shake people’s faith in them," Harris writes. "If you see people with their parents or their siblings, you do see the differences you expect to see. The oldest does seem more serious, responsible, and bossy. The youngest does behave in a more carefree fashion." But that’s only at home. Studies that look at the way people act outside the home, and away from the parents and siblings, don’t see any consistent effects at all. The younger brother cowed by his older siblings all his years of growing up is perfectly capable of being a dominant, take-charge figure when he’s among his friends. "Socialization research has demonstrated one thing clearly and irrefutably: a parent’s behavior toward a child affects how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent," Harris concludes. "I have no problem with that–I agree with it. The parent’s behavior also affects the way the child feels about the parent. When a parent favors one child over another, not only does it cause hard feelings between the children–it also causes the unfavored child to harbor hard feelings against the parent. These feelings can last a lifetime." But they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home–the place where adults spend the majority of their lives.

4.

Not long ago, Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociologist at York University, in Ontario, asked her students to write short autobiographies describing, among other things, the events in their lives which made them most unhappy. Nine per cent identified something that their parents had done, while more than a third pointed to the way they had been treated by peers. Ambert concluded:

There is far more negative treatment by peers than by parents…. In these autobiographies, one reads accounts of students who had been happy and well adjusted, but quite rapidly began deteriorating psychologically, sometimes to the point of becoming physically ill and incompetent in school, after experiences such as being rejected by peers, excluded, talked about, racially discriminated against, laughed at, bullied, sexually harassed, taunted, chased or beaten.

This is Harris’s argument in a nutshell: that whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us. In "The Nurture Assumption,"Harris pulls together an extraordinary range of studies and observations to support this idea. Here, for example, is Harris on delinquency. First, she cites a study of juvenile delinquency–vandalism, theft, assault, weapons possession, and so on–among five hundred elementary-school and middle-school boys in Pittsburgh. The study found that African-American boys, many of them from poor, single-parent, "high-risk" families, committed far more delinquent acts than the white kids. That much isn’t surprising. But when the researchers divided up the black boys by neighborhood the effect of coming from a putatively high-risk family disappeared. Black kids who didn’t live in the poorest, underclass neighborhoods–even if they were from poor, single-parent families–were no more delinquent than their white, mostly middle-class peers. At the same time, Harris cites another large study–one that compared the behavior of poor inner-city kids from intact families to the behavior of those living only with their mothers. You’d assume that a child is always better off in a two-parent home, but the research doesn’t bear that out. "Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress," the study concluded. A child is better off, in other words, living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.

Other studies have shown that children living without their biological fathers are more likely to drop out of school and, if female, to get pregnant in their teens. But is this because of the absence of a parent, Harris asks, or is it because of some factor that is merely associated with the absence of a parent? Having a stepfather around, for example, doesn’t make a kid any less likely to be unemployed, to drop out, or to be a teen-age mother. Nor does having lots of contact with one’s biological father after he has left. Nor does having another biological relative–a grandparent, for instance–in the home. Nor does it seem to matter when the father leaves: kids whose parents split up when they were in their early teens are no better off and no worse off than kids whose fathers left when they were infants. And, curiously, children whose fathers die aren’t worse off at all. In short, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the loss of adult guidance and role models caused by fatherlessness has specific behavioral consequences. So what is it? One obvious factor is income: single mothers have less money than married mothers, and income has a big effect on the welfare of children. If your parents split up and you move from Riverdale to the South Bronx, you’re obviously going to be a lot worse off–although it’s not the loss of your father that makes the difference. This brings us to another factor: relocation. Single-parent families move more often than intact families, and, according to one major study, those extra changes of residence could account for more than half the increased risk of dropping out, of teen-age pregnancy, and of unemployment among the children of divorce. The problem with divorce, in short, is not so much that it disrupts kids’ relationships with their parents as that it disrupts kids’ relationships with other kids. "Moving is rough on kids," Harris writes. "Kids who have been moved around a lot–whether or not they have a father–are more likely to be rejected by their peers; they have more behavioral problems and more academic problems than those who have stayed put."

5.

All these findings become less perplexing when you accept one of Harris’s central observations; namely, that kids aren’t interested in becoming copies of their parents. Children want to be good at being children. How, for example, do you persuade a preschooler to eat something new? Not by eating it yourself and hoping that your child follows suit. A preschooler doesn’t care what you think. But give the food to a roomful of preschoolers who like it, and it’s quite probable that your child will happily follow suit. From the very moment that children first meet other children, they take their cues from them.

One of the researchers whom Harris draws on in her peer discussion is William A. Corsaro, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and a pioneer in the ethnography of early childhood. He was one of the first researchers to spend months crouching by swing sets and next to monkey bars closely observing the speech and play patterns of preschoolers. In one of his many playground stakeouts, Corsaro was sitting next to a sandbox and watching two four-year-old girls, Jenny and Betty, play house, and put sand in pots, cupcake pans, and teapots. Suddenly, a third girl, Debbie, approached. Here is Corsaro’s full description of the scene:

After watching for about five minutes [Debbie] circles the sandbox three times and stops again and stands next to me. After a few more minutes of watching, Debbie moves to the sandbox and reaches for a teapot. Jenny takes the pot away from Debbie and mumbles, "No." Debbie backs away and again stands near me, observing the activity of Jenny and Betty. Then she walks over next to Betty, who is filling the cupcake pan with sand.

Debbie watches Betty for just a few seconds, then says,"We’re friends, right, Betty?"

Betty, not looking up at Debbie, continues to place sand in the pan and says, "Right."

Debbie now moves alongside Betty, takes a pot and spoon, begins putting sand in the pot, and says, "I’m making coffee."

"I’m making cupcakes," Betty replies.

Betty now turns to Jenny and says, "We’re mothers, right, Jenny?"

"Right," says Jenny.

The three "mothers" continue to play together for about twenty more minutes, until the teachers announce cleanup time.

To adults, this exchange looks somewhat troubling. If you saw Debbie circling the sandbox over and over, you’d think she was shy and timid. And if you came upon the three girls just as Jenny told Debbie no you’d think Jenny was selfish and needed to be taught to share. In both cases, the children seem profoundly antisocial. In fact, Corsaro says, the opposite is true. A preschool playground is rather like a cocktail party. There are lots of informal clusters of kids playing together, and the kids are in constant movement, from cluster to cluster. Unlike at a cocktail party, though, the play clusters are very fragile. "If the phone rang right now," Corsaro said to me when I met him, in his office in Bloomington, "I could answer it, talk for five minutes, and then we could pick up where we left off. It’s easy for us. When you are a three- or four-year-old and you’ve generated something spontaneous and it’s going well, it’s not so easy." The bell can ring. An adult can step in. An older child can disrupt things. As a result, they spend a lot of effort trying to protect their play from disruption. Betty and Jenny aren’t resistant to sharing when they initially say no to Debbie. They are already sharing, and the point of keeping Debbie at bay is to defend that shared play.

What has evolved in preschool culture, then, is what Corsaro calls access strategies–an elaborate set of rules and rituals that govern when and how the third parties circulating through the playground are allowed to join an existing game. Debbie’s approach to the sandbox is what Corsaro calls nonverbal entry–the first common opening move in the access dance. She’s waiting for an invitation to join. It’s the same at an adult cocktail party. You don’t come up to an existing conversation and say, "May I join in?" You join the group quietly, as if to demonstrate respect for the existing conversation. When Debbie goes around and around the sandbox, she’s trying to understand the basis of Jenny and Betty’s play. Corsaro calls this encirclement. Notice that when Debbie initially reaches for a teapot Jenny says no. Debbie hasn’t proved that she understands the game in question. So she retreats and observes further. Then she makes what Corsaro calls a verbal reference to affiliation–"We’re friends, right?" It’s as if she were offering her bona fides. She gets a positive response. Now she enters again, this time making it absolutely clear that she understands the game: "I’m making coffee." She’s in. This is how children learn to get along. Kids teach each other how to be social. Indeed, to the extent that adults might get involved in an access situation–by, for example, instructing Jenny and Betty that they have to share with Debbie–they would frustrate the learning process.

Corsaro is a quiet, bearded man of fifty, with the patient, stubborn air of someone who has spent the better part of his life sitting and watching screaming three-year-olds. Harris E-mailed him when she was writing her Psycholo gical Review paper, and the two have struck up an on-line friendship. Most people, Corsaro says, want to figure out what his work says about individual development. Harris, though, recognized at once what Corsaro considers the real lesson, which is the children’s immediate and powerful attraction to their own peer group. Once, Corsaro spent close to a year in a preschool where the children had been forbidden to bring their toys into the classroom. Before long, he noticed that they had found a way around the rule: the children were selecting the smallest of their toys–the boys chose Matchbox toy cars, for example, and the girls little plastic animals–and hiding them in their pockets. These were only preschoolers, but already they were organizing against the adult world, defining themselves as a group in opposition to their elders. "What I found interesting was not that the kids wanted to bring their own toys but that when they smuggled them in they never played with them alone. They played with them collectively," Corsaro told me. "They wanted others to know that they had them. They wanted to share the toys with others. They are not only sharing the toy but sharing the fact that they are getting around the rule. This is what is unique. I think there is a real, strong emotional satisfaction in sharing things, in doing things together." Even for a child of three or four, the group is critical.

6.

Judith Harris and her husband, Charles, have two children. The first, Nomi, is their biological daughter, and the second, Elaine, is adopted. In that sense, Harris’s own family is a kind of micro-version of the adoption studies that raise the question of parental influence, and she says that without the example of her daughters she might not have reached the conclusion she did. Nomi, the elder, was quiet and self-sufficient as a child, a National Merit Scholar who went on to do graduate work at MIT. "She is very much like me and Charlie," Harris says. "She gave us no trouble while she was growing up. She didn’t require much guidance, because she didn’t want to do anything that we didn’t want her to do. Even before she could walk, she would crawl off to another part of the house, and I’d find her taking things out of a drawer and looking at them carefully–and putting them down carefully."

Elaine was different. "When she was little, all you had to do was look down and she was there, right on my heels," Harris recalls. "She always wanted to be with people. We started getting bad reports from the school right away–that she wouldn’t sit in her chair, and she was bothering other kids. When Nomi would ask a question, it was because she was interested in the answer. When Elaine would ask a question, it was because she was interested in having the interaction. Nomi would ask a question once. Elaine would often ask a question several times. As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup. They went in opposite directions."

Harris has an optimistic air about her, as if all her troubles had only served to strengthen her appreciation of life. But it’s clear that bringing up Elaine represented a real crisis in her life. When Elaine was six and Nomi was ten, Harris became ill for the first time. She was in such pain that she couldn’t sit up for more than half an hour. She tried taking a graduate course in psychology, hoping to finish a doctorate she had started, in the early sixties, at Harvard, and she had a fellow-student carry a cot to class so she could lie down during lectures. But even that was too hard, so she became a textbook writer, lying in her bed, with a spiral-bound notebook on her knee, and Nomi acting as her typist. She had pneumonia, a heart murmur, pulmonary hypertension, shingles, a year of chronic hives, and a minor stroke. "Sometimes," she says, "I felt like Job," and in the midst of all her troubles her younger daughter seemed out of control.

"We had very bad years with her in her teens," she recalls. "We didn’t know how to handle her." Harris says that she began motherhood as a classic environmentalist, meaning she believed that children would reflect the environment in which they were reared. Had she stopped with Nomi, she says, she might have attributed Nomi’s studiousness and self-sufficiency and success to her own enlightened parenting. It was Elaine who made the puzzle posed by the adoption studies seem real. "I assumed that an adopted child would represent her environment, and that if I could give Elaine the same kind of environment I gave to my first child she would turn out–of course, not the same…" She thought for moment. "But I certainly didn’t expect that she would be so vastly different. I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all." Harris seems a little reluctant to talk about those years, particularly since Elaine turned out, as she puts it, "amazingly well" and is now happy and married, with a toddler and a career as a licensed practical nurse. But it’s not hard to imagine the kind of guilt and frustration she must have felt–maternal helplessness magnified by her physical debility–as she and Charles did everything that good parents are supposed to do yet still came up short. Her epiphany was, in a way, her release, because she came to believe that the reason she and Charles couldn’t see that they were having any effect on Elaine was that parents really can’t have a big effect on their children.

There are a hundred ways of explaining Nomi and Elaine, and there is, of course, something very convenient about the explanation that Harris arrived at: it’s the kind of thing that the mother of a difficult child wants to believe. Harris has constructed a theory that lets herself off the hook for her daughter’s troubled childhood. It should be said, though, that the idea that parents can control the destiny of their children by doing all the right things–by providing children with every lesson and every experience, by buying them the right toys and saying the right words and never spanking or publicly scolding them–is just as self-serving. At least, Harris’s theory calls for neighborhoods, peers, and children themselves to share the blame–and the credit–for how children turn out. The nurture assumption, by contrast, places the blame and the credit squarely on the parent, and has made it possible to demonize all those who fail to measure up to the strictest standards of supposedly optimal parenting. "I want to tell parents that it’s all right," Harris told me. "A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment. If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid. You can have a kid without having to devote your entire life–your entire emotional expenditure–to this child for the next twenty years."

Harris does not see children as delicate vessels and does not believe they are easily damaged by the missteps of their mothers and fathers. We have been told, Harris writes, to tell children not that they’ve been bad but that what they did was bad, or, even more appropriately, that what they did made us feel bad. In her view, we have come to insist on these niceties only because we have forgotten what the world of children is really like. "Kids are not that fragile," she writes. "They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home, they might hear ‘What you did made me feel bad,’ but out on the playground it’s ‘You shithead!’"

Is Harris right? She is the first to admit that what she has provided is only, at this stage, a theory. From her tiny study, off the main hallway of her home in New Jersey, she is scarcely in a position to do the kind of multimillion-dollar, multi-year study that is needed to test her hypothesis. "My guess is that some of the more threatened elders in the field of psychology are going to go out of their way to try and savage this," Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, says. "But my gut feeling is that this is really important. Harris makes a lot of sense. Sometimes she is a little doctrinaire"–he paused–"but, boy." Already, Harris has helped wrench psychology away from its single-minded obsession with chronicling and interpreting the tiniest perturbations of family life. The nurture assumption, she says, has turned childhood into parenthood: it has turned the development of children into a story almost entirely about their parents. "Have you ever thought of yourself as a mirror?" Dorothy Corkille Briggs asks in her pop-psychology handbook "Your Child’s Self-Esteem." "You are one–a psychological mirror your child uses to build his identity. And his whole life is affected by the conclusions he draws." And here are Barbara Chernofsky and Diane Gage, in "Change Your Child’s Behavior by Changing Yours," on how children relate to their parents: "Like living video cameras, children record what they observe." This is the modern-day cult of parenting. It takes as self-evident the idea that the child is oriented, overwhelmingly, toward the parents. But why should that be true? Don’t parents, in fact, spend much of their time instructing their children not to act like adults–that they cannot be independent, that they cannot make decisions entirely by themselves, that different rules apply to them because they are children?

"If developmental psychology were an enterprise conducted by children, there is no question that peer relationships would be at the top of the list," Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, told me. "But because it is conducted by adults we tend, egocentrically, to believe that it is the relationship between us and our children that is important. But just look at them. Whom do they want to please? Are they wearing the kind of clothing that other kids are wearing or the kind that their parents are wearing? If the other kids are speaking another way, whose language are they going to learn? And, from an evolutionary perspective, whom should they be paying attention to? Their parents–the members of the previous generation–or their peers, who will be their future mates and future collaborators? It would more adaptive for them to be better attuned to the nuances of their peers’ behavior. That just makes a lot of sense."

7.

Harris’s health is more stable now, and when she was putting the finishing touches on her book this summer she was sometimes able to work at the computer twelve, or even fourteen, hours a day. But anything more strenuous is out of the question. The woman who says that what really matters is what happens outside the home rarely leaves the home–not for vacations, or even to see a movie. Indeed, none of the heavyweight psychologists who have befriended her since her Psychological Review article ran have ever met her. "Writing E-mail is my recreation," she wrote me in an E-mail.

When Harris goes to San Francisco this week, for the A.P.A. convention, it will be a kind of coming-out party. In preparation, during the past few weeks she has had to go shopping. "I have to buy clothes," she said. "I’ve hardly been out of the house in years." On August 15th, she will take the stage and receive a prize named in honor of the eminent scholar George A. Miller. Almost four decades ago, Harris was kicked out of graduate school after only two years, and the dean who delivered the news was the same George A. Miller. The two have since corresponded, and Miller has termed the irony "delicious." In her acceptance remarks, Harris told me, she intends to read from the letter that Miller wrote her long ago: "I hesitate to say that you lack originality and independence, because in many areas of life you obviously possess both of those traits in abundance. But for some reason you have not been able to bring them to bear on the kind of problems in psychology to which this department is dedicated….We are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be."

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August 17, search 1998
ANNALS OF BEHAVIOR

Judith Rich Harris and child development

1.

The idea that will make Judith Rich Harris famous came to her, cialis unbidden, on the afternoon of January 20, 1994. At the time, Harris was a textbook writer, with no doctorate or academic affiliation, working from her home in suburban New Jersey. Because of a lupus-like illness, she doesn’t have the strength to leave the house, and she’d spent that morning in bed. By early afternoon, though, she was at her desk, glancing through a paper by a prominent psychologist about juvenile delinquency, and for some reason a couple of unremarkable sentences struck her as odd: "Delinquency must be a social behavior that allows access to some desirable resource. I suggest that the resource is mature status, with its consequent power and privilege." It is an observation consistent with our ideas about what it means to grow up. Teen-agers rebel against being teen-agers, against the restrictions imposed on them by adults. They smoke because only adults are supposed to smoke. They steal cars because they are too young to have cars. But Harris was suddenly convinced that the paper had it backward. "Adolescents aren’t trying to be like adults–they are trying to contrast themselves with adults," she explains. "And it was as if a light had gone on in the sky. It was one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me. In a minute or two, I had the germ of the theory, and in ten minutes I had enough of it to see that it was important."

If adolescents didn’t want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children, and Harris realized that once you granted that fact all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing started to unravel. Why, for example, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accents of their parents? How is it that the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born? The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally–that what children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home. Harris was asking whether this was true more generally: what if children also learn the things that make them who they are–that shape their characters and personalities–from their peer group? This would mean that, in some key sense, parents don’t much matter–that what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

"I was sitting and thinking," Harris told me, looking bright-eyed as she clutched a tall glass of lemonade. She is tiny–a fragile, elfin grandmother with a mop of gray hair and a little-girl voice. We were in her kitchen, looking out on the green of her back yard. "I told my husband, Charlie, about it. I had signed a contract to write a developmental-psychology textbook, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I couldn’t go on writing developmental-psychology textbooks, because I could no longer say what my publishers wanted me to say." Over the next six months, Harris immersed herself in the literature of social psychology and cultural anthropology. She read studies of group behavior in primates and unearthed studies from the nineteen-fifties of pre-adolescent boys. She couldn’t conduct any experiments of her own, because she didn’t belong to an academic institution. She couldn’t even use a proper academic library, because the closest university to her was Rutgers, which was forty-five minutes away, and she didn’t have the strength to leave her house for more than a few hours at a time. So she went to the local public library and ordered academic texts through interlibrary loan and sent for reprints of scientific articles through the mail, and the more she read the more she became convinced that her theory could tie together many of the recent puzzling findings in behavioral genetics and developmental psychology. In six weeks, in August and September of 1994, she wrote a draft and sent it off to the academic journal Psychological Review. It was an act of singular audacity, because Psychological Review is one of the most prestigious journals in psychology, and prestigious academic journals do not, as a rule, publish the musings of stay-at-home grandmothers without Ph.D.s. But her article was accepted, and in the space below her name, where authors typically put "Princeton University" or "Yale University" or "Oxford University," Harris proudly put "Middletown, New Jersey." Harris listed her CompuServe address in a footnote, and soon she was inundated with E-mail, because what she had to say was so compelling and so surprising and, in a wholly unexpected way, so sensible that everyone in the field wanted to know more. Who are you? scholars asked. Where did you come from? Why have I never heard of you before?

At this point, Harris’s health was not good. Her autoimmune disorder began to attack her heart and lungs, and she sometimes wondered how long she had to live. But, at the urging of some of her new friends in academe, she set out to write a book, and somehow in the writing of it she became stronger. That book, "The Nurture Assumption," will be published this fall, and it is a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development. It begins, "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child’s personality–what used to be called ‘character’–is shaped or modified by the child’s parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child’s personality is shaped." On the back cover are enthusiastic blurbs from David Lykken, of the University of Minnesota; Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford; Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis; John Bruer, of the James S. McDonnell Foundation; and Steven Pinker, of MIT–which, in the social-science business, is a bit like writing a book on basketball and having it endorsed by the starting five of the Chicago Bulls. This week, Harris will travel to San Francisco for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, where she will receive a prize for her Psychological Review article.

"It’s as if the gods were making up to me all that they had done to me previously," Harris told me. "It was the best gift I could have ever gotten: an idea. It wasn’t something that I could have known in advance. But, as it turned out, it was what I wanted most in the world–an idea that would give a direction and a purpose to my life."

2.

Judith Harris’s big idea–that peers matter much more than parents–runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology and psychotherapy has told us about human development. Freud put parents at the center of the child’s universe, and there they have remained ever since. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do," the poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, and that perspective is fundamental to the way we have been taught to understand ourselves. When we go to a therapist, we talk about our parents, in the hope that coming to grips with the events of childhood can help us decipher the mysteries of adulthood. When we say things like "That’s the way I was raised," we mean that children instinctively and preferentially learn from their parents, that parents can be good or bad role models for children, that character and personality are passed down from one generation to the next. Child development has been, in many ways, concerned with understanding children through their parents.

In recent years, however, this idea has run into a problem. In a series of careful and comprehensive studies (among them the famous Minnesota studies of twins separated at birth) behavioral geneticists have concluded that about fifty per cent of the personality differences among people–traits such as friendliness, extroversion, nervousness, openness, and so on–are attributable to our genes, which means that the other half must be attributable to the environment. Yet when researchers have set out to look for this environmental influence they haven’t been able to find it. If the example of parents were important in a child’s development, you’d expect to see a consistent difference between the children of anxious and inexperienced parents and the children of authoritative and competent parents, even after taking into account the influence of heredity. Children who spend two hours a day with their parents should be different from children who spend eight hours a day with their parents. A home with lots of books should result in a different kind of child from a home with very few books. In other words, researchers should have been able to find some causal link between the specific social environment parents create for their children and the way those children turn out. They haven’t.

One of the largest and most rigorous studies of this kind is known as the Colorado Adoption Project. Between 1975 and 1982, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado, headed by Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading behavioral geneticists, recruited two hundred and forty-five pregnant women from the Denver area who planned to give up their children for adoption. The researchers then followed the children into their new homes, giving them a battery of personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals throughout their childhood and giving similar tests to their adoptive parents. For the sake of comparison, the group also ran the same set of tests on a control group of two hundred and forty-five parents and their biological children. For the latter group, the results were pretty much as one might expect: in intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the kids proved to be fairly similar to their parents. The scores of the adopted kids, however, had nothing whatsoever in common with the scores of their adoptive parents: these children were no more similar in personality or intellectual skills to the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them all their lives than they were to any two adults taken at random off the street.

Here is the puzzle. We think that children resemble their parents because of both genes and the home environment, both nature and nurture. But, if nurture matters even a little, why don’t the adopted kids have at least some greater-than-chance similarities to their adoptive parents? The Colorado study says that the only reason we are like our parents is that we share their genes, and that–by any measures of cognition and personality–when there is no genetic inheritance there is no resemblance.

This is the question that so preoccupied Harris on that winter morning four and a half years ago. She knew that most people in psychology had responded to findings like those of the Colorado project by turning an ever more powerful microscope on the family, assuming that if we couldn’t see the influence of parents through standard psychological measures it was because we weren’t looking hard enough. Not looking hard enough wasn’t the problem. The problem was that psychologists weren’t looking in the right place. They were looking inside the home when they should have been looking outside the home. The answer wasn’t parents; it was peers.

Harris argues that we have been in the grip of what she calls the "nurture assumption," a parent-centered bias that has blinded us to what really matters in human development. Consider, she says, the seemingly common-sense statements "Children who are hugged are more likely to be nice" and "Children who are beaten are more likely to be unpleasant." Sure enough, if you study nice, well-adjusted children, it turns out that they generally have well-adjusted and nice parents. But what does this really mean? Since genes account for about half of personality variations among people, it’s quite possible that nice children are nice simply because they received nice genes from their parents–and nice parents are going to be nice to their children. Hugging may have made the children happy, and it may have taught them a good way of expressing their affection, but it may not have been what made them nice. Or take the example of smoking. The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers, so it’s natural to conclude that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. In fact, a lot of parents who smoke feel guilty about it for that very reason. But if parents really cause smoking there ought to be elevated rates of smoking among the adopted children of smokers, and there aren’t. It turns out that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes, and the reason that so many children of smokers smoke is that they have inherited a genetic susceptibility to tobacco from their parents. David C. Rowe, a professor of family studies at the University of Arizona (whose academic work on the limits of family influence Harris says was critical to her own thinking), has analyzed research into this genetic contribution, and he concludes that it accounts entirely for the elevated levels of cigarette use among the children of smokers. With smoking, as with niceness, what parents do seems to be nearly irrelevant.

Harris makes another, subtler point about parents. What if, she asks, the cause-and-effect assumption with niceness and hugging can also go the other way? What if, all other things being equal, nice children tend to be hugged because they are nice, and unpleasant children tend to be beaten because they are unpleasant? Children, after all, are born with individual temperaments. Some children are easy to rear from the start and others are difficult, and those innate characteristics, she says, can strongly influence how parents treat them. Harris tells a story about a mother with two young children–a five-year-old girl, named Audrey, and a seven-year-old boy, named Mark–who walked by Harris’s house one day when she was out in the front yard with her dog, Page. Page ran toward the children, barking menacingly. Audrey went up to the animal and asked her mother, "Can I pet him?" Her mother quickly told her not to. Mark, meanwhile, was cowering on the other side of the street, and he stayed there even after Harris rushed up and grabbed Page by the collar. "Come on, Mark, the dog won’t hurt you," the mother said, and she waited for her son to come back across the street. What is the parenting "style" here that is supposedly so important in shaping personality? This mother is playing two very different roles–coaxing the frightened Mark and reining in the brash Audrey–and in each case her behavior is shaped by the actions and the temperament of her child, and not the other way around.

This phenomenon–what Harris calls child-to-parent effects–has been explored in detail by psychological researchers. David Reiss, of George Washington University, and Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist who headed the Colorado study, and a number of colleagues have just completed a ten-year, nine-million-dollar study of seven hundred and twenty American families. Thirty-two teams of testers were recruited, and they visited each family three times in the course of three years, giving parents and siblings personality tests, videotaping interactions between parents and children, questioning teachers, asking siblings about siblings, asking parents about children, asking children about parents–all to find out whether the differences in how parents relate to each of their children make any predictable difference in the way those children end up. "We thought that this was going to be a straight shot," Reiss told me. "The sibling who got the better micro environment would do better, be less depressed, be less antisocial. It seemed like a no-brainer." It wasn’t. Plomin told me, "If we just ask the simple question ‘Does differential parental treatment relate to differences in adolescent adjustment?’ the answer is yes–hugely. If you take negative parents–conflict, hostility–it’s the strongest predictor of negative adjustment of the siblings." But the study was designed to look at genetic influences as well–to examine whether children had personality traits that were causing parental behavior–and when those genetic factors were taken into consideration the link between negative parenting and problems in adolescence almost entirely disappeared. "The parents’ negativity isn’t causing the negative adjustment of the kids," Plomin said. "It’s reflecting it. This was a tremendous surprise to us." What looks like nurture is sometimes just nature, and what looks like a cause is sometimes just an effect.

3.

Harris takes this argument one step further. Consider, she says, the story of Cinderella:

The folks who gave us this tale ask us to accept the following premises: that Cinderella was able to go to the ball and not be recognized by her stepsisters, that despite years of degradation she was able to charm and hold the attention of a sophisticated guy like the prince, that the prince didn’t recognize her when he saw her again in her own home dressed in her workaday clothing, and that he never doubted that Cinderella would be able to fulfill the duties of a princess and, ultimately, of a queen.

If you think of the influence of parents and the home environment as monolithic, this tale does seem impossibly far-fetched. So why does the Cinderella story work? Because, Harris says, all of us understand that it is possible to be one person to our parents and another person to our friends. "Cinderella learned whenshe was still quite small that it was best to act meek when her stepmother was around, and to look unattractive in order to avoid arousing her jealousy," Harris writes. But outside the house Cinderella learned that she could win friends by being pretty and charming. Harris says that this lesson–that away from our parents we can reconstruct ourselves–is one that all children learn very quickly, and it is an important limitation on the power of parents: even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home.

The Cinderella effect shows up all the time in psychological research. For example, Harris notes that in the August, 1997, issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there is a study showing that the more mothers spanked their kids, the more troublesome the kids became. "When parents use corporal punishment to reduce antisocial behavior," the researchers report, "the long-term effect tends to be the opposite." These findings made headlines across the country. In the same issue of that journal, however, another study of children and corporal punishment reached the opposite conclusion: "For most children claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." The disparity is baffling until you remember the Cinderella effect. The first study asked mothers to evaluate their children’s behavior at home. Not surprisingly, it suggested that repeated spanking contributes to the kind of negative relationship that causes further misbehavior. The second study, however, asked kids how often they got into fights at school, and the world of school is a very different place from the world of home. Just the fact that a child wasn’t getting along with his mother didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t get along with his peers.

In another instance, Harris cites a Swedish study of picky eating among primary-school children. Some kids were picky eaters at school, some were picky at home, but only a small number were picky at home and school. A child who pushes away broccoli at the kitchen table might gobble it down in the school cafeteria. In the same way, a child might be shy and retiring at home but a chatterbox in the classroom. Harris applies the same logic to birth-order effects–the popular idea that a good part of our personality is determined by where we stand in relation to our siblings. "At home there are birth order effects, no question about it, and I believe that is why it’s so hard to shake people’s faith in them," Harris writes. "If you see people with their parents or their siblings, you do see the differences you expect to see. The oldest does seem more serious, responsible, and bossy. The youngest does behave in a more carefree fashion." But that’s only at home. Studies that look at the way people act outside the home, and away from the parents and siblings, don’t see any consistent effects at all. The younger brother cowed by his older siblings all his years of growing up is perfectly capable of being a dominant, take-charge figure when he’s among his friends. "Socialization research has demonstrated one thing clearly and irrefutably: a parent’s behavior toward a child affects how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent," Harris concludes. "I have no problem with that–I agree with it. The parent’s behavior also affects the way the child feels about the parent. When a parent favors one child over another, not only does it cause hard feelings between the children–it also causes the unfavored child to harbor hard feelings against the parent. These feelings can last a lifetime." But they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home–the place where adults spend the majority of their lives.

4.

Not long ago, Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociologist at York University, in Ontario, asked her students to write short autobiographies describing, among other things, the events in their lives which made them most unhappy. Nine per cent identified something that their parents had done, while more than a third pointed to the way they had been treated by peers. Ambert concluded:

There is far more negative treatment by peers than by parents…. In these autobiographies, one reads accounts of students who had been happy and well adjusted, but quite rapidly began deteriorating psychologically, sometimes to the point of becoming physically ill and incompetent in school, after experiences such as being rejected by peers, excluded, talked about, racially discriminated against, laughed at, bullied, sexually harassed, taunted, chased or beaten.

This is Harris’s argument in a nutshell: that whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us. In "The Nurture Assumption,"Harris pulls together an extraordinary range of studies and observations to support this idea. Here, for example, is Harris on delinquency. First, she cites a study of juvenile delinquency–vandalism, theft, assault, weapons possession, and so on–among five hundred elementary-school and middle-school boys in Pittsburgh. The study found that African-American boys, many of them from poor, single-parent, "high-risk" families, committed far more delinquent acts than the white kids. That much isn’t surprising. But when the researchers divided up the black boys by neighborhood the effect of coming from a putatively high-risk family disappeared. Black kids who didn’t live in the poorest, underclass neighborhoods–even if they were from poor, single-parent families–were no more delinquent than their white, mostly middle-class peers. At the same time, Harris cites another large study–one that compared the behavior of poor inner-city kids from intact families to the behavior of those living only with their mothers. You’d assume that a child is always better off in a two-parent home, but the research doesn’t bear that out. "Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress," the study concluded. A child is better off, in other words, living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.

Other studies have shown that children living without their biological fathers are more likely to drop out of school and, if female, to get pregnant in their teens. But is this because of the absence of a parent, Harris asks, or is it because of some factor that is merely associated with the absence of a parent? Having a stepfather around, for example, doesn’t make a kid any less likely to be unemployed, to drop out, or to be a teen-age mother. Nor does having lots of contact with one’s biological father after he has left. Nor does having another biological relative–a grandparent, for instance–in the home. Nor does it seem to matter when the father leaves: kids whose parents split up when they were in their early teens are no better off and no worse off than kids whose fathers left when they were infants. And, curiously, children whose fathers die aren’t worse off at all. In short, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the loss of adult guidance and role models caused by fatherlessness has specific behavioral consequences. So what is it? One obvious factor is income: single mothers have less money than married mothers, and income has a big effect on the welfare of children. If your parents split up and you move from Riverdale to the South Bronx, you’re obviously going to be a lot worse off–although it’s not the loss of your father that makes the difference. This brings us to another factor: relocation. Single-parent families move more often than intact families, and, according to one major study, those extra changes of residence could account for more than half the increased risk of dropping out, of teen-age pregnancy, and of unemployment among the children of divorce. The problem with divorce, in short, is not so much that it disrupts kids’ relationships with their parents as that it disrupts kids’ relationships with other kids. "Moving is rough on kids," Harris writes. "Kids who have been moved around a lot–whether or not they have a father–are more likely to be rejected by their peers; they have more behavioral problems and more academic problems than those who have stayed put."

5.

All these findings become less perplexing when you accept one of Harris’s central observations; namely, that kids aren’t interested in becoming copies of their parents. Children want to be good at being children. How, for example, do you persuade a preschooler to eat something new? Not by eating it yourself and hoping that your child follows suit. A preschooler doesn’t care what you think. But give the food to a roomful of preschoolers who like it, and it’s quite probable that your child will happily follow suit. From the very moment that children first meet other children, they take their cues from them.

One of the researchers whom Harris draws on in her peer discussion is William A. Corsaro, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and a pioneer in the ethnography of early childhood. He was one of the first researchers to spend months crouching by swing sets and next to monkey bars closely observing the speech and play patterns of preschoolers. In one of his many playground stakeouts, Corsaro was sitting next to a sandbox and watching two four-year-old girls, Jenny and Betty, play house, and put sand in pots, cupcake pans, and teapots. Suddenly, a third girl, Debbie, approached. Here is Corsaro’s full description of the scene:

After watching for about five minutes [Debbie] circles the sandbox three times and stops again and stands next to me. After a few more minutes of watching, Debbie moves to the sandbox and reaches for a teapot. Jenny takes the pot away from Debbie and mumbles, "No." Debbie backs away and again stands near me, observing the activity of Jenny and Betty. Then she walks over next to Betty, who is filling the cupcake pan with sand.

Debbie watches Betty for just a few seconds, then says,"We’re friends, right, Betty?"

Betty, not looking up at Debbie, continues to place sand in the pan and says, "Right."

Debbie now moves alongside Betty, takes a pot and spoon, begins putting sand in the pot, and says, "I’m making coffee."

"I’m making cupcakes," Betty replies.

Betty now turns to Jenny and says, "We’re mothers, right, Jenny?"

"Right," says Jenny.

The three "mothers" continue to play together for about twenty more minutes, until the teachers announce cleanup time.

To adults, this exchange looks somewhat troubling. If you saw Debbie circling the sandbox over and over, you’d think she was shy and timid. And if you came upon the three girls just as Jenny told Debbie no you’d think Jenny was selfish and needed to be taught to share. In both cases, the children seem profoundly antisocial. In fact, Corsaro says, the opposite is true. A preschool playground is rather like a cocktail party. There are lots of informal clusters of kids playing together, and the kids are in constant movement, from cluster to cluster. Unlike at a cocktail party, though, the play clusters are very fragile. "If the phone rang right now," Corsaro said to me when I met him, in his office in Bloomington, "I could answer it, talk for five minutes, and then we could pick up where we left off. It’s easy for us. When you are a three- or four-year-old and you’ve generated something spontaneous and it’s going well, it’s not so easy." The bell can ring. An adult can step in. An older child can disrupt things. As a result, they spend a lot of effort trying to protect their play from disruption. Betty and Jenny aren’t resistant to sharing when they initially say no to Debbie. They are already sharing, and the point of keeping Debbie at bay is to defend that shared play.

What has evolved in preschool culture, then, is what Corsaro calls access strategies–an elaborate set of rules and rituals that govern when and how the third parties circulating through the playground are allowed to join an existing game. Debbie’s approach to the sandbox is what Corsaro calls nonverbal entry–the first common opening move in the access dance. She’s waiting for an invitation to join. It’s the same at an adult cocktail party. You don’t come up to an existing conversation and say, "May I join in?" You join the group quietly, as if to demonstrate respect for the existing conversation. When Debbie goes around and around the sandbox, she’s trying to understand the basis of Jenny and Betty’s play. Corsaro calls this encirclement. Notice that when Debbie initially reaches for a teapot Jenny says no. Debbie hasn’t proved that she understands the game in question. So she retreats and observes further. Then she makes what Corsaro calls a verbal reference to affiliation–"We’re friends, right?" It’s as if she were offering her bona fides. She gets a positive response. Now she enters again, this time making it absolutely clear that she understands the game: "I’m making coffee." She’s in. This is how children learn to get along. Kids teach each other how to be social. Indeed, to the extent that adults might get involved in an access situation–by, for example, instructing Jenny and Betty that they have to share with Debbie–they would frustrate the learning process.

Corsaro is a quiet, bearded man of fifty, with the patient, stubborn air of someone who has spent the better part of his life sitting and watching screaming three-year-olds. Harris E-mailed him when she was writing her Psycholo gical Review paper, and the two have struck up an on-line friendship. Most people, Corsaro says, want to figure out what his work says about individual development. Harris, though, recognized at once what Corsaro considers the real lesson, which is the children’s immediate and powerful attraction to their own peer group. Once, Corsaro spent close to a year in a preschool where the children had been forbidden to bring their toys into the classroom. Before long, he noticed that they had found a way around the rule: the children were selecting the smallest of their toys–the boys chose Matchbox toy cars, for example, and the girls little plastic animals–and hiding them in their pockets. These were only preschoolers, but already they were organizing against the adult world, defining themselves as a group in opposition to their elders. "What I found interesting was not that the kids wanted to bring their own toys but that when they smuggled them in they never played with them alone. They played with them collectively," Corsaro told me. "They wanted others to know that they had them. They wanted to share the toys with others. They are not only sharing the toy but sharing the fact that they are getting around the rule. This is what is unique. I think there is a real, strong emotional satisfaction in sharing things, in doing things together." Even for a child of three or four, the group is critical.

6.

Judith Harris and her husband, Charles, have two children. The first, Nomi, is their biological daughter, and the second, Elaine, is adopted. In that sense, Harris’s own family is a kind of micro-version of the adoption studies that raise the question of parental influence, and she says that without the example of her daughters she might not have reached the conclusion she did. Nomi, the elder, was quiet and self-sufficient as a child, a National Merit Scholar who went on to do graduate work at MIT. "She is very much like me and Charlie," Harris says. "She gave us no trouble while she was growing up. She didn’t require much guidance, because she didn’t want to do anything that we didn’t want her to do. Even before she could walk, she would crawl off to another part of the house, and I’d find her taking things out of a drawer and looking at them carefully–and putting them down carefully."

Elaine was different. "When she was little, all you had to do was look down and she was there, right on my heels," Harris recalls. "She always wanted to be with people. We started getting bad reports from the school right away–that she wouldn’t sit in her chair, and she was bothering other kids. When Nomi would ask a question, it was because she was interested in the answer. When Elaine would ask a question, it was because she was interested in having the interaction. Nomi would ask a question once. Elaine would often ask a question several times. As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup. They went in opposite directions."

Harris has an optimistic air about her, as if all her troubles had only served to strengthen her appreciation of life. But it’s clear that bringing up Elaine represented a real crisis in her life. When Elaine was six and Nomi was ten, Harris became ill for the first time. She was in such pain that she couldn’t sit up for more than half an hour. She tried taking a graduate course in psychology, hoping to finish a doctorate she had started, in the early sixties, at Harvard, and she had a fellow-student carry a cot to class so she could lie down during lectures. But even that was too hard, so she became a textbook writer, lying in her bed, with a spiral-bound notebook on her knee, and Nomi acting as her typist. She had pneumonia, a heart murmur, pulmonary hypertension, shingles, a year of chronic hives, and a minor stroke. "Sometimes," she says, "I felt like Job," and in the midst of all her troubles her younger daughter seemed out of control.

"We had very bad years with her in her teens," she recalls. "We didn’t know how to handle her." Harris says that she began motherhood as a classic environmentalist, meaning she believed that children would reflect the environment in which they were reared. Had she stopped with Nomi, she says, she might have attributed Nomi’s studiousness and self-sufficiency and success to her own enlightened parenting. It was Elaine who made the puzzle posed by the adoption studies seem real. "I assumed that an adopted child would represent her environment, and that if I could give Elaine the same kind of environment I gave to my first child she would turn out–of course, not the same…" She thought for moment. "But I certainly didn’t expect that she would be so vastly different. I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all." Harris seems a little reluctant to talk about those years, particularly since Elaine turned out, as she puts it, "amazingly well" and is now happy and married, with a toddler and a career as a licensed practical nurse. But it’s not hard to imagine the kind of guilt and frustration she must have felt–maternal helplessness magnified by her physical debility–as she and Charles did everything that good parents are supposed to do yet still came up short. Her epiphany was, in a way, her release, because she came to believe that the reason she and Charles couldn’t see that they were having any effect on Elaine was that parents really can’t have a big effect on their children.

There are a hundred ways of explaining Nomi and Elaine, and there is, of course, something very convenient about the explanation that Harris arrived at: it’s the kind of thing that the mother of a difficult child wants to believe. Harris has constructed a theory that lets herself off the hook for her daughter’s troubled childhood. It should be said, though, that the idea that parents can control the destiny of their children by doing all the right things–by providing children with every lesson and every experience, by buying them the right toys and saying the right words and never spanking or publicly scolding them–is just as self-serving. At least, Harris’s theory calls for neighborhoods, peers, and children themselves to share the blame–and the credit–for how children turn out. The nurture assumption, by contrast, places the blame and the credit squarely on the parent, and has made it possible to demonize all those who fail to measure up to the strictest standards of supposedly optimal parenting. "I want to tell parents that it’s all right," Harris told me. "A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment. If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid. You can have a kid without having to devote your entire life–your entire emotional expenditure–to this child for the next twenty years."

Harris does not see children as delicate vessels and does not believe they are easily damaged by the missteps of their mothers and fathers. We have been told, Harris writes, to tell children not that they’ve been bad but that what they did was bad, or, even more appropriately, that what they did made us feel bad. In her view, we have come to insist on these niceties only because we have forgotten what the world of children is really like. "Kids are not that fragile," she writes. "They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home, they might hear ‘What you did made me feel bad,’ but out on the playground it’s ‘You shithead!’"

Is Harris right? She is the first to admit that what she has provided is only, at this stage, a theory. From her tiny study, off the main hallway of her home in New Jersey, she is scarcely in a position to do the kind of multimillion-dollar, multi-year study that is needed to test her hypothesis. "My guess is that some of the more threatened elders in the field of psychology are going to go out of their way to try and savage this," Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, says. "But my gut feeling is that this is really important. Harris makes a lot of sense. Sometimes she is a little doctrinaire"–he paused–"but, boy." Already, Harris has helped wrench psychology away from its single-minded obsession with chronicling and interpreting the tiniest perturbations of family life. The nurture assumption, she says, has turned childhood into parenthood: it has turned the development of children into a story almost entirely about their parents. "Have you ever thought of yourself as a mirror?" Dorothy Corkille Briggs asks in her pop-psychology handbook "Your Child’s Self-Esteem." "You are one–a psychological mirror your child uses to build his identity. And his whole life is affected by the conclusions he draws." And here are Barbara Chernofsky and Diane Gage, in "Change Your Child’s Behavior by Changing Yours," on how children relate to their parents: "Like living video cameras, children record what they observe." This is the modern-day cult of parenting. It takes as self-evident the idea that the child is oriented, overwhelmingly, toward the parents. But why should that be true? Don’t parents, in fact, spend much of their time instructing their children not to act like adults–that they cannot be independent, that they cannot make decisions entirely by themselves, that different rules apply to them because they are children?

"If developmental psychology were an enterprise conducted by children, there is no question that peer relationships would be at the top of the list," Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, told me. "But because it is conducted by adults we tend, egocentrically, to believe that it is the relationship between us and our children that is important. But just look at them. Whom do they want to please? Are they wearing the kind of clothing that other kids are wearing or the kind that their parents are wearing? If the other kids are speaking another way, whose language are they going to learn? And, from an evolutionary perspective, whom should they be paying attention to? Their parents–the members of the previous generation–or their peers, who will be their future mates and future collaborators? It would more adaptive for them to be better attuned to the nuances of their peers’ behavior. That just makes a lot of sense."

7.

Harris’s health is more stable now, and when she was putting the finishing touches on her book this summer she was sometimes able to work at the computer twelve, or even fourteen, hours a day. But anything more strenuous is out of the question. The woman who says that what really matters is what happens outside the home rarely leaves the home–not for vacations, or even to see a movie. Indeed, none of the heavyweight psychologists who have befriended her since her Psychological Review article ran have ever met her. "Writing E-mail is my recreation," she wrote me in an E-mail.

When Harris goes to San Francisco this week, for the A.P.A. convention, it will be a kind of coming-out party. In preparation, during the past few weeks she has had to go shopping. "I have to buy clothes," she said. "I’ve hardly been out of the house in years." On August 15th, she will take the stage and receive a prize named in honor of the eminent scholar George A. Miller. Almost four decades ago, Harris was kicked out of graduate school after only two years, and the dean who delivered the news was the same George A. Miller. The two have since corresponded, and Miller has termed the irony "delicious." In her acceptance remarks, Harris told me, she intends to read from the letter that Miller wrote her long ago: "I hesitate to say that you lack originality and independence, because in many areas of life you obviously possess both of those traits in abundance. But for some reason you have not been able to bring them to bear on the kind of problems in psychology to which this department is dedicated….We are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be."

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July 6, pilule 1998
A CRITIC AT LARGE

Are our spin meisters just spinning one another?

On Easter Sunday, prescription 1929, the legendary public-relations man Edward L. Bernays rounded up ten carefully chosen women, put cigarettes in their hands, and sent them down Fifth Avenue in what was billed as the Torches of Freedom march. The marchers were given detailed instructions, including when and how their cigarettes should be lit. Spokeswomen were enlisted to describe the protest as an advance for feminism. Photographers were hired to take pictures. It was an entirely contrived event that nonetheless looked so "real" that the next day it made front-page headlines across the country, prompting a debate over whether women should be allowed to smoke as freely as men, and–some historians believe–forever changing the social context of cigarettes. What Bernays never told anyone was that he was working for the American Tobacco Company.

It is difficult to appreciate how brazen Bernays’s ruse was at the time. In the twenties, the expectation was that if you were trying to sell people something–even if you were planning to deceive them in the process–you had at least to admit that you were trying to sell them something. Bernays was guided by the principle that this wasn’t true: that sometimes the best way to sell something (cigarettes, say) was to pretend to be selling something else (freedom, say).

Bernays helped the brewing industry establish beer as "the beverage of moderation." For Dixie cups, he founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink. For the Mack truck company, he drummed up national support for highway construction through front groups called the Trucking Information Service, the Trucking Service Bureau, and Better Living Through Increased Highway Transportation. In a torrent of books and articles (including one book, "Crystallizing Public Opinion," that was found in Joseph Goebbels’s library) he argued that the P.R. professional could "continuously and systematically" perform the task of "regimenting the public mind." He wasn’t talking about lying. He was talking about artful, staged half- truth. It’s the kind of sly deception that we’ve come to associate with the Reagan Administration’s intricately scripted photo ops (the cowboy hats, the flannel shirts, the horse), with the choreographed folksiness of Clinton’s Town Hall meetings, with the "Wag the Dog" world of political operatives, and with the Dilbertian byways of boardroom euphemism, in which firing is "rightsizing" and dismembering companies becomes "unlocking shareholder value." Edward L. Bernays invented spin.

Today, we’re told, Bernays’s touch is everywhere. The advertising critic Randall Rothenberg has suggested that there is something called a Media-Spindustrial Complex, which encompasses advertising, P.R., lobbying, polling, direct mail, investor relations, focus groups, jury consulting, speechwriting, radio and television stations, and newspapers–all in the business of twisting and turning and gyrating. Argument now masquerades as conversation. Spin, the political columnist E.J. Dionne wrote recently, "obliterates the distinction between persuasion and deception." Should P.R. people tell "the whole truth about our clients? No sirree!" Thomas Madden, the chairman of one of the largest P.R. firms in the country, declares in his recent memoir, entitled "Spin Man." In the best-seller "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," Howard Kurtz,the media critic for the Washington Post, even describes as spin the White House’s decision in the spring of 1997 to release thousands of pages of documents relating to the Democratic fund-raising scandal.

This was the documentation that the press had been clamoring for. You might have thought that it was full disclosure. Not so, says Kurtz, who dubs the diabolical plan Operation Candor. In playing the honesty card, he argues, the White House preëmpted embarrassing leaks by congressional investigators and buried incriminating documents under an avalanche of paper. Of course, not releasing any documents at all would also have been spin (Stonewall Spin), and so would releasing only a handful of unrepresentative documents (Selection Spin). But, if you think that calling everything "spin" renders the term meaningless (if this is all spin, then what is not spin?), you’ve missed the point. The notion that this is the age of spin rests on the premise that everything, including the truth, is potentially an instrument of manipulation.

In "P.R.!:ASocial History of Spin," the media critic Stuart Ewen describes how, in 1990, he went to visit Bernays at his home near Harvard Square, in Cambridge. He was ushered in by a maid and waited in the library, looking, awestruck, at the shelves. "It was a remarkable collection of books, thousands of them: about public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare, and so forth–a comprehensive library spanning matters of human motivation and strategies of influence, scanning a period of more than one hundred years," he writes. "These were not the bookshelves of some shallow huckster, but the arsenal of an intellectual. The cross- hairs of nearly every volume were trained on the target of forging public attitudes. Here–in a large white room in Cambridge, Massachusetts–was the constellation of ideas that had inspired and informed a twentieth century preoccupation: the systematic molding of public opinion."

Suddenly, Ewen’s reverie was broken. In walked Bernays, a "puckish little man" of ninety-eight, with "swift eyes," who looked like "an aged Albert Einstein." Bernays led Ewen past his picture gallery–Bernays and Henry Ford, Bernays and Thomas Edison, Bernays and Eisenhower, Bernays en route to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, an autographed photo of Sigmund Freud, who was Bernays’s uncle. And for four hours Bernays and Ewen talked. Ewen was "entranced": he had located the fountainhead of all spin. At one point, Bernays hypothesized about how he might have promoted Ewen’s previous book, which was an account of consumer imagery in the modern economy. He would, he said, have called the big consumer organizations and suggested to them that they devote one of their annual meetings to a discussion of consumers and images. Ewen thought nothing of it. Then, three months later, he got a call from the president of the Consumer Federation of America asking him if he wanted to be the keynote speaker at its annual meeting. Was Bernays behind it? Was he still spinning, even as he approached his hundredth birthday? Ewen never found out. "Yet the question remained, and remains, open," he writes, in the breathless opening chapter of his book. "Things had uncannily come to pass much as Bernays had described in his hypothetical disquisition on the work of a P.R. practitioner, and I was left to ponder whether there is any reality anymore, save the reality of public relations."

The curious thing about our contemporary obsession with spin, however, is that we seldom consider whether spin works. We simply assume that, because people are everywhere trying to manipulate us, we’re being manipulated. Yet it makes just as much sense to assume the opposite: that the reason spin is everywhere today is that it doesn’t work–that, because the public is getting increasingly inured to spin, spinners feel they must spin even harder, on and on, in an ever-escalating arms race. The Torches of Freedom march worked because nobody had ever pulled a stunt like that before. Today, those same marchers would be stopped cold at ten feet. (First question at the press conference: Who put you up to this?) Once spun, twice shy. When, last week, the Clinton spokesman Rahm Emanuel called Steven Brill’s revelations about Kenneth Starr’s leaking to the press a "bombshell," that was spin, but we are so accustomed to Rahm Emanuel’s spinning that the principal effect of his comment was to prompt a meta-discussion about, of all things, his comment. ("If the wonderful word oleaginous didn’t exist," Frank Rich wrote in the Times, "someone would have to invent it to describe Rahm Emanuel.")Emanuel might have been better off saying nothing at all, except that–under the Howard Kurtz rule–this, too, would have been decoded as an attempt to spin us, by ostentatiously letting the Brill revelations speak for themselves: Silent Spin, perhaps. Spin sets into motion a never-ending cycle of skepticism.

There is a marvellous illustration of this arms-race problem in the work of two psychology professors, Deborah Gruenfeld and Robert Wyer, Jr. They gave people statements that were said to be newspaper headlines, and asked them to rate their plausibility, on a scale of zero to ten. Since the headlines basically stated the obvious–for example, "black democrats supported jesse jackson for president in 1988"–the scores were all quite high. The readers were then given a series of statements that contradicted the headlines. Not surprisingly, the belief scores went down significantly. Then another group of people was asked to read a series of statements that supported the headlines–statements like "Black Democrats presently support Jesse Jackson for President." This time, the belief scores still dropped. Telling people that what they think is true actually is true, in other words, has almost the same effect as telling them that what they think is true isn’t true. Gruenfeld and Wyer call this a "boomerang effect," and it suggests that people are natural skeptics. How we respond to a media proposition has at least as much to do with its pragmatic meaning (why we think the statement is being made) as with its semantic meaning (what is literally being said). And when the pragmatic meaning is unclear–why, for example, would someone tell us over and over that Jesse Jackson has the support of black Democrats–we start to get suspicious. This is the dilemma of spin. When Rahm Emanuel says "bombshell," we focus not on the actual bombshell but on why he used the word "bombshell."

The point is that spin is too clever by half. In a forthcoming biography, "The Father of Spin," Larry Tye writes that in 1930 Bernays went to work for a number of major book publishers, including Simon &Schuster and Harcourt Brace: "’Where there are bookshelves,’ he reasoned, ‘there will be books.’ So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes–which is why so many homes from that era have built-in bookshelves."

This is the kind of slick move that makes Bernays such an inspiration for contemporary spin meisters. (Tye, admiringly, calls it "infinitely more effective" than simply promoting books one by one, in the conventional way.) But wait a minute. Did Bernays really reach all these architects and contractors? If so, how? Wouldn’t there have been thousands of them? And, if he did, why would they ever have listened to him? (My limited experience with contractors and architects is that advice from someone outside their field has the opposite of its intended effect.) And, even if we assume that he did cause a surge in bookshelf building, is there a magical relationship between built-in shelves and the purchase of books? Most of us, I think, acquire books because we like books and we want to read them–not because we have customized space to fill in our apartments. The best way to promote cigarettes probably isn’t to subsidize ashtrays.

People who worry about spin have bought into a particular mythology about persuasion–a mythology that runs from Tom Sawyer to Vance Packard–according to which the best way to persuade someone to do something is to hide the act of persuasion. The problem is, though, that if the seller is too far removed from the transaction, if his motives are too oblique, there’s a good chance that his message will escape the buyer entirely. (People don’t always think books when they think shelves.) In fact, successful persuasion today is characterized by the opposite principle–that it is better to be obvious and get your message across than it is to pull invisible strings and risk having your message miss the mark. Bernays sacrificed clarity for subtlety. Most effective advertising today sacrifices subtlety for clarity. Recently, at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conference on how to fight teen-age smoking, one prominent California ad executive talked about the reason for the success of the Marlboro and the Camel brands. It was not, he said, because of any of the fancy behind-the-scenes psychological tricks that Big Tobacco is so often accused of by its critics. On the contrary. The tobacco companies, he said, understand what Nike and Coca- Cola understand: that if they can make their brands ubiquitous–if they can plaster them on billboards, on product displays inside grocery stores, on convenience-store windows, on the sides of buildings, on T-shirts and baseball caps, on the hoods and the roofs of racing cars, in colorful spreads in teen magazines–they can make their message impossible to ignore. The secret is not deception but repetition, not artful spinning but plain speaking.

There’s a second, related difficulty with spin–one that people in the marketing business call the internal-audience problem. Let’s say you are the head of the ad agency that has the Burger King account. Your ultimate goal is to make ads that appeal to the kind of people who buy Burger King burgers. But, in order to keep Burger King’s business and get your commercials on the air, you must first appeal to Burger King’s marketing executives, who are probably quite different in temperament and taste from the target Burger King customer. Ideally, your ads will appeal to the folks at Burger King because they appeal to the Burger King customers; that is, the internal audience will be pleased because the external audience is pleased. But it has always been extremely difficult to measure the actual impact of a television commercial (especially, as is the case with many ads, where the aim is simply to maintain the current market share). Unless you’re careful, then, you may start creating ads that appeal only to your internal audience, with the unfortunate result that the relationship between ad agency and ad buyer becomes a kind of closed loop. The internal audience supplants the real audience.

The internal-audience effect can be seen in all sorts of businesses. The reason so many magazines look alike is that their Manhattan-based editors and writers end up trying to impress not readers but other Manhattan-based editors and writers. It was in an effort to avoid this syndrome that Lincoln Mercury recently decided to move its headquarters from Detroit to California. The company said that the purpose was to get closer to its customers; more precisely, the purpose was to get away from people who weren’t its customers. Why do you think it took so long to get Detroit to install seat belts? Because to the internal audience a seat belt is a cost center. It is only to the external audience that it’s a life saver.

Edward Bernays was a master of the internal audience. He was intellectually indefatigable, a diminutive, mustachioed, impatient dervish. Larry Tye writes that as Bernays sat in his office "four or five young staff members, their chairs pulled close, would have been listening to him spew forth a stream of thoughts about peddling Ivory or keeping Luckies number one. With each new idea he’d scratch out a note, wad it up, and toss it on the floor." Afterward, the floor looked blanketed by snow. But it was all an inside joke. The wadded-up pieces of paper were, Tye quotes one former employee as saying, "a trick to demonstrate all the ideas he was generating." To promote bacon, Bernays persuaded prominent doctors to testify to the benefits of a hearty breakfast. His client, a bacon producer, no doubt regarded this as a dazzling feat. But does a hearty breakfast mean bacon? And does bacon mean his client’s bacon? Bernays’s extraordinary success is proof that in the P.R. world, where no hard-and-fast measures exist to gauge the true effectiveness of a message, he could prosper by playing only to his internal audience. But often the very things that make you successful with that audience prevent you from being successful with your real audience. To Simon & Schuster–to people in the book business–bookshelves really do mean books. To the rest of us, a bookshelf may be no more than a place to put unopened mail.

This is the mistake Howard Kurtz makes in "Spin Cycle." His book is a detailed account of how in the year following the 1996 elections Clinton’s spokesman Mike McCurry successfully spun the White House press corps during the fund-raising and Whitewater scandals. Kurtz tries to argue that this, in turn, reflects Clinton’s ability to manage his image with the wider public–with the external audience. In fact, "Spin Cycle" reads more like an extended treatise on the internal-audience problem, a three-hundred-page account of how McCurry’s heroic attempts to spin the White House press corps had the effect of, well, spinning the White House press corps.

For example, Kurtz recounts the story of Rita Braver, a former White House correspondent for CBS television. Braver believed that the Clinton Administration would go to "unbelievable lengths" to keep her from breaking a story–on the ground, Kurtz says, that "bad stories came across as more sensational on television." In one instance, early in Clinton’s second term, the White House announced that it was turning over a large number of Whitewater documents to the Justice Department. Braver, according to Kurtz, smelled a rat. She knew that you don’t just turn over documents to the Justice Department. She made some calls and found out that, sure enough, the White House had actually been subpoenaed. Braver wrote a script: "CBS News has learned…" Then disaster struck. "Half an hour before the evening news began," Kurtz writes, "White House officials publicly announced the subpoena. No way they were going to let her break the news and look like they were hiding something, which they had been. They were determined to beat her to the punch."

Let’s deconstruct this episode. Braver wanted to write a story that said, in effect, The documents the White House said it is handing over to the Justice Department today are, I have learned, being handed over because of a subpoena. Instead, she was forced to say, The documents that the White House is handing over to the Justice Department today are, the White House said, being handed over because of a subpoena. To the internal audience–to Braver and her colleagues–there is a real distinction between Statements A and B. In the first case, the White House is seen as reluctant to disclose the existence of a subpoena. In the second, it is not. More important, in the first case it is clear that the subpoena story is the result of the efforts of Rita Braver–of the efforts, in other words, of the White House press corps–and in the second that role has been erased. This distinction also matters to Clinton, McCurry’s other internal audience. But why does this matter to the rest of us? The news of interest to the external audience is not the nuance of the White House’s reaction to a subpoena, or the particular reporting talents of Rita Braver; it is the fact of the subpoena itself. Kurtz is entirely correct that the Braver episode is an example of the ascendancy of spin. But the only thing that’s being spun here is ten square blocks in the center of Washington, D.C. This is dog-whistle politics.

The irony of Edward L. Bernays’s enshrinement in the spin literature is that, in fact, he is not the father of contemporary persuasion. That honor belongs–if it belongs to anyone–to the wizard of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman. Wunderman was Bernays’s antithesis. He was born in a tenement in the East Bronx, far from the privilege and wealth of Bernays’s Manhattan. While Bernays was sending women marching down Fifth Avenue, Wunderman was delivering chickens for Izzy, a local kosher butcher. He started off in advertising making twenty-five dollars a week at Casper Pinsker’s mail-order ad agency, in lower Manhattan, and in one of his first successes he turned the memoirs of Hitler’s personal physician into a wartime best-seller by promoting them on the radio with some of the first-ever infomercials. If Bernays was the master of what Tye calls Big Think–splashy media moments, behind-the-scenes manipulations, concocted panels of "experts"–Wunderman, in the course of his career, established himself as the genius of Little Think, of the small but significant details that turn a shopper into a buyer. He was the person who first put bound- in subscription cards in magazines, who sold magazines on late-night television with an 800 number, who invented the forerunner of the scratch-‘n’-sniff ad, who revolutionized the mail-order business, and who, in a thousand other ways, perfected the fine detail of true salesmanship.

In "Being Direct," his recent autobiography, Wunderman relates the story of how he turned the Columbia Record Club into the largest marketing club of its kind in the world. It’s a story worth retelling, if only because it provides such an instructive counterpoint to the ideas of Edward Bernays. The year was 1955. Wunderman was already the acknowledged king of mail order, long since gone from Casper Pinsker, and by then a senior vice-president at the ad firm Maxwell Sackheim & Company, and Columbia came to him with a problem. Independent mail-order companies, using the model of the Book-of-the-Month Club, were starting to chip away at retail sales of records. (In those days, record companies sold records through dealers, the same way that car companies sell cars.) To stem the tide, Columbia wanted to start a club of its own.

Wunderman’s response was to create a kind of mail- order department store, with four sections–classical, Broadway, jazz, and listening and dancing–and a purchase plan that offered a free record for joining. The offer was then advertised in magazines, with a coupon to clip and mail back. This initial campaign did respectably, but not well enough to break even. Wunderman went back to the drawing board. In 1956, he began testing hundreds of different kinds of ads in different publications and in different markets, comparing the response rate to each. The best response was to a plan that allowed the customer, for every four records purchased, to choose three free records from a list of twelve options. He went with that nationwide. By 1957, the club had a million members. But that summer the club-advertising response rate suddenly fell off by twenty per cent. Wunderman, who was travelling in Europe at the time, had another brainstorm:

What I had discovered in Italy was antipasto…. The idea of so many choices intrigued me, and the larger the selection, the longer the line at the antipasto table. Restaurant owners seemed to know this, because antipasto carts and tables were usually displayed prominently at the entrance. I made a point of counting the number of individual antipasto choices people took in relation to the number that were offered, and I discovered that they helped themselves to about the same number of dishes no matter how many were set in front of them.

Wunderman rushed back to New York with the solution. The free records Columbia offered to new members were "antipasto." But three free records from a list of twelve weren’t enough, Wunderman argued. That wasn’t a true antipasto bar. He persuaded Columbia that it should test an ad that increased the choice from twelve records to thirty- two. The response rate doubled. (Today, Columbia members get to choose from more than four hundred albums.) Columbia scrapped its old ad run, and replaced it with the antipasto campaign. The year 1958 was the best one in the club’s history.

The next challenge Wunderman faced was that the club seemed stalled at a million members, so he began searching for new ways to get his message across. Taking an idea he had pioneered several years earlier, while he was selling mail-order roses for Jackson & Perkins, he persuaded a number of publishers to put post-paid insert cards in magazines–the now familiar little cards that are an ad on one side and a coupon on the other. Columbia jumped to two million members. In Life he inserted a sheet of "value stamps," each with the title of an album on it, which readers could stick to a response card. He was also the first to use an "answer card" in newspapers, and among the first to get newspapers to insert freestanding four- and eight-page special advertising sections in their Sunday editions. On another occasion, he put a little gold box in the corner of all Columbia’s print ads, and, in a series of television commercials, instructed viewers to look in the ads for the "buried treasure"; if they found the box, they could get another free record. The gold-box campaign raised responses by eighty per cent. "The Gold Box," he writes, "had made the reader/viewer part of an interactive advertising system. Viewers were not just an audience but had become participants. It was like playing a game."

All these strategies amount to a marketing system of extraordinary sensitivity. Answer cards and gold boxes and antipasto and the other techniques of Little Think are sophisticated ways of listening, of overcoming the problems of distance and distortion which so handicap other forms of persuasion. There are times when we all get annoyed at the business reply cards that Wunderman invented. But at a conceptual level, surely, those cards are a thing of beauty. To the consumer–to us–they offer almost perfect convenience. Is there an easier way to subscribe to a magazine? To the client, they offer ubiquity: it knows that every time a magazine is opened a response card falls on someone’s lap. And to the ad agency they offer a finely calibrated instrument to measure effectiveness: the adman can gauge precisely how successful his campaign is merely by counting the number of cards that come back. Much of the apparatus of modern-day marketing–the computer databases, the psychographic profiles, the mailing lists, the market differentiations, the focus groups–can be seen, in some sense, as an attempt to replicate the elegance and transparency of this model. Marketers don’t want to spin us. They want to hold us perfectly still, so they can figure out who we are, what we want, and how to reach us.

There is a moment in Kurtz’s book in which he stumbles on this truth: that it isn’t spin, after all, that accounts for Clinton’s popularity but, rather, the opposite of spin–the President’s ability to listen, to offer his agenda like antipasto, to sidestep the press and speak directly to the public. Kurtz writes that the former White House communications director Don Baer believed that Clinton "cut through what was said about him":

He was having his own conversation with America, one that, if all went well, sailed over the heads of the journalists, who were nothing but theater critics and did little to shape public opinion. Baer saw the phenomenon time and again. When Clinton unveiled his plan for hope scholarships, which would give parents of college students up to $1500 a year in tax credits, the media verdict was swift: cynical political ploy to pander to middle-class voters. But what the public heard was that Clinton was concerned about the difficulty of sending kids to college and was willing to help them with tax credits. Voters got it. They liked constructive proposals and hated partisan sniping.

But Kurtz doesn’t believe Baer, and why would he? The spin fantasy offers a far more satisfying explanation for the world around us. Spin suggests a drama, a script to decode, a game played at the highest of levels. Spinning is the art of telling a story, even when there is no story to tell, and this is irresistible (particularly to journalists, who make a living by telling stories even when there is no story to tell). In truth, the world of persuasion is a good deal more prosaic. Ideas and candidacies–not to mention albums–are sold by talking plainly and clearly, and the louder and faster the whirring of the spinners becomes, the more effective this clarity and plainspokenness will be. We think we belong to the world of Edward L. Bernays. We don’t. We are all Wundermanians now.

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August 17, search 1998
ANNALS OF BEHAVIOR

Judith Rich Harris and child development

1.

The idea that will make Judith Rich Harris famous came to her, cialis unbidden, on the afternoon of January 20, 1994. At the time, Harris was a textbook writer, with no doctorate or academic affiliation, working from her home in suburban New Jersey. Because of a lupus-like illness, she doesn’t have the strength to leave the house, and she’d spent that morning in bed. By early afternoon, though, she was at her desk, glancing through a paper by a prominent psychologist about juvenile delinquency, and for some reason a couple of unremarkable sentences struck her as odd: "Delinquency must be a social behavior that allows access to some desirable resource. I suggest that the resource is mature status, with its consequent power and privilege." It is an observation consistent with our ideas about what it means to grow up. Teen-agers rebel against being teen-agers, against the restrictions imposed on them by adults. They smoke because only adults are supposed to smoke. They steal cars because they are too young to have cars. But Harris was suddenly convinced that the paper had it backward. "Adolescents aren’t trying to be like adults–they are trying to contrast themselves with adults," she explains. "And it was as if a light had gone on in the sky. It was one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me. In a minute or two, I had the germ of the theory, and in ten minutes I had enough of it to see that it was important."

If adolescents didn’t want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children, and Harris realized that once you granted that fact all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing started to unravel. Why, for example, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accents of their parents? How is it that the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born? The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally–that what children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home. Harris was asking whether this was true more generally: what if children also learn the things that make them who they are–that shape their characters and personalities–from their peer group? This would mean that, in some key sense, parents don’t much matter–that what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

"I was sitting and thinking," Harris told me, looking bright-eyed as she clutched a tall glass of lemonade. She is tiny–a fragile, elfin grandmother with a mop of gray hair and a little-girl voice. We were in her kitchen, looking out on the green of her back yard. "I told my husband, Charlie, about it. I had signed a contract to write a developmental-psychology textbook, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I couldn’t go on writing developmental-psychology textbooks, because I could no longer say what my publishers wanted me to say." Over the next six months, Harris immersed herself in the literature of social psychology and cultural anthropology. She read studies of group behavior in primates and unearthed studies from the nineteen-fifties of pre-adolescent boys. She couldn’t conduct any experiments of her own, because she didn’t belong to an academic institution. She couldn’t even use a proper academic library, because the closest university to her was Rutgers, which was forty-five minutes away, and she didn’t have the strength to leave her house for more than a few hours at a time. So she went to the local public library and ordered academic texts through interlibrary loan and sent for reprints of scientific articles through the mail, and the more she read the more she became convinced that her theory could tie together many of the recent puzzling findings in behavioral genetics and developmental psychology. In six weeks, in August and September of 1994, she wrote a draft and sent it off to the academic journal Psychological Review. It was an act of singular audacity, because Psychological Review is one of the most prestigious journals in psychology, and prestigious academic journals do not, as a rule, publish the musings of stay-at-home grandmothers without Ph.D.s. But her article was accepted, and in the space below her name, where authors typically put "Princeton University" or "Yale University" or "Oxford University," Harris proudly put "Middletown, New Jersey." Harris listed her CompuServe address in a footnote, and soon she was inundated with E-mail, because what she had to say was so compelling and so surprising and, in a wholly unexpected way, so sensible that everyone in the field wanted to know more. Who are you? scholars asked. Where did you come from? Why have I never heard of you before?

At this point, Harris’s health was not good. Her autoimmune disorder began to attack her heart and lungs, and she sometimes wondered how long she had to live. But, at the urging of some of her new friends in academe, she set out to write a book, and somehow in the writing of it she became stronger. That book, "The Nurture Assumption," will be published this fall, and it is a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development. It begins, "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child’s personality–what used to be called ‘character’–is shaped or modified by the child’s parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child’s personality is shaped." On the back cover are enthusiastic blurbs from David Lykken, of the University of Minnesota; Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford; Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis; John Bruer, of the James S. McDonnell Foundation; and Steven Pinker, of MIT–which, in the social-science business, is a bit like writing a book on basketball and having it endorsed by the starting five of the Chicago Bulls. This week, Harris will travel to San Francisco for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, where she will receive a prize for her Psychological Review article.

"It’s as if the gods were making up to me all that they had done to me previously," Harris told me. "It was the best gift I could have ever gotten: an idea. It wasn’t something that I could have known in advance. But, as it turned out, it was what I wanted most in the world–an idea that would give a direction and a purpose to my life."

2.

Judith Harris’s big idea–that peers matter much more than parents–runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology and psychotherapy has told us about human development. Freud put parents at the center of the child’s universe, and there they have remained ever since. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do," the poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, and that perspective is fundamental to the way we have been taught to understand ourselves. When we go to a therapist, we talk about our parents, in the hope that coming to grips with the events of childhood can help us decipher the mysteries of adulthood. When we say things like "That’s the way I was raised," we mean that children instinctively and preferentially learn from their parents, that parents can be good or bad role models for children, that character and personality are passed down from one generation to the next. Child development has been, in many ways, concerned with understanding children through their parents.

In recent years, however, this idea has run into a problem. In a series of careful and comprehensive studies (among them the famous Minnesota studies of twins separated at birth) behavioral geneticists have concluded that about fifty per cent of the personality differences among people–traits such as friendliness, extroversion, nervousness, openness, and so on–are attributable to our genes, which means that the other half must be attributable to the environment. Yet when researchers have set out to look for this environmental influence they haven’t been able to find it. If the example of parents were important in a child’s development, you’d expect to see a consistent difference between the children of anxious and inexperienced parents and the children of authoritative and competent parents, even after taking into account the influence of heredity. Children who spend two hours a day with their parents should be different from children who spend eight hours a day with their parents. A home with lots of books should result in a different kind of child from a home with very few books. In other words, researchers should have been able to find some causal link between the specific social environment parents create for their children and the way those children turn out. They haven’t.

One of the largest and most rigorous studies of this kind is known as the Colorado Adoption Project. Between 1975 and 1982, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado, headed by Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading behavioral geneticists, recruited two hundred and forty-five pregnant women from the Denver area who planned to give up their children for adoption. The researchers then followed the children into their new homes, giving them a battery of personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals throughout their childhood and giving similar tests to their adoptive parents. For the sake of comparison, the group also ran the same set of tests on a control group of two hundred and forty-five parents and their biological children. For the latter group, the results were pretty much as one might expect: in intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the kids proved to be fairly similar to their parents. The scores of the adopted kids, however, had nothing whatsoever in common with the scores of their adoptive parents: these children were no more similar in personality or intellectual skills to the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them all their lives than they were to any two adults taken at random off the street.

Here is the puzzle. We think that children resemble their parents because of both genes and the home environment, both nature and nurture. But, if nurture matters even a little, why don’t the adopted kids have at least some greater-than-chance similarities to their adoptive parents? The Colorado study says that the only reason we are like our parents is that we share their genes, and that–by any measures of cognition and personality–when there is no genetic inheritance there is no resemblance.

This is the question that so preoccupied Harris on that winter morning four and a half years ago. She knew that most people in psychology had responded to findings like those of the Colorado project by turning an ever more powerful microscope on the family, assuming that if we couldn’t see the influence of parents through standard psychological measures it was because we weren’t looking hard enough. Not looking hard enough wasn’t the problem. The problem was that psychologists weren’t looking in the right place. They were looking inside the home when they should have been looking outside the home. The answer wasn’t parents; it was peers.

Harris argues that we have been in the grip of what she calls the "nurture assumption," a parent-centered bias that has blinded us to what really matters in human development. Consider, she says, the seemingly common-sense statements "Children who are hugged are more likely to be nice" and "Children who are beaten are more likely to be unpleasant." Sure enough, if you study nice, well-adjusted children, it turns out that they generally have well-adjusted and nice parents. But what does this really mean? Since genes account for about half of personality variations among people, it’s quite possible that nice children are nice simply because they received nice genes from their parents–and nice parents are going to be nice to their children. Hugging may have made the children happy, and it may have taught them a good way of expressing their affection, but it may not have been what made them nice. Or take the example of smoking. The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers, so it’s natural to conclude that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. In fact, a lot of parents who smoke feel guilty about it for that very reason. But if parents really cause smoking there ought to be elevated rates of smoking among the adopted children of smokers, and there aren’t. It turns out that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes, and the reason that so many children of smokers smoke is that they have inherited a genetic susceptibility to tobacco from their parents. David C. Rowe, a professor of family studies at the University of Arizona (whose academic work on the limits of family influence Harris says was critical to her own thinking), has analyzed research into this genetic contribution, and he concludes that it accounts entirely for the elevated levels of cigarette use among the children of smokers. With smoking, as with niceness, what parents do seems to be nearly irrelevant.

Harris makes another, subtler point about parents. What if, she asks, the cause-and-effect assumption with niceness and hugging can also go the other way? What if, all other things being equal, nice children tend to be hugged because they are nice, and unpleasant children tend to be beaten because they are unpleasant? Children, after all, are born with individual temperaments. Some children are easy to rear from the start and others are difficult, and those innate characteristics, she says, can strongly influence how parents treat them. Harris tells a story about a mother with two young children–a five-year-old girl, named Audrey, and a seven-year-old boy, named Mark–who walked by Harris’s house one day when she was out in the front yard with her dog, Page. Page ran toward the children, barking menacingly. Audrey went up to the animal and asked her mother, "Can I pet him?" Her mother quickly told her not to. Mark, meanwhile, was cowering on the other side of the street, and he stayed there even after Harris rushed up and grabbed Page by the collar. "Come on, Mark, the dog won’t hurt you," the mother said, and she waited for her son to come back across the street. What is the parenting "style" here that is supposedly so important in shaping personality? This mother is playing two very different roles–coaxing the frightened Mark and reining in the brash Audrey–and in each case her behavior is shaped by the actions and the temperament of her child, and not the other way around.

This phenomenon–what Harris calls child-to-parent effects–has been explored in detail by psychological researchers. David Reiss, of George Washington University, and Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist who headed the Colorado study, and a number of colleagues have just completed a ten-year, nine-million-dollar study of seven hundred and twenty American families. Thirty-two teams of testers were recruited, and they visited each family three times in the course of three years, giving parents and siblings personality tests, videotaping interactions between parents and children, questioning teachers, asking siblings about siblings, asking parents about children, asking children about parents–all to find out whether the differences in how parents relate to each of their children make any predictable difference in the way those children end up. "We thought that this was going to be a straight shot," Reiss told me. "The sibling who got the better micro environment would do better, be less depressed, be less antisocial. It seemed like a no-brainer." It wasn’t. Plomin told me, "If we just ask the simple question ‘Does differential parental treatment relate to differences in adolescent adjustment?’ the answer is yes–hugely. If you take negative parents–conflict, hostility–it’s the strongest predictor of negative adjustment of the siblings." But the study was designed to look at genetic influences as well–to examine whether children had personality traits that were causing parental behavior–and when those genetic factors were taken into consideration the link between negative parenting and problems in adolescence almost entirely disappeared. "The parents’ negativity isn’t causing the negative adjustment of the kids," Plomin said. "It’s reflecting it. This was a tremendous surprise to us." What looks like nurture is sometimes just nature, and what looks like a cause is sometimes just an effect.

3.

Harris takes this argument one step further. Consider, she says, the story of Cinderella:

The folks who gave us this tale ask us to accept the following premises: that Cinderella was able to go to the ball and not be recognized by her stepsisters, that despite years of degradation she was able to charm and hold the attention of a sophisticated guy like the prince, that the prince didn’t recognize her when he saw her again in her own home dressed in her workaday clothing, and that he never doubted that Cinderella would be able to fulfill the duties of a princess and, ultimately, of a queen.

If you think of the influence of parents and the home environment as monolithic, this tale does seem impossibly far-fetched. So why does the Cinderella story work? Because, Harris says, all of us understand that it is possible to be one person to our parents and another person to our friends. "Cinderella learned whenshe was still quite small that it was best to act meek when her stepmother was around, and to look unattractive in order to avoid arousing her jealousy," Harris writes. But outside the house Cinderella learned that she could win friends by being pretty and charming. Harris says that this lesson–that away from our parents we can reconstruct ourselves–is one that all children learn very quickly, and it is an important limitation on the power of parents: even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home.

The Cinderella effect shows up all the time in psychological research. For example, Harris notes that in the August, 1997, issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there is a study showing that the more mothers spanked their kids, the more troublesome the kids became. "When parents use corporal punishment to reduce antisocial behavior," the researchers report, "the long-term effect tends to be the opposite." These findings made headlines across the country. In the same issue of that journal, however, another study of children and corporal punishment reached the opposite conclusion: "For most children claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." The disparity is baffling until you remember the Cinderella effect. The first study asked mothers to evaluate their children’s behavior at home. Not surprisingly, it suggested that repeated spanking contributes to the kind of negative relationship that causes further misbehavior. The second study, however, asked kids how often they got into fights at school, and the world of school is a very different place from the world of home. Just the fact that a child wasn’t getting along with his mother didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t get along with his peers.

In another instance, Harris cites a Swedish study of picky eating among primary-school children. Some kids were picky eaters at school, some were picky at home, but only a small number were picky at home and school. A child who pushes away broccoli at the kitchen table might gobble it down in the school cafeteria. In the same way, a child might be shy and retiring at home but a chatterbox in the classroom. Harris applies the same logic to birth-order effects–the popular idea that a good part of our personality is determined by where we stand in relation to our siblings. "At home there are birth order effects, no question about it, and I believe that is why it’s so hard to shake people’s faith in them," Harris writes. "If you see people with their parents or their siblings, you do see the differences you expect to see. The oldest does seem more serious, responsible, and bossy. The youngest does behave in a more carefree fashion." But that’s only at home. Studies that look at the way people act outside the home, and away from the parents and siblings, don’t see any consistent effects at all. The younger brother cowed by his older siblings all his years of growing up is perfectly capable of being a dominant, take-charge figure when he’s among his friends. "Socialization research has demonstrated one thing clearly and irrefutably: a parent’s behavior toward a child affects how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent," Harris concludes. "I have no problem with that–I agree with it. The parent’s behavior also affects the way the child feels about the parent. When a parent favors one child over another, not only does it cause hard feelings between the children–it also causes the unfavored child to harbor hard feelings against the parent. These feelings can last a lifetime." But they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home–the place where adults spend the majority of their lives.

4.

Not long ago, Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociologist at York University, in Ontario, asked her students to write short autobiographies describing, among other things, the events in their lives which made them most unhappy. Nine per cent identified something that their parents had done, while more than a third pointed to the way they had been treated by peers. Ambert concluded:

There is far more negative treatment by peers than by parents…. In these autobiographies, one reads accounts of students who had been happy and well adjusted, but quite rapidly began deteriorating psychologically, sometimes to the point of becoming physically ill and incompetent in school, after experiences such as being rejected by peers, excluded, talked about, racially discriminated against, laughed at, bullied, sexually harassed, taunted, chased or beaten.

This is Harris’s argument in a nutshell: that whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us. In "The Nurture Assumption,"Harris pulls together an extraordinary range of studies and observations to support this idea. Here, for example, is Harris on delinquency. First, she cites a study of juvenile delinquency–vandalism, theft, assault, weapons possession, and so on–among five hundred elementary-school and middle-school boys in Pittsburgh. The study found that African-American boys, many of them from poor, single-parent, "high-risk" families, committed far more delinquent acts than the white kids. That much isn’t surprising. But when the researchers divided up the black boys by neighborhood the effect of coming from a putatively high-risk family disappeared. Black kids who didn’t live in the poorest, underclass neighborhoods–even if they were from poor, single-parent families–were no more delinquent than their white, mostly middle-class peers. At the same time, Harris cites another large study–one that compared the behavior of poor inner-city kids from intact families to the behavior of those living only with their mothers. You’d assume that a child is always better off in a two-parent home, but the research doesn’t bear that out. "Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress," the study concluded. A child is better off, in other words, living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.

Other studies have shown that children living without their biological fathers are more likely to drop out of school and, if female, to get pregnant in their teens. But is this because of the absence of a parent, Harris asks, or is it because of some factor that is merely associated with the absence of a parent? Having a stepfather around, for example, doesn’t make a kid any less likely to be unemployed, to drop out, or to be a teen-age mother. Nor does having lots of contact with one’s biological father after he has left. Nor does having another biological relative–a grandparent, for instance–in the home. Nor does it seem to matter when the father leaves: kids whose parents split up when they were in their early teens are no better off and no worse off than kids whose fathers left when they were infants. And, curiously, children whose fathers die aren’t worse off at all. In short, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the loss of adult guidance and role models caused by fatherlessness has specific behavioral consequences. So what is it? One obvious factor is income: single mothers have less money than married mothers, and income has a big effect on the welfare of children. If your parents split up and you move from Riverdale to the South Bronx, you’re obviously going to be a lot worse off–although it’s not the loss of your father that makes the difference. This brings us to another factor: relocation. Single-parent families move more often than intact families, and, according to one major study, those extra changes of residence could account for more than half the increased risk of dropping out, of teen-age pregnancy, and of unemployment among the children of divorce. The problem with divorce, in short, is not so much that it disrupts kids’ relationships with their parents as that it disrupts kids’ relationships with other kids. "Moving is rough on kids," Harris writes. "Kids who have been moved around a lot–whether or not they have a father–are more likely to be rejected by their peers; they have more behavioral problems and more academic problems than those who have stayed put."

5.

All these findings become less perplexing when you accept one of Harris’s central observations; namely, that kids aren’t interested in becoming copies of their parents. Children want to be good at being children. How, for example, do you persuade a preschooler to eat something new? Not by eating it yourself and hoping that your child follows suit. A preschooler doesn’t care what you think. But give the food to a roomful of preschoolers who like it, and it’s quite probable that your child will happily follow suit. From the very moment that children first meet other children, they take their cues from them.

One of the researchers whom Harris draws on in her peer discussion is William A. Corsaro, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and a pioneer in the ethnography of early childhood. He was one of the first researchers to spend months crouching by swing sets and next to monkey bars closely observing the speech and play patterns of preschoolers. In one of his many playground stakeouts, Corsaro was sitting next to a sandbox and watching two four-year-old girls, Jenny and Betty, play house, and put sand in pots, cupcake pans, and teapots. Suddenly, a third girl, Debbie, approached. Here is Corsaro’s full description of the scene:

After watching for about five minutes [Debbie] circles the sandbox three times and stops again and stands next to me. After a few more minutes of watching, Debbie moves to the sandbox and reaches for a teapot. Jenny takes the pot away from Debbie and mumbles, "No." Debbie backs away and again stands near me, observing the activity of Jenny and Betty. Then she walks over next to Betty, who is filling the cupcake pan with sand.

Debbie watches Betty for just a few seconds, then says,"We’re friends, right, Betty?"

Betty, not looking up at Debbie, continues to place sand in the pan and says, "Right."

Debbie now moves alongside Betty, takes a pot and spoon, begins putting sand in the pot, and says, "I’m making coffee."

"I’m making cupcakes," Betty replies.

Betty now turns to Jenny and says, "We’re mothers, right, Jenny?"

"Right," says Jenny.

The three "mothers" continue to play together for about twenty more minutes, until the teachers announce cleanup time.

To adults, this exchange looks somewhat troubling. If you saw Debbie circling the sandbox over and over, you’d think she was shy and timid. And if you came upon the three girls just as Jenny told Debbie no you’d think Jenny was selfish and needed to be taught to share. In both cases, the children seem profoundly antisocial. In fact, Corsaro says, the opposite is true. A preschool playground is rather like a cocktail party. There are lots of informal clusters of kids playing together, and the kids are in constant movement, from cluster to cluster. Unlike at a cocktail party, though, the play clusters are very fragile. "If the phone rang right now," Corsaro said to me when I met him, in his office in Bloomington, "I could answer it, talk for five minutes, and then we could pick up where we left off. It’s easy for us. When you are a three- or four-year-old and you’ve generated something spontaneous and it’s going well, it’s not so easy." The bell can ring. An adult can step in. An older child can disrupt things. As a result, they spend a lot of effort trying to protect their play from disruption. Betty and Jenny aren’t resistant to sharing when they initially say no to Debbie. They are already sharing, and the point of keeping Debbie at bay is to defend that shared play.

What has evolved in preschool culture, then, is what Corsaro calls access strategies–an elaborate set of rules and rituals that govern when and how the third parties circulating through the playground are allowed to join an existing game. Debbie’s approach to the sandbox is what Corsaro calls nonverbal entry–the first common opening move in the access dance. She’s waiting for an invitation to join. It’s the same at an adult cocktail party. You don’t come up to an existing conversation and say, "May I join in?" You join the group quietly, as if to demonstrate respect for the existing conversation. When Debbie goes around and around the sandbox, she’s trying to understand the basis of Jenny and Betty’s play. Corsaro calls this encirclement. Notice that when Debbie initially reaches for a teapot Jenny says no. Debbie hasn’t proved that she understands the game in question. So she retreats and observes further. Then she makes what Corsaro calls a verbal reference to affiliation–"We’re friends, right?" It’s as if she were offering her bona fides. She gets a positive response. Now she enters again, this time making it absolutely clear that she understands the game: "I’m making coffee." She’s in. This is how children learn to get along. Kids teach each other how to be social. Indeed, to the extent that adults might get involved in an access situation–by, for example, instructing Jenny and Betty that they have to share with Debbie–they would frustrate the learning process.

Corsaro is a quiet, bearded man of fifty, with the patient, stubborn air of someone who has spent the better part of his life sitting and watching screaming three-year-olds. Harris E-mailed him when she was writing her Psycholo gical Review paper, and the two have struck up an on-line friendship. Most people, Corsaro says, want to figure out what his work says about individual development. Harris, though, recognized at once what Corsaro considers the real lesson, which is the children’s immediate and powerful attraction to their own peer group. Once, Corsaro spent close to a year in a preschool where the children had been forbidden to bring their toys into the classroom. Before long, he noticed that they had found a way around the rule: the children were selecting the smallest of their toys–the boys chose Matchbox toy cars, for example, and the girls little plastic animals–and hiding them in their pockets. These were only preschoolers, but already they were organizing against the adult world, defining themselves as a group in opposition to their elders. "What I found interesting was not that the kids wanted to bring their own toys but that when they smuggled them in they never played with them alone. They played with them collectively," Corsaro told me. "They wanted others to know that they had them. They wanted to share the toys with others. They are not only sharing the toy but sharing the fact that they are getting around the rule. This is what is unique. I think there is a real, strong emotional satisfaction in sharing things, in doing things together." Even for a child of three or four, the group is critical.

6.

Judith Harris and her husband, Charles, have two children. The first, Nomi, is their biological daughter, and the second, Elaine, is adopted. In that sense, Harris’s own family is a kind of micro-version of the adoption studies that raise the question of parental influence, and she says that without the example of her daughters she might not have reached the conclusion she did. Nomi, the elder, was quiet and self-sufficient as a child, a National Merit Scholar who went on to do graduate work at MIT. "She is very much like me and Charlie," Harris says. "She gave us no trouble while she was growing up. She didn’t require much guidance, because she didn’t want to do anything that we didn’t want her to do. Even before she could walk, she would crawl off to another part of the house, and I’d find her taking things out of a drawer and looking at them carefully–and putting them down carefully."

Elaine was different. "When she was little, all you had to do was look down and she was there, right on my heels," Harris recalls. "She always wanted to be with people. We started getting bad reports from the school right away–that she wouldn’t sit in her chair, and she was bothering other kids. When Nomi would ask a question, it was because she was interested in the answer. When Elaine would ask a question, it was because she was interested in having the interaction. Nomi would ask a question once. Elaine would often ask a question several times. As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup. They went in opposite directions."

Harris has an optimistic air about her, as if all her troubles had only served to strengthen her appreciation of life. But it’s clear that bringing up Elaine represented a real crisis in her life. When Elaine was six and Nomi was ten, Harris became ill for the first time. She was in such pain that she couldn’t sit up for more than half an hour. She tried taking a graduate course in psychology, hoping to finish a doctorate she had started, in the early sixties, at Harvard, and she had a fellow-student carry a cot to class so she could lie down during lectures. But even that was too hard, so she became a textbook writer, lying in her bed, with a spiral-bound notebook on her knee, and Nomi acting as her typist. She had pneumonia, a heart murmur, pulmonary hypertension, shingles, a year of chronic hives, and a minor stroke. "Sometimes," she says, "I felt like Job," and in the midst of all her troubles her younger daughter seemed out of control.

"We had very bad years with her in her teens," she recalls. "We didn’t know how to handle her." Harris says that she began motherhood as a classic environmentalist, meaning she believed that children would reflect the environment in which they were reared. Had she stopped with Nomi, she says, she might have attributed Nomi’s studiousness and self-sufficiency and success to her own enlightened parenting. It was Elaine who made the puzzle posed by the adoption studies seem real. "I assumed that an adopted child would represent her environment, and that if I could give Elaine the same kind of environment I gave to my first child she would turn out–of course, not the same…" She thought for moment. "But I certainly didn’t expect that she would be so vastly different. I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all." Harris seems a little reluctant to talk about those years, particularly since Elaine turned out, as she puts it, "amazingly well" and is now happy and married, with a toddler and a career as a licensed practical nurse. But it’s not hard to imagine the kind of guilt and frustration she must have felt–maternal helplessness magnified by her physical debility–as she and Charles did everything that good parents are supposed to do yet still came up short. Her epiphany was, in a way, her release, because she came to believe that the reason she and Charles couldn’t see that they were having any effect on Elaine was that parents really can’t have a big effect on their children.

There are a hundred ways of explaining Nomi and Elaine, and there is, of course, something very convenient about the explanation that Harris arrived at: it’s the kind of thing that the mother of a difficult child wants to believe. Harris has constructed a theory that lets herself off the hook for her daughter’s troubled childhood. It should be said, though, that the idea that parents can control the destiny of their children by doing all the right things–by providing children with every lesson and every experience, by buying them the right toys and saying the right words and never spanking or publicly scolding them–is just as self-serving. At least, Harris’s theory calls for neighborhoods, peers, and children themselves to share the blame–and the credit–for how children turn out. The nurture assumption, by contrast, places the blame and the credit squarely on the parent, and has made it possible to demonize all those who fail to measure up to the strictest standards of supposedly optimal parenting. "I want to tell parents that it’s all right," Harris told me. "A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment. If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid. You can have a kid without having to devote your entire life–your entire emotional expenditure–to this child for the next twenty years."

Harris does not see children as delicate vessels and does not believe they are easily damaged by the missteps of their mothers and fathers. We have been told, Harris writes, to tell children not that they’ve been bad but that what they did was bad, or, even more appropriately, that what they did made us feel bad. In her view, we have come to insist on these niceties only because we have forgotten what the world of children is really like. "Kids are not that fragile," she writes. "They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home, they might hear ‘What you did made me feel bad,’ but out on the playground it’s ‘You shithead!’"

Is Harris right? She is the first to admit that what she has provided is only, at this stage, a theory. From her tiny study, off the main hallway of her home in New Jersey, she is scarcely in a position to do the kind of multimillion-dollar, multi-year study that is needed to test her hypothesis. "My guess is that some of the more threatened elders in the field of psychology are going to go out of their way to try and savage this," Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, says. "But my gut feeling is that this is really important. Harris makes a lot of sense. Sometimes she is a little doctrinaire"–he paused–"but, boy." Already, Harris has helped wrench psychology away from its single-minded obsession with chronicling and interpreting the tiniest perturbations of family life. The nurture assumption, she says, has turned childhood into parenthood: it has turned the development of children into a story almost entirely about their parents. "Have you ever thought of yourself as a mirror?" Dorothy Corkille Briggs asks in her pop-psychology handbook "Your Child’s Self-Esteem." "You are one–a psychological mirror your child uses to build his identity. And his whole life is affected by the conclusions he draws." And here are Barbara Chernofsky and Diane Gage, in "Change Your Child’s Behavior by Changing Yours," on how children relate to their parents: "Like living video cameras, children record what they observe." This is the modern-day cult of parenting. It takes as self-evident the idea that the child is oriented, overwhelmingly, toward the parents. But why should that be true? Don’t parents, in fact, spend much of their time instructing their children not to act like adults–that they cannot be independent, that they cannot make decisions entirely by themselves, that different rules apply to them because they are children?

"If developmental psychology were an enterprise conducted by children, there is no question that peer relationships would be at the top of the list," Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, told me. "But because it is conducted by adults we tend, egocentrically, to believe that it is the relationship between us and our children that is important. But just look at them. Whom do they want to please? Are they wearing the kind of clothing that other kids are wearing or the kind that their parents are wearing? If the other kids are speaking another way, whose language are they going to learn? And, from an evolutionary perspective, whom should they be paying attention to? Their parents–the members of the previous generation–or their peers, who will be their future mates and future collaborators? It would more adaptive for them to be better attuned to the nuances of their peers’ behavior. That just makes a lot of sense."

7.

Harris’s health is more stable now, and when she was putting the finishing touches on her book this summer she was sometimes able to work at the computer twelve, or even fourteen, hours a day. But anything more strenuous is out of the question. The woman who says that what really matters is what happens outside the home rarely leaves the home–not for vacations, or even to see a movie. Indeed, none of the heavyweight psychologists who have befriended her since her Psychological Review article ran have ever met her. "Writing E-mail is my recreation," she wrote me in an E-mail.

When Harris goes to San Francisco this week, for the A.P.A. convention, it will be a kind of coming-out party. In preparation, during the past few weeks she has had to go shopping. "I have to buy clothes," she said. "I’ve hardly been out of the house in years." On August 15th, she will take the stage and receive a prize named in honor of the eminent scholar George A. Miller. Almost four decades ago, Harris was kicked out of graduate school after only two years, and the dean who delivered the news was the same George A. Miller. The two have since corresponded, and Miller has termed the irony "delicious." In her acceptance remarks, Harris told me, she intends to read from the letter that Miller wrote her long ago: "I hesitate to say that you lack originality and independence, because in many areas of life you obviously possess both of those traits in abundance. But for some reason you have not been able to bring them to bear on the kind of problems in psychology to which this department is dedicated….We are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be."

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July 6, pilule 1998
A CRITIC AT LARGE

Are our spin meisters just spinning one another?

On Easter Sunday, prescription 1929, the legendary public-relations man Edward L. Bernays rounded up ten carefully chosen women, put cigarettes in their hands, and sent them down Fifth Avenue in what was billed as the Torches of Freedom march. The marchers were given detailed instructions, including when and how their cigarettes should be lit. Spokeswomen were enlisted to describe the protest as an advance for feminism. Photographers were hired to take pictures. It was an entirely contrived event that nonetheless looked so "real" that the next day it made front-page headlines across the country, prompting a debate over whether women should be allowed to smoke as freely as men, and–some historians believe–forever changing the social context of cigarettes. What Bernays never told anyone was that he was working for the American Tobacco Company.

It is difficult to appreciate how brazen Bernays’s ruse was at the time. In the twenties, the expectation was that if you were trying to sell people something–even if you were planning to deceive them in the process–you had at least to admit that you were trying to sell them something. Bernays was guided by the principle that this wasn’t true: that sometimes the best way to sell something (cigarettes, say) was to pretend to be selling something else (freedom, say).

Bernays helped the brewing industry establish beer as "the beverage of moderation." For Dixie cups, he founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink. For the Mack truck company, he drummed up national support for highway construction through front groups called the Trucking Information Service, the Trucking Service Bureau, and Better Living Through Increased Highway Transportation. In a torrent of books and articles (including one book, "Crystallizing Public Opinion," that was found in Joseph Goebbels’s library) he argued that the P.R. professional could "continuously and systematically" perform the task of "regimenting the public mind." He wasn’t talking about lying. He was talking about artful, staged half- truth. It’s the kind of sly deception that we’ve come to associate with the Reagan Administration’s intricately scripted photo ops (the cowboy hats, the flannel shirts, the horse), with the choreographed folksiness of Clinton’s Town Hall meetings, with the "Wag the Dog" world of political operatives, and with the Dilbertian byways of boardroom euphemism, in which firing is "rightsizing" and dismembering companies becomes "unlocking shareholder value." Edward L. Bernays invented spin.

Today, we’re told, Bernays’s touch is everywhere. The advertising critic Randall Rothenberg has suggested that there is something called a Media-Spindustrial Complex, which encompasses advertising, P.R., lobbying, polling, direct mail, investor relations, focus groups, jury consulting, speechwriting, radio and television stations, and newspapers–all in the business of twisting and turning and gyrating. Argument now masquerades as conversation. Spin, the political columnist E.J. Dionne wrote recently, "obliterates the distinction between persuasion and deception." Should P.R. people tell "the whole truth about our clients? No sirree!" Thomas Madden, the chairman of one of the largest P.R. firms in the country, declares in his recent memoir, entitled "Spin Man." In the best-seller "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," Howard Kurtz,the media critic for the Washington Post, even describes as spin the White House’s decision in the spring of 1997 to release thousands of pages of documents relating to the Democratic fund-raising scandal.

This was the documentation that the press had been clamoring for. You might have thought that it was full disclosure. Not so, says Kurtz, who dubs the diabolical plan Operation Candor. In playing the honesty card, he argues, the White House preëmpted embarrassing leaks by congressional investigators and buried incriminating documents under an avalanche of paper. Of course, not releasing any documents at all would also have been spin (Stonewall Spin), and so would releasing only a handful of unrepresentative documents (Selection Spin). But, if you think that calling everything "spin" renders the term meaningless (if this is all spin, then what is not spin?), you’ve missed the point. The notion that this is the age of spin rests on the premise that everything, including the truth, is potentially an instrument of manipulation.

In "P.R.!:ASocial History of Spin," the media critic Stuart Ewen describes how, in 1990, he went to visit Bernays at his home near Harvard Square, in Cambridge. He was ushered in by a maid and waited in the library, looking, awestruck, at the shelves. "It was a remarkable collection of books, thousands of them: about public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare, and so forth–a comprehensive library spanning matters of human motivation and strategies of influence, scanning a period of more than one hundred years," he writes. "These were not the bookshelves of some shallow huckster, but the arsenal of an intellectual. The cross- hairs of nearly every volume were trained on the target of forging public attitudes. Here–in a large white room in Cambridge, Massachusetts–was the constellation of ideas that had inspired and informed a twentieth century preoccupation: the systematic molding of public opinion."

Suddenly, Ewen’s reverie was broken. In walked Bernays, a "puckish little man" of ninety-eight, with "swift eyes," who looked like "an aged Albert Einstein." Bernays led Ewen past his picture gallery–Bernays and Henry Ford, Bernays and Thomas Edison, Bernays and Eisenhower, Bernays en route to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, an autographed photo of Sigmund Freud, who was Bernays’s uncle. And for four hours Bernays and Ewen talked. Ewen was "entranced": he had located the fountainhead of all spin. At one point, Bernays hypothesized about how he might have promoted Ewen’s previous book, which was an account of consumer imagery in the modern economy. He would, he said, have called the big consumer organizations and suggested to them that they devote one of their annual meetings to a discussion of consumers and images. Ewen thought nothing of it. Then, three months later, he got a call from the president of the Consumer Federation of America asking him if he wanted to be the keynote speaker at its annual meeting. Was Bernays behind it? Was he still spinning, even as he approached his hundredth birthday? Ewen never found out. "Yet the question remained, and remains, open," he writes, in the breathless opening chapter of his book. "Things had uncannily come to pass much as Bernays had described in his hypothetical disquisition on the work of a P.R. practitioner, and I was left to ponder whether there is any reality anymore, save the reality of public relations."

The curious thing about our contemporary obsession with spin, however, is that we seldom consider whether spin works. We simply assume that, because people are everywhere trying to manipulate us, we’re being manipulated. Yet it makes just as much sense to assume the opposite: that the reason spin is everywhere today is that it doesn’t work–that, because the public is getting increasingly inured to spin, spinners feel they must spin even harder, on and on, in an ever-escalating arms race. The Torches of Freedom march worked because nobody had ever pulled a stunt like that before. Today, those same marchers would be stopped cold at ten feet. (First question at the press conference: Who put you up to this?) Once spun, twice shy. When, last week, the Clinton spokesman Rahm Emanuel called Steven Brill’s revelations about Kenneth Starr’s leaking to the press a "bombshell," that was spin, but we are so accustomed to Rahm Emanuel’s spinning that the principal effect of his comment was to prompt a meta-discussion about, of all things, his comment. ("If the wonderful word oleaginous didn’t exist," Frank Rich wrote in the Times, "someone would have to invent it to describe Rahm Emanuel.")Emanuel might have been better off saying nothing at all, except that–under the Howard Kurtz rule–this, too, would have been decoded as an attempt to spin us, by ostentatiously letting the Brill revelations speak for themselves: Silent Spin, perhaps. Spin sets into motion a never-ending cycle of skepticism.

There is a marvellous illustration of this arms-race problem in the work of two psychology professors, Deborah Gruenfeld and Robert Wyer, Jr. They gave people statements that were said to be newspaper headlines, and asked them to rate their plausibility, on a scale of zero to ten. Since the headlines basically stated the obvious–for example, "black democrats supported jesse jackson for president in 1988"–the scores were all quite high. The readers were then given a series of statements that contradicted the headlines. Not surprisingly, the belief scores went down significantly. Then another group of people was asked to read a series of statements that supported the headlines–statements like "Black Democrats presently support Jesse Jackson for President." This time, the belief scores still dropped. Telling people that what they think is true actually is true, in other words, has almost the same effect as telling them that what they think is true isn’t true. Gruenfeld and Wyer call this a "boomerang effect," and it suggests that people are natural skeptics. How we respond to a media proposition has at least as much to do with its pragmatic meaning (why we think the statement is being made) as with its semantic meaning (what is literally being said). And when the pragmatic meaning is unclear–why, for example, would someone tell us over and over that Jesse Jackson has the support of black Democrats–we start to get suspicious. This is the dilemma of spin. When Rahm Emanuel says "bombshell," we focus not on the actual bombshell but on why he used the word "bombshell."

The point is that spin is too clever by half. In a forthcoming biography, "The Father of Spin," Larry Tye writes that in 1930 Bernays went to work for a number of major book publishers, including Simon &Schuster and Harcourt Brace: "’Where there are bookshelves,’ he reasoned, ‘there will be books.’ So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes–which is why so many homes from that era have built-in bookshelves."

This is the kind of slick move that makes Bernays such an inspiration for contemporary spin meisters. (Tye, admiringly, calls it "infinitely more effective" than simply promoting books one by one, in the conventional way.) But wait a minute. Did Bernays really reach all these architects and contractors? If so, how? Wouldn’t there have been thousands of them? And, if he did, why would they ever have listened to him? (My limited experience with contractors and architects is that advice from someone outside their field has the opposite of its intended effect.) And, even if we assume that he did cause a surge in bookshelf building, is there a magical relationship between built-in shelves and the purchase of books? Most of us, I think, acquire books because we like books and we want to read them–not because we have customized space to fill in our apartments. The best way to promote cigarettes probably isn’t to subsidize ashtrays.

People who worry about spin have bought into a particular mythology about persuasion–a mythology that runs from Tom Sawyer to Vance Packard–according to which the best way to persuade someone to do something is to hide the act of persuasion. The problem is, though, that if the seller is too far removed from the transaction, if his motives are too oblique, there’s a good chance that his message will escape the buyer entirely. (People don’t always think books when they think shelves.) In fact, successful persuasion today is characterized by the opposite principle–that it is better to be obvious and get your message across than it is to pull invisible strings and risk having your message miss the mark. Bernays sacrificed clarity for subtlety. Most effective advertising today sacrifices subtlety for clarity. Recently, at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conference on how to fight teen-age smoking, one prominent California ad executive talked about the reason for the success of the Marlboro and the Camel brands. It was not, he said, because of any of the fancy behind-the-scenes psychological tricks that Big Tobacco is so often accused of by its critics. On the contrary. The tobacco companies, he said, understand what Nike and Coca- Cola understand: that if they can make their brands ubiquitous–if they can plaster them on billboards, on product displays inside grocery stores, on convenience-store windows, on the sides of buildings, on T-shirts and baseball caps, on the hoods and the roofs of racing cars, in colorful spreads in teen magazines–they can make their message impossible to ignore. The secret is not deception but repetition, not artful spinning but plain speaking.

There’s a second, related difficulty with spin–one that people in the marketing business call the internal-audience problem. Let’s say you are the head of the ad agency that has the Burger King account. Your ultimate goal is to make ads that appeal to the kind of people who buy Burger King burgers. But, in order to keep Burger King’s business and get your commercials on the air, you must first appeal to Burger King’s marketing executives, who are probably quite different in temperament and taste from the target Burger King customer. Ideally, your ads will appeal to the folks at Burger King because they appeal to the Burger King customers; that is, the internal audience will be pleased because the external audience is pleased. But it has always been extremely difficult to measure the actual impact of a television commercial (especially, as is the case with many ads, where the aim is simply to maintain the current market share). Unless you’re careful, then, you may start creating ads that appeal only to your internal audience, with the unfortunate result that the relationship between ad agency and ad buyer becomes a kind of closed loop. The internal audience supplants the real audience.

The internal-audience effect can be seen in all sorts of businesses. The reason so many magazines look alike is that their Manhattan-based editors and writers end up trying to impress not readers but other Manhattan-based editors and writers. It was in an effort to avoid this syndrome that Lincoln Mercury recently decided to move its headquarters from Detroit to California. The company said that the purpose was to get closer to its customers; more precisely, the purpose was to get away from people who weren’t its customers. Why do you think it took so long to get Detroit to install seat belts? Because to the internal audience a seat belt is a cost center. It is only to the external audience that it’s a life saver.

Edward Bernays was a master of the internal audience. He was intellectually indefatigable, a diminutive, mustachioed, impatient dervish. Larry Tye writes that as Bernays sat in his office "four or five young staff members, their chairs pulled close, would have been listening to him spew forth a stream of thoughts about peddling Ivory or keeping Luckies number one. With each new idea he’d scratch out a note, wad it up, and toss it on the floor." Afterward, the floor looked blanketed by snow. But it was all an inside joke. The wadded-up pieces of paper were, Tye quotes one former employee as saying, "a trick to demonstrate all the ideas he was generating." To promote bacon, Bernays persuaded prominent doctors to testify to the benefits of a hearty breakfast. His client, a bacon producer, no doubt regarded this as a dazzling feat. But does a hearty breakfast mean bacon? And does bacon mean his client’s bacon? Bernays’s extraordinary success is proof that in the P.R. world, where no hard-and-fast measures exist to gauge the true effectiveness of a message, he could prosper by playing only to his internal audience. But often the very things that make you successful with that audience prevent you from being successful with your real audience. To Simon & Schuster–to people in the book business–bookshelves really do mean books. To the rest of us, a bookshelf may be no more than a place to put unopened mail.

This is the mistake Howard Kurtz makes in "Spin Cycle." His book is a detailed account of how in the year following the 1996 elections Clinton’s spokesman Mike McCurry successfully spun the White House press corps during the fund-raising and Whitewater scandals. Kurtz tries to argue that this, in turn, reflects Clinton’s ability to manage his image with the wider public–with the external audience. In fact, "Spin Cycle" reads more like an extended treatise on the internal-audience problem, a three-hundred-page account of how McCurry’s heroic attempts to spin the White House press corps had the effect of, well, spinning the White House press corps.

For example, Kurtz recounts the story of Rita Braver, a former White House correspondent for CBS television. Braver believed that the Clinton Administration would go to "unbelievable lengths" to keep her from breaking a story–on the ground, Kurtz says, that "bad stories came across as more sensational on television." In one instance, early in Clinton’s second term, the White House announced that it was turning over a large number of Whitewater documents to the Justice Department. Braver, according to Kurtz, smelled a rat. She knew that you don’t just turn over documents to the Justice Department. She made some calls and found out that, sure enough, the White House had actually been subpoenaed. Braver wrote a script: "CBS News has learned…" Then disaster struck. "Half an hour before the evening news began," Kurtz writes, "White House officials publicly announced the subpoena. No way they were going to let her break the news and look like they were hiding something, which they had been. They were determined to beat her to the punch."

Let’s deconstruct this episode. Braver wanted to write a story that said, in effect, The documents the White House said it is handing over to the Justice Department today are, I have learned, being handed over because of a subpoena. Instead, she was forced to say, The documents that the White House is handing over to the Justice Department today are, the White House said, being handed over because of a subpoena. To the internal audience–to Braver and her colleagues–there is a real distinction between Statements A and B. In the first case, the White House is seen as reluctant to disclose the existence of a subpoena. In the second, it is not. More important, in the first case it is clear that the subpoena story is the result of the efforts of Rita Braver–of the efforts, in other words, of the White House press corps–and in the second that role has been erased. This distinction also matters to Clinton, McCurry’s other internal audience. But why does this matter to the rest of us? The news of interest to the external audience is not the nuance of the White House’s reaction to a subpoena, or the particular reporting talents of Rita Braver; it is the fact of the subpoena itself. Kurtz is entirely correct that the Braver episode is an example of the ascendancy of spin. But the only thing that’s being spun here is ten square blocks in the center of Washington, D.C. This is dog-whistle politics.

The irony of Edward L. Bernays’s enshrinement in the spin literature is that, in fact, he is not the father of contemporary persuasion. That honor belongs–if it belongs to anyone–to the wizard of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman. Wunderman was Bernays’s antithesis. He was born in a tenement in the East Bronx, far from the privilege and wealth of Bernays’s Manhattan. While Bernays was sending women marching down Fifth Avenue, Wunderman was delivering chickens for Izzy, a local kosher butcher. He started off in advertising making twenty-five dollars a week at Casper Pinsker’s mail-order ad agency, in lower Manhattan, and in one of his first successes he turned the memoirs of Hitler’s personal physician into a wartime best-seller by promoting them on the radio with some of the first-ever infomercials. If Bernays was the master of what Tye calls Big Think–splashy media moments, behind-the-scenes manipulations, concocted panels of "experts"–Wunderman, in the course of his career, established himself as the genius of Little Think, of the small but significant details that turn a shopper into a buyer. He was the person who first put bound- in subscription cards in magazines, who sold magazines on late-night television with an 800 number, who invented the forerunner of the scratch-‘n’-sniff ad, who revolutionized the mail-order business, and who, in a thousand other ways, perfected the fine detail of true salesmanship.

In "Being Direct," his recent autobiography, Wunderman relates the story of how he turned the Columbia Record Club into the largest marketing club of its kind in the world. It’s a story worth retelling, if only because it provides such an instructive counterpoint to the ideas of Edward Bernays. The year was 1955. Wunderman was already the acknowledged king of mail order, long since gone from Casper Pinsker, and by then a senior vice-president at the ad firm Maxwell Sackheim & Company, and Columbia came to him with a problem. Independent mail-order companies, using the model of the Book-of-the-Month Club, were starting to chip away at retail sales of records. (In those days, record companies sold records through dealers, the same way that car companies sell cars.) To stem the tide, Columbia wanted to start a club of its own.

Wunderman’s response was to create a kind of mail- order department store, with four sections–classical, Broadway, jazz, and listening and dancing–and a purchase plan that offered a free record for joining. The offer was then advertised in magazines, with a coupon to clip and mail back. This initial campaign did respectably, but not well enough to break even. Wunderman went back to the drawing board. In 1956, he began testing hundreds of different kinds of ads in different publications and in different markets, comparing the response rate to each. The best response was to a plan that allowed the customer, for every four records purchased, to choose three free records from a list of twelve options. He went with that nationwide. By 1957, the club had a million members. But that summer the club-advertising response rate suddenly fell off by twenty per cent. Wunderman, who was travelling in Europe at the time, had another brainstorm:

What I had discovered in Italy was antipasto…. The idea of so many choices intrigued me, and the larger the selection, the longer the line at the antipasto table. Restaurant owners seemed to know this, because antipasto carts and tables were usually displayed prominently at the entrance. I made a point of counting the number of individual antipasto choices people took in relation to the number that were offered, and I discovered that they helped themselves to about the same number of dishes no matter how many were set in front of them.

Wunderman rushed back to New York with the solution. The free records Columbia offered to new members were "antipasto." But three free records from a list of twelve weren’t enough, Wunderman argued. That wasn’t a true antipasto bar. He persuaded Columbia that it should test an ad that increased the choice from twelve records to thirty- two. The response rate doubled. (Today, Columbia members get to choose from more than four hundred albums.) Columbia scrapped its old ad run, and replaced it with the antipasto campaign. The year 1958 was the best one in the club’s history.

The next challenge Wunderman faced was that the club seemed stalled at a million members, so he began searching for new ways to get his message across. Taking an idea he had pioneered several years earlier, while he was selling mail-order roses for Jackson & Perkins, he persuaded a number of publishers to put post-paid insert cards in magazines–the now familiar little cards that are an ad on one side and a coupon on the other. Columbia jumped to two million members. In Life he inserted a sheet of "value stamps," each with the title of an album on it, which readers could stick to a response card. He was also the first to use an "answer card" in newspapers, and among the first to get newspapers to insert freestanding four- and eight-page special advertising sections in their Sunday editions. On another occasion, he put a little gold box in the corner of all Columbia’s print ads, and, in a series of television commercials, instructed viewers to look in the ads for the "buried treasure"; if they found the box, they could get another free record. The gold-box campaign raised responses by eighty per cent. "The Gold Box," he writes, "had made the reader/viewer part of an interactive advertising system. Viewers were not just an audience but had become participants. It was like playing a game."

All these strategies amount to a marketing system of extraordinary sensitivity. Answer cards and gold boxes and antipasto and the other techniques of Little Think are sophisticated ways of listening, of overcoming the problems of distance and distortion which so handicap other forms of persuasion. There are times when we all get annoyed at the business reply cards that Wunderman invented. But at a conceptual level, surely, those cards are a thing of beauty. To the consumer–to us–they offer almost perfect convenience. Is there an easier way to subscribe to a magazine? To the client, they offer ubiquity: it knows that every time a magazine is opened a response card falls on someone’s lap. And to the ad agency they offer a finely calibrated instrument to measure effectiveness: the adman can gauge precisely how successful his campaign is merely by counting the number of cards that come back. Much of the apparatus of modern-day marketing–the computer databases, the psychographic profiles, the mailing lists, the market differentiations, the focus groups–can be seen, in some sense, as an attempt to replicate the elegance and transparency of this model. Marketers don’t want to spin us. They want to hold us perfectly still, so they can figure out who we are, what we want, and how to reach us.

There is a moment in Kurtz’s book in which he stumbles on this truth: that it isn’t spin, after all, that accounts for Clinton’s popularity but, rather, the opposite of spin–the President’s ability to listen, to offer his agenda like antipasto, to sidestep the press and speak directly to the public. Kurtz writes that the former White House communications director Don Baer believed that Clinton "cut through what was said about him":

He was having his own conversation with America, one that, if all went well, sailed over the heads of the journalists, who were nothing but theater critics and did little to shape public opinion. Baer saw the phenomenon time and again. When Clinton unveiled his plan for hope scholarships, which would give parents of college students up to $1500 a year in tax credits, the media verdict was swift: cynical political ploy to pander to middle-class voters. But what the public heard was that Clinton was concerned about the difficulty of sending kids to college and was willing to help them with tax credits. Voters got it. They liked constructive proposals and hated partisan sniping.

But Kurtz doesn’t believe Baer, and why would he? The spin fantasy offers a far more satisfying explanation for the world around us. Spin suggests a drama, a script to decode, a game played at the highest of levels. Spinning is the art of telling a story, even when there is no story to tell, and this is irresistible (particularly to journalists, who make a living by telling stories even when there is no story to tell). In truth, the world of persuasion is a good deal more prosaic. Ideas and candidacies–not to mention albums–are sold by talking plainly and clearly, and the louder and faster the whirring of the spinners becomes, the more effective this clarity and plainspokenness will be. We think we belong to the world of Edward L. Bernays. We don’t. We are all Wundermanians now.

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March 9, search 1998

If it hadn’t gone down, the Titanic
might have gone up in smoke.

If you were, say, the president of Philip Morris and you were fantasizing about how to sell more cigarettes, you’d probably start with the movies. A love story, perhaps, because adolescent girls–who are your target audience–love love stories. The male lead would be a teen idol. He would smoke while lying on a bench, gazing up at the night sky. The young heroine would rebelliously blow smoke in her mother’s face. In a spirited moment at a party, she might snatch a cigarette from the mouth of a stranger and draw deeply, staring into her lover’s eyes. You’d put them on a boat. A big, romantic boat. The boat would sink. The film would be a blockbuster, a movie that teen-age girls would see three and four and five times, until they could mime every line and gesture.

Obviously, this is only a dream, since no self-respecting teen idol would work for a cigarette company, and no cigarette company could ever get away with so blatantly targeting an adolescent audience. But this is the wonderful thing about being in the cigarette business right now: Whatever you cannot do for yourself, Hollywood, apparently, will do for you. "If I were the head of a tobacco company, I’d say, ‘God bless "Titanic," ‘ " Bruce Silverman, a California ad executive, who directed that state’s antismoking media campaign, says.

What makes "Titanic" perfect as a smoking movie is that it transcends the smoking-movie cliché. Most movies are, in some way, linked to a specific brand. Last summer’s "My Best Friend’s Wedding," for example, in which Julia Roberts smoked one cigarette after another as she schemed to defeat a romantic rival, was clearly a Newport movie. In Newport ads, the media critic Mark Crispin Miller has written, "there is always an aggressor acting on a victim–whose expression has, deliberately, been made ambiguous, a look at once of ‘pleasure’ and of terror." (The gray area between pleasure and terror, it can safely be said, is the subtext of all Julia Roberts movies.) Bruce Willis’s chain-smoking loner hero in the "Die Hard" series, on the other hand, is pure Marlboro Man. "The Marlboro Man is almost always alone and is never subject to any authority whatsoever," the marketing expert Richard Pollay wrote in 1995. "There are no parents, no older brothers, no foreman . . . in Marlboro Country."

But what is "Titanic"? Leonardo DiCaprio smoking pensively on the Titanic deck is classic Marlboro Man. The swells in first class trading cigarettes are Dunhill. The rough-and-tumble crowd in steerage rolling their own could be taken as a coded reference to the no-frills, no-additive, no-bull Winston, while Kate Winslet blowing smoke in her mother’s face is very much "You’ve come a long way, baby"–Virginia Slims. As for the climactic smoking scene, in which Winslet coquettishly snatches a cigarette from a man’s mouth, that’s pure Joe Camel. As Camel’s former ad agency, Young and Rubicam, said of the brand’s archetypal smoker, "Always the winner, on top of the situation, beating the system, and covering the scene, whatever he does he does with a style and joie de vivre all his own." In "Titanic," smoking is sexy and social and sophisticated and genuine and rebellious, and in the end virtually everybody dies–which is the most perfect touch of all.

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August 17, search 1998
ANNALS OF BEHAVIOR

Judith Rich Harris and child development

1.

The idea that will make Judith Rich Harris famous came to her, cialis unbidden, on the afternoon of January 20, 1994. At the time, Harris was a textbook writer, with no doctorate or academic affiliation, working from her home in suburban New Jersey. Because of a lupus-like illness, she doesn’t have the strength to leave the house, and she’d spent that morning in bed. By early afternoon, though, she was at her desk, glancing through a paper by a prominent psychologist about juvenile delinquency, and for some reason a couple of unremarkable sentences struck her as odd: "Delinquency must be a social behavior that allows access to some desirable resource. I suggest that the resource is mature status, with its consequent power and privilege." It is an observation consistent with our ideas about what it means to grow up. Teen-agers rebel against being teen-agers, against the restrictions imposed on them by adults. They smoke because only adults are supposed to smoke. They steal cars because they are too young to have cars. But Harris was suddenly convinced that the paper had it backward. "Adolescents aren’t trying to be like adults–they are trying to contrast themselves with adults," she explains. "And it was as if a light had gone on in the sky. It was one of the most exciting things that have ever happened to me. In a minute or two, I had the germ of the theory, and in ten minutes I had enough of it to see that it was important."

If adolescents didn’t want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children, and Harris realized that once you granted that fact all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing started to unravel. Why, for example, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accents of their parents? How is it that the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born? The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally–that what children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home. Harris was asking whether this was true more generally: what if children also learn the things that make them who they are–that shape their characters and personalities–from their peer group? This would mean that, in some key sense, parents don’t much matter–that what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

"I was sitting and thinking," Harris told me, looking bright-eyed as she clutched a tall glass of lemonade. She is tiny–a fragile, elfin grandmother with a mop of gray hair and a little-girl voice. We were in her kitchen, looking out on the green of her back yard. "I told my husband, Charlie, about it. I had signed a contract to write a developmental-psychology textbook, and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I couldn’t go on writing developmental-psychology textbooks, because I could no longer say what my publishers wanted me to say." Over the next six months, Harris immersed herself in the literature of social psychology and cultural anthropology. She read studies of group behavior in primates and unearthed studies from the nineteen-fifties of pre-adolescent boys. She couldn’t conduct any experiments of her own, because she didn’t belong to an academic institution. She couldn’t even use a proper academic library, because the closest university to her was Rutgers, which was forty-five minutes away, and she didn’t have the strength to leave her house for more than a few hours at a time. So she went to the local public library and ordered academic texts through interlibrary loan and sent for reprints of scientific articles through the mail, and the more she read the more she became convinced that her theory could tie together many of the recent puzzling findings in behavioral genetics and developmental psychology. In six weeks, in August and September of 1994, she wrote a draft and sent it off to the academic journal Psychological Review. It was an act of singular audacity, because Psychological Review is one of the most prestigious journals in psychology, and prestigious academic journals do not, as a rule, publish the musings of stay-at-home grandmothers without Ph.D.s. But her article was accepted, and in the space below her name, where authors typically put "Princeton University" or "Yale University" or "Oxford University," Harris proudly put "Middletown, New Jersey." Harris listed her CompuServe address in a footnote, and soon she was inundated with E-mail, because what she had to say was so compelling and so surprising and, in a wholly unexpected way, so sensible that everyone in the field wanted to know more. Who are you? scholars asked. Where did you come from? Why have I never heard of you before?

At this point, Harris’s health was not good. Her autoimmune disorder began to attack her heart and lungs, and she sometimes wondered how long she had to live. But, at the urging of some of her new friends in academe, she set out to write a book, and somehow in the writing of it she became stronger. That book, "The Nurture Assumption," will be published this fall, and it is a graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive assault on virtually every tenet of child development. It begins, "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child’s personality–what used to be called ‘character’–is shaped or modified by the child’s parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child’s personality is shaped." On the back cover are enthusiastic blurbs from David Lykken, of the University of Minnesota; Robert Sapolsky, of Stanford; Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis; John Bruer, of the James S. McDonnell Foundation; and Steven Pinker, of MIT–which, in the social-science business, is a bit like writing a book on basketball and having it endorsed by the starting five of the Chicago Bulls. This week, Harris will travel to San Francisco for the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, where she will receive a prize for her Psychological Review article.

"It’s as if the gods were making up to me all that they had done to me previously," Harris told me. "It was the best gift I could have ever gotten: an idea. It wasn’t something that I could have known in advance. But, as it turned out, it was what I wanted most in the world–an idea that would give a direction and a purpose to my life."

2.

Judith Harris’s big idea–that peers matter much more than parents–runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology and psychotherapy has told us about human development. Freud put parents at the center of the child’s universe, and there they have remained ever since. "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do," the poet Philip Larkin memorably wrote, and that perspective is fundamental to the way we have been taught to understand ourselves. When we go to a therapist, we talk about our parents, in the hope that coming to grips with the events of childhood can help us decipher the mysteries of adulthood. When we say things like "That’s the way I was raised," we mean that children instinctively and preferentially learn from their parents, that parents can be good or bad role models for children, that character and personality are passed down from one generation to the next. Child development has been, in many ways, concerned with understanding children through their parents.

In recent years, however, this idea has run into a problem. In a series of careful and comprehensive studies (among them the famous Minnesota studies of twins separated at birth) behavioral geneticists have concluded that about fifty per cent of the personality differences among people–traits such as friendliness, extroversion, nervousness, openness, and so on–are attributable to our genes, which means that the other half must be attributable to the environment. Yet when researchers have set out to look for this environmental influence they haven’t been able to find it. If the example of parents were important in a child’s development, you’d expect to see a consistent difference between the children of anxious and inexperienced parents and the children of authoritative and competent parents, even after taking into account the influence of heredity. Children who spend two hours a day with their parents should be different from children who spend eight hours a day with their parents. A home with lots of books should result in a different kind of child from a home with very few books. In other words, researchers should have been able to find some causal link between the specific social environment parents create for their children and the way those children turn out. They haven’t.

One of the largest and most rigorous studies of this kind is known as the Colorado Adoption Project. Between 1975 and 1982, a group of researchers at the University of Colorado, headed by Robert Plomin, one of the world’s leading behavioral geneticists, recruited two hundred and forty-five pregnant women from the Denver area who planned to give up their children for adoption. The researchers then followed the children into their new homes, giving them a battery of personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals throughout their childhood and giving similar tests to their adoptive parents. For the sake of comparison, the group also ran the same set of tests on a control group of two hundred and forty-five parents and their biological children. For the latter group, the results were pretty much as one might expect: in intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the kids proved to be fairly similar to their parents. The scores of the adopted kids, however, had nothing whatsoever in common with the scores of their adoptive parents: these children were no more similar in personality or intellectual skills to the people who reared them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them all their lives than they were to any two adults taken at random off the street.

Here is the puzzle. We think that children resemble their parents because of both genes and the home environment, both nature and nurture. But, if nurture matters even a little, why don’t the adopted kids have at least some greater-than-chance similarities to their adoptive parents? The Colorado study says that the only reason we are like our parents is that we share their genes, and that–by any measures of cognition and personality–when there is no genetic inheritance there is no resemblance.

This is the question that so preoccupied Harris on that winter morning four and a half years ago. She knew that most people in psychology had responded to findings like those of the Colorado project by turning an ever more powerful microscope on the family, assuming that if we couldn’t see the influence of parents through standard psychological measures it was because we weren’t looking hard enough. Not looking hard enough wasn’t the problem. The problem was that psychologists weren’t looking in the right place. They were looking inside the home when they should have been looking outside the home. The answer wasn’t parents; it was peers.

Harris argues that we have been in the grip of what she calls the "nurture assumption," a parent-centered bias that has blinded us to what really matters in human development. Consider, she says, the seemingly common-sense statements "Children who are hugged are more likely to be nice" and "Children who are beaten are more likely to be unpleasant." Sure enough, if you study nice, well-adjusted children, it turns out that they generally have well-adjusted and nice parents. But what does this really mean? Since genes account for about half of personality variations among people, it’s quite possible that nice children are nice simply because they received nice genes from their parents–and nice parents are going to be nice to their children. Hugging may have made the children happy, and it may have taught them a good way of expressing their affection, but it may not have been what made them nice. Or take the example of smoking. The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers, so it’s natural to conclude that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. In fact, a lot of parents who smoke feel guilty about it for that very reason. But if parents really cause smoking there ought to be elevated rates of smoking among the adopted children of smokers, and there aren’t. It turns out that nicotine addiction is heavily influenced by genes, and the reason that so many children of smokers smoke is that they have inherited a genetic susceptibility to tobacco from their parents. David C. Rowe, a professor of family studies at the University of Arizona (whose academic work on the limits of family influence Harris says was critical to her own thinking), has analyzed research into this genetic contribution, and he concludes that it accounts entirely for the elevated levels of cigarette use among the children of smokers. With smoking, as with niceness, what parents do seems to be nearly irrelevant.

Harris makes another, subtler point about parents. What if, she asks, the cause-and-effect assumption with niceness and hugging can also go the other way? What if, all other things being equal, nice children tend to be hugged because they are nice, and unpleasant children tend to be beaten because they are unpleasant? Children, after all, are born with individual temperaments. Some children are easy to rear from the start and others are difficult, and those innate characteristics, she says, can strongly influence how parents treat them. Harris tells a story about a mother with two young children–a five-year-old girl, named Audrey, and a seven-year-old boy, named Mark–who walked by Harris’s house one day when she was out in the front yard with her dog, Page. Page ran toward the children, barking menacingly. Audrey went up to the animal and asked her mother, "Can I pet him?" Her mother quickly told her not to. Mark, meanwhile, was cowering on the other side of the street, and he stayed there even after Harris rushed up and grabbed Page by the collar. "Come on, Mark, the dog won’t hurt you," the mother said, and she waited for her son to come back across the street. What is the parenting "style" here that is supposedly so important in shaping personality? This mother is playing two very different roles–coaxing the frightened Mark and reining in the brash Audrey–and in each case her behavior is shaped by the actions and the temperament of her child, and not the other way around.

This phenomenon–what Harris calls child-to-parent effects–has been explored in detail by psychological researchers. David Reiss, of George Washington University, and Robert Plomin, the behavioral geneticist who headed the Colorado study, and a number of colleagues have just completed a ten-year, nine-million-dollar study of seven hundred and twenty American families. Thirty-two teams of testers were recruited, and they visited each family three times in the course of three years, giving parents and siblings personality tests, videotaping interactions between parents and children, questioning teachers, asking siblings about siblings, asking parents about children, asking children about parents–all to find out whether the differences in how parents relate to each of their children make any predictable difference in the way those children end up. "We thought that this was going to be a straight shot," Reiss told me. "The sibling who got the better micro environment would do better, be less depressed, be less antisocial. It seemed like a no-brainer." It wasn’t. Plomin told me, "If we just ask the simple question ‘Does differential parental treatment relate to differences in adolescent adjustment?’ the answer is yes–hugely. If you take negative parents–conflict, hostility–it’s the strongest predictor of negative adjustment of the siblings." But the study was designed to look at genetic influences as well–to examine whether children had personality traits that were causing parental behavior–and when those genetic factors were taken into consideration the link between negative parenting and problems in adolescence almost entirely disappeared. "The parents’ negativity isn’t causing the negative adjustment of the kids," Plomin said. "It’s reflecting it. This was a tremendous surprise to us." What looks like nurture is sometimes just nature, and what looks like a cause is sometimes just an effect.

3.

Harris takes this argument one step further. Consider, she says, the story of Cinderella:

The folks who gave us this tale ask us to accept the following premises: that Cinderella was able to go to the ball and not be recognized by her stepsisters, that despite years of degradation she was able to charm and hold the attention of a sophisticated guy like the prince, that the prince didn’t recognize her when he saw her again in her own home dressed in her workaday clothing, and that he never doubted that Cinderella would be able to fulfill the duties of a princess and, ultimately, of a queen.

If you think of the influence of parents and the home environment as monolithic, this tale does seem impossibly far-fetched. So why does the Cinderella story work? Because, Harris says, all of us understand that it is possible to be one person to our parents and another person to our friends. "Cinderella learned whenshe was still quite small that it was best to act meek when her stepmother was around, and to look unattractive in order to avoid arousing her jealousy," Harris writes. But outside the house Cinderella learned that she could win friends by being pretty and charming. Harris says that this lesson–that away from our parents we can reconstruct ourselves–is one that all children learn very quickly, and it is an important limitation on the power of parents: even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home.

The Cinderella effect shows up all the time in psychological research. For example, Harris notes that in the August, 1997, issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine there is a study showing that the more mothers spanked their kids, the more troublesome the kids became. "When parents use corporal punishment to reduce antisocial behavior," the researchers report, "the long-term effect tends to be the opposite." These findings made headlines across the country. In the same issue of that journal, however, another study of children and corporal punishment reached the opposite conclusion: "For most children claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." The disparity is baffling until you remember the Cinderella effect. The first study asked mothers to evaluate their children’s behavior at home. Not surprisingly, it suggested that repeated spanking contributes to the kind of negative relationship that causes further misbehavior. The second study, however, asked kids how often they got into fights at school, and the world of school is a very different place from the world of home. Just the fact that a child wasn’t getting along with his mother didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t get along with his peers.

In another instance, Harris cites a Swedish study of picky eating among primary-school children. Some kids were picky eaters at school, some were picky at home, but only a small number were picky at home and school. A child who pushes away broccoli at the kitchen table might gobble it down in the school cafeteria. In the same way, a child might be shy and retiring at home but a chatterbox in the classroom. Harris applies the same logic to birth-order effects–the popular idea that a good part of our personality is determined by where we stand in relation to our siblings. "At home there are birth order effects, no question about it, and I believe that is why it’s so hard to shake people’s faith in them," Harris writes. "If you see people with their parents or their siblings, you do see the differences you expect to see. The oldest does seem more serious, responsible, and bossy. The youngest does behave in a more carefree fashion." But that’s only at home. Studies that look at the way people act outside the home, and away from the parents and siblings, don’t see any consistent effects at all. The younger brother cowed by his older siblings all his years of growing up is perfectly capable of being a dominant, take-charge figure when he’s among his friends. "Socialization research has demonstrated one thing clearly and irrefutably: a parent’s behavior toward a child affects how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent," Harris concludes. "I have no problem with that–I agree with it. The parent’s behavior also affects the way the child feels about the parent. When a parent favors one child over another, not only does it cause hard feelings between the children–it also causes the unfavored child to harbor hard feelings against the parent. These feelings can last a lifetime." But they don’t necessarily cross over into the life the child leads outside the home–the place where adults spend the majority of their lives.

4.

Not long ago, Anne-Marie Ambert, a sociologist at York University, in Ontario, asked her students to write short autobiographies describing, among other things, the events in their lives which made them most unhappy. Nine per cent identified something that their parents had done, while more than a third pointed to the way they had been treated by peers. Ambert concluded:

There is far more negative treatment by peers than by parents…. In these autobiographies, one reads accounts of students who had been happy and well adjusted, but quite rapidly began deteriorating psychologically, sometimes to the point of becoming physically ill and incompetent in school, after experiences such as being rejected by peers, excluded, talked about, racially discriminated against, laughed at, bullied, sexually harassed, taunted, chased or beaten.

This is Harris’s argument in a nutshell: that whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us. In "The Nurture Assumption,"Harris pulls together an extraordinary range of studies and observations to support this idea. Here, for example, is Harris on delinquency. First, she cites a study of juvenile delinquency–vandalism, theft, assault, weapons possession, and so on–among five hundred elementary-school and middle-school boys in Pittsburgh. The study found that African-American boys, many of them from poor, single-parent, "high-risk" families, committed far more delinquent acts than the white kids. That much isn’t surprising. But when the researchers divided up the black boys by neighborhood the effect of coming from a putatively high-risk family disappeared. Black kids who didn’t live in the poorest, underclass neighborhoods–even if they were from poor, single-parent families–were no more delinquent than their white, mostly middle-class peers. At the same time, Harris cites another large study–one that compared the behavior of poor inner-city kids from intact families to the behavior of those living only with their mothers. You’d assume that a child is always better off in a two-parent home, but the research doesn’t bear that out. "Adolescent males in this sample who lived in single-mother households did not differ from youth living in other family constellations in their alcohol and substance use, delinquency, school dropout, or psychological distress," the study concluded. A child is better off, in other words, living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.

Other studies have shown that children living without their biological fathers are more likely to drop out of school and, if female, to get pregnant in their teens. But is this because of the absence of a parent, Harris asks, or is it because of some factor that is merely associated with the absence of a parent? Having a stepfather around, for example, doesn’t make a kid any less likely to be unemployed, to drop out, or to be a teen-age mother. Nor does having lots of contact with one’s biological father after he has left. Nor does having another biological relative–a grandparent, for instance–in the home. Nor does it seem to matter when the father leaves: kids whose parents split up when they were in their early teens are no better off and no worse off than kids whose fathers left when they were infants. And, curiously, children whose fathers die aren’t worse off at all. In short, there isn’t a lot of evidence that the loss of adult guidance and role models caused by fatherlessness has specific behavioral consequences. So what is it? One obvious factor is income: single mothers have less money than married mothers, and income has a big effect on the welfare of children. If your parents split up and you move from Riverdale to the South Bronx, you’re obviously going to be a lot worse off–although it’s not the loss of your father that makes the difference. This brings us to another factor: relocation. Single-parent families move more often than intact families, and, according to one major study, those extra changes of residence could account for more than half the increased risk of dropping out, of teen-age pregnancy, and of unemployment among the children of divorce. The problem with divorce, in short, is not so much that it disrupts kids’ relationships with their parents as that it disrupts kids’ relationships with other kids. "Moving is rough on kids," Harris writes. "Kids who have been moved around a lot–whether or not they have a father–are more likely to be rejected by their peers; they have more behavioral problems and more academic problems than those who have stayed put."

5.

All these findings become less perplexing when you accept one of Harris’s central observations; namely, that kids aren’t interested in becoming copies of their parents. Children want to be good at being children. How, for example, do you persuade a preschooler to eat something new? Not by eating it yourself and hoping that your child follows suit. A preschooler doesn’t care what you think. But give the food to a roomful of preschoolers who like it, and it’s quite probable that your child will happily follow suit. From the very moment that children first meet other children, they take their cues from them.

One of the researchers whom Harris draws on in her peer discussion is William A. Corsaro, a professor of sociology at Indiana University and a pioneer in the ethnography of early childhood. He was one of the first researchers to spend months crouching by swing sets and next to monkey bars closely observing the speech and play patterns of preschoolers. In one of his many playground stakeouts, Corsaro was sitting next to a sandbox and watching two four-year-old girls, Jenny and Betty, play house, and put sand in pots, cupcake pans, and teapots. Suddenly, a third girl, Debbie, approached. Here is Corsaro’s full description of the scene:

After watching for about five minutes [Debbie] circles the sandbox three times and stops again and stands next to me. After a few more minutes of watching, Debbie moves to the sandbox and reaches for a teapot. Jenny takes the pot away from Debbie and mumbles, "No." Debbie backs away and again stands near me, observing the activity of Jenny and Betty. Then she walks over next to Betty, who is filling the cupcake pan with sand.

Debbie watches Betty for just a few seconds, then says,"We’re friends, right, Betty?"

Betty, not looking up at Debbie, continues to place sand in the pan and says, "Right."

Debbie now moves alongside Betty, takes a pot and spoon, begins putting sand in the pot, and says, "I’m making coffee."

"I’m making cupcakes," Betty replies.

Betty now turns to Jenny and says, "We’re mothers, right, Jenny?"

"Right," says Jenny.

The three "mothers" continue to play together for about twenty more minutes, until the teachers announce cleanup time.

To adults, this exchange looks somewhat troubling. If you saw Debbie circling the sandbox over and over, you’d think she was shy and timid. And if you came upon the three girls just as Jenny told Debbie no you’d think Jenny was selfish and needed to be taught to share. In both cases, the children seem profoundly antisocial. In fact, Corsaro says, the opposite is true. A preschool playground is rather like a cocktail party. There are lots of informal clusters of kids playing together, and the kids are in constant movement, from cluster to cluster. Unlike at a cocktail party, though, the play clusters are very fragile. "If the phone rang right now," Corsaro said to me when I met him, in his office in Bloomington, "I could answer it, talk for five minutes, and then we could pick up where we left off. It’s easy for us. When you are a three- or four-year-old and you’ve generated something spontaneous and it’s going well, it’s not so easy." The bell can ring. An adult can step in. An older child can disrupt things. As a result, they spend a lot of effort trying to protect their play from disruption. Betty and Jenny aren’t resistant to sharing when they initially say no to Debbie. They are already sharing, and the point of keeping Debbie at bay is to defend that shared play.

What has evolved in preschool culture, then, is what Corsaro calls access strategies–an elaborate set of rules and rituals that govern when and how the third parties circulating through the playground are allowed to join an existing game. Debbie’s approach to the sandbox is what Corsaro calls nonverbal entry–the first common opening move in the access dance. She’s waiting for an invitation to join. It’s the same at an adult cocktail party. You don’t come up to an existing conversation and say, "May I join in?" You join the group quietly, as if to demonstrate respect for the existing conversation. When Debbie goes around and around the sandbox, she’s trying to understand the basis of Jenny and Betty’s play. Corsaro calls this encirclement. Notice that when Debbie initially reaches for a teapot Jenny says no. Debbie hasn’t proved that she understands the game in question. So she retreats and observes further. Then she makes what Corsaro calls a verbal reference to affiliation–"We’re friends, right?" It’s as if she were offering her bona fides. She gets a positive response. Now she enters again, this time making it absolutely clear that she understands the game: "I’m making coffee." She’s in. This is how children learn to get along. Kids teach each other how to be social. Indeed, to the extent that adults might get involved in an access situation–by, for example, instructing Jenny and Betty that they have to share with Debbie–they would frustrate the learning process.

Corsaro is a quiet, bearded man of fifty, with the patient, stubborn air of someone who has spent the better part of his life sitting and watching screaming three-year-olds. Harris E-mailed him when she was writing her Psycholo gical Review paper, and the two have struck up an on-line friendship. Most people, Corsaro says, want to figure out what his work says about individual development. Harris, though, recognized at once what Corsaro considers the real lesson, which is the children’s immediate and powerful attraction to their own peer group. Once, Corsaro spent close to a year in a preschool where the children had been forbidden to bring their toys into the classroom. Before long, he noticed that they had found a way around the rule: the children were selecting the smallest of their toys–the boys chose Matchbox toy cars, for example, and the girls little plastic animals–and hiding them in their pockets. These were only preschoolers, but already they were organizing against the adult world, defining themselves as a group in opposition to their elders. "What I found interesting was not that the kids wanted to bring their own toys but that when they smuggled them in they never played with them alone. They played with them collectively," Corsaro told me. "They wanted others to know that they had them. They wanted to share the toys with others. They are not only sharing the toy but sharing the fact that they are getting around the rule. This is what is unique. I think there is a real, strong emotional satisfaction in sharing things, in doing things together." Even for a child of three or four, the group is critical.

6.

Judith Harris and her husband, Charles, have two children. The first, Nomi, is their biological daughter, and the second, Elaine, is adopted. In that sense, Harris’s own family is a kind of micro-version of the adoption studies that raise the question of parental influence, and she says that without the example of her daughters she might not have reached the conclusion she did. Nomi, the elder, was quiet and self-sufficient as a child, a National Merit Scholar who went on to do graduate work at MIT. "She is very much like me and Charlie," Harris says. "She gave us no trouble while she was growing up. She didn’t require much guidance, because she didn’t want to do anything that we didn’t want her to do. Even before she could walk, she would crawl off to another part of the house, and I’d find her taking things out of a drawer and looking at them carefully–and putting them down carefully."

Elaine was different. "When she was little, all you had to do was look down and she was there, right on my heels," Harris recalls. "She always wanted to be with people. We started getting bad reports from the school right away–that she wouldn’t sit in her chair, and she was bothering other kids. When Nomi would ask a question, it was because she was interested in the answer. When Elaine would ask a question, it was because she was interested in having the interaction. Nomi would ask a question once. Elaine would often ask a question several times. As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup. They went in opposite directions."

Harris has an optimistic air about her, as if all her troubles had only served to strengthen her appreciation of life. But it’s clear that bringing up Elaine represented a real crisis in her life. When Elaine was six and Nomi was ten, Harris became ill for the first time. She was in such pain that she couldn’t sit up for more than half an hour. She tried taking a graduate course in psychology, hoping to finish a doctorate she had started, in the early sixties, at Harvard, and she had a fellow-student carry a cot to class so she could lie down during lectures. But even that was too hard, so she became a textbook writer, lying in her bed, with a spiral-bound notebook on her knee, and Nomi acting as her typist. She had pneumonia, a heart murmur, pulmonary hypertension, shingles, a year of chronic hives, and a minor stroke. "Sometimes," she says, "I felt like Job," and in the midst of all her troubles her younger daughter seemed out of control.

"We had very bad years with her in her teens," she recalls. "We didn’t know how to handle her." Harris says that she began motherhood as a classic environmentalist, meaning she believed that children would reflect the environment in which they were reared. Had she stopped with Nomi, she says, she might have attributed Nomi’s studiousness and self-sufficiency and success to her own enlightened parenting. It was Elaine who made the puzzle posed by the adoption studies seem real. "I assumed that an adopted child would represent her environment, and that if I could give Elaine the same kind of environment I gave to my first child she would turn out–of course, not the same…" She thought for moment. "But I certainly didn’t expect that she would be so vastly different. I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all." Harris seems a little reluctant to talk about those years, particularly since Elaine turned out, as she puts it, "amazingly well" and is now happy and married, with a toddler and a career as a licensed practical nurse. But it’s not hard to imagine the kind of guilt and frustration she must have felt–maternal helplessness magnified by her physical debility–as she and Charles did everything that good parents are supposed to do yet still came up short. Her epiphany was, in a way, her release, because she came to believe that the reason she and Charles couldn’t see that they were having any effect on Elaine was that parents really can’t have a big effect on their children.

There are a hundred ways of explaining Nomi and Elaine, and there is, of course, something very convenient about the explanation that Harris arrived at: it’s the kind of thing that the mother of a difficult child wants to believe. Harris has constructed a theory that lets herself off the hook for her daughter’s troubled childhood. It should be said, though, that the idea that parents can control the destiny of their children by doing all the right things–by providing children with every lesson and every experience, by buying them the right toys and saying the right words and never spanking or publicly scolding them–is just as self-serving. At least, Harris’s theory calls for neighborhoods, peers, and children themselves to share the blame–and the credit–for how children turn out. The nurture assumption, by contrast, places the blame and the credit squarely on the parent, and has made it possible to demonize all those who fail to measure up to the strictest standards of supposedly optimal parenting. "I want to tell parents that it’s all right," Harris told me. "A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment. If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid. You can have a kid without having to devote your entire life–your entire emotional expenditure–to this child for the next twenty years."

Harris does not see children as delicate vessels and does not believe they are easily damaged by the missteps of their mothers and fathers. We have been told, Harris writes, to tell children not that they’ve been bad but that what they did was bad, or, even more appropriately, that what they did made us feel bad. In her view, we have come to insist on these niceties only because we have forgotten what the world of children is really like. "Kids are not that fragile," she writes. "They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home, they might hear ‘What you did made me feel bad,’ but out on the playground it’s ‘You shithead!’"

Is Harris right? She is the first to admit that what she has provided is only, at this stage, a theory. From her tiny study, off the main hallway of her home in New Jersey, she is scarcely in a position to do the kind of multimillion-dollar, multi-year study that is needed to test her hypothesis. "My guess is that some of the more threatened elders in the field of psychology are going to go out of their way to try and savage this," Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford, says. "But my gut feeling is that this is really important. Harris makes a lot of sense. Sometimes she is a little doctrinaire"–he paused–"but, boy." Already, Harris has helped wrench psychology away from its single-minded obsession with chronicling and interpreting the tiniest perturbations of family life. The nurture assumption, she says, has turned childhood into parenthood: it has turned the development of children into a story almost entirely about their parents. "Have you ever thought of yourself as a mirror?" Dorothy Corkille Briggs asks in her pop-psychology handbook "Your Child’s Self-Esteem." "You are one–a psychological mirror your child uses to build his identity. And his whole life is affected by the conclusions he draws." And here are Barbara Chernofsky and Diane Gage, in "Change Your Child’s Behavior by Changing Yours," on how children relate to their parents: "Like living video cameras, children record what they observe." This is the modern-day cult of parenting. It takes as self-evident the idea that the child is oriented, overwhelmingly, toward the parents. But why should that be true? Don’t parents, in fact, spend much of their time instructing their children not to act like adults–that they cannot be independent, that they cannot make decisions entirely by themselves, that different rules apply to them because they are children?

"If developmental psychology were an enterprise conducted by children, there is no question that peer relationships would be at the top of the list," Peter Gray, a psychologist at Boston College, told me. "But because it is conducted by adults we tend, egocentrically, to believe that it is the relationship between us and our children that is important. But just look at them. Whom do they want to please? Are they wearing the kind of clothing that other kids are wearing or the kind that their parents are wearing? If the other kids are speaking another way, whose language are they going to learn? And, from an evolutionary perspective, whom should they be paying attention to? Their parents–the members of the previous generation–or their peers, who will be their future mates and future collaborators? It would more adaptive for them to be better attuned to the nuances of their peers’ behavior. That just makes a lot of sense."

7.

Harris’s health is more stable now, and when she was putting the finishing touches on her book this summer she was sometimes able to work at the computer twelve, or even fourteen, hours a day. But anything more strenuous is out of the question. The woman who says that what really matters is what happens outside the home rarely leaves the home–not for vacations, or even to see a movie. Indeed, none of the heavyweight psychologists who have befriended her since her Psychological Review article ran have ever met her. "Writing E-mail is my recreation," she wrote me in an E-mail.

When Harris goes to San Francisco this week, for the A.P.A. convention, it will be a kind of coming-out party. In preparation, during the past few weeks she has had to go shopping. "I have to buy clothes," she said. "I’ve hardly been out of the house in years." On August 15th, she will take the stage and receive a prize named in honor of the eminent scholar George A. Miller. Almost four decades ago, Harris was kicked out of graduate school after only two years, and the dean who delivered the news was the same George A. Miller. The two have since corresponded, and Miller has termed the irony "delicious." In her acceptance remarks, Harris told me, she intends to read from the letter that Miller wrote her long ago: "I hesitate to say that you lack originality and independence, because in many areas of life you obviously possess both of those traits in abundance. But for some reason you have not been able to bring them to bear on the kind of problems in psychology to which this department is dedicated….We are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be."

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July 6, pilule 1998
A CRITIC AT LARGE

Are our spin meisters just spinning one another?

On Easter Sunday, prescription 1929, the legendary public-relations man Edward L. Bernays rounded up ten carefully chosen women, put cigarettes in their hands, and sent them down Fifth Avenue in what was billed as the Torches of Freedom march. The marchers were given detailed instructions, including when and how their cigarettes should be lit. Spokeswomen were enlisted to describe the protest as an advance for feminism. Photographers were hired to take pictures. It was an entirely contrived event that nonetheless looked so "real" that the next day it made front-page headlines across the country, prompting a debate over whether women should be allowed to smoke as freely as men, and–some historians believe–forever changing the social context of cigarettes. What Bernays never told anyone was that he was working for the American Tobacco Company.

It is difficult to appreciate how brazen Bernays’s ruse was at the time. In the twenties, the expectation was that if you were trying to sell people something–even if you were planning to deceive them in the process–you had at least to admit that you were trying to sell them something. Bernays was guided by the principle that this wasn’t true: that sometimes the best way to sell something (cigarettes, say) was to pretend to be selling something else (freedom, say).

Bernays helped the brewing industry establish beer as "the beverage of moderation." For Dixie cups, he founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink. For the Mack truck company, he drummed up national support for highway construction through front groups called the Trucking Information Service, the Trucking Service Bureau, and Better Living Through Increased Highway Transportation. In a torrent of books and articles (including one book, "Crystallizing Public Opinion," that was found in Joseph Goebbels’s library) he argued that the P.R. professional could "continuously and systematically" perform the task of "regimenting the public mind." He wasn’t talking about lying. He was talking about artful, staged half- truth. It’s the kind of sly deception that we’ve come to associate with the Reagan Administration’s intricately scripted photo ops (the cowboy hats, the flannel shirts, the horse), with the choreographed folksiness of Clinton’s Town Hall meetings, with the "Wag the Dog" world of political operatives, and with the Dilbertian byways of boardroom euphemism, in which firing is "rightsizing" and dismembering companies becomes "unlocking shareholder value." Edward L. Bernays invented spin.

Today, we’re told, Bernays’s touch is everywhere. The advertising critic Randall Rothenberg has suggested that there is something called a Media-Spindustrial Complex, which encompasses advertising, P.R., lobbying, polling, direct mail, investor relations, focus groups, jury consulting, speechwriting, radio and television stations, and newspapers–all in the business of twisting and turning and gyrating. Argument now masquerades as conversation. Spin, the political columnist E.J. Dionne wrote recently, "obliterates the distinction between persuasion and deception." Should P.R. people tell "the whole truth about our clients? No sirree!" Thomas Madden, the chairman of one of the largest P.R. firms in the country, declares in his recent memoir, entitled "Spin Man." In the best-seller "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," Howard Kurtz,the media critic for the Washington Post, even describes as spin the White House’s decision in the spring of 1997 to release thousands of pages of documents relating to the Democratic fund-raising scandal.

This was the documentation that the press had been clamoring for. You might have thought that it was full disclosure. Not so, says Kurtz, who dubs the diabolical plan Operation Candor. In playing the honesty card, he argues, the White House preëmpted embarrassing leaks by congressional investigators and buried incriminating documents under an avalanche of paper. Of course, not releasing any documents at all would also have been spin (Stonewall Spin), and so would releasing only a handful of unrepresentative documents (Selection Spin). But, if you think that calling everything "spin" renders the term meaningless (if this is all spin, then what is not spin?), you’ve missed the point. The notion that this is the age of spin rests on the premise that everything, including the truth, is potentially an instrument of manipulation.

In "P.R.!:ASocial History of Spin," the media critic Stuart Ewen describes how, in 1990, he went to visit Bernays at his home near Harvard Square, in Cambridge. He was ushered in by a maid and waited in the library, looking, awestruck, at the shelves. "It was a remarkable collection of books, thousands of them: about public opinion, individual and social psychology, survey research, propaganda, psychological warfare, and so forth–a comprehensive library spanning matters of human motivation and strategies of influence, scanning a period of more than one hundred years," he writes. "These were not the bookshelves of some shallow huckster, but the arsenal of an intellectual. The cross- hairs of nearly every volume were trained on the target of forging public attitudes. Here–in a large white room in Cambridge, Massachusetts–was the constellation of ideas that had inspired and informed a twentieth century preoccupation: the systematic molding of public opinion."

Suddenly, Ewen’s reverie was broken. In walked Bernays, a "puckish little man" of ninety-eight, with "swift eyes," who looked like "an aged Albert Einstein." Bernays led Ewen past his picture gallery–Bernays and Henry Ford, Bernays and Thomas Edison, Bernays and Eisenhower, Bernays en route to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, an autographed photo of Sigmund Freud, who was Bernays’s uncle. And for four hours Bernays and Ewen talked. Ewen was "entranced": he had located the fountainhead of all spin. At one point, Bernays hypothesized about how he might have promoted Ewen’s previous book, which was an account of consumer imagery in the modern economy. He would, he said, have called the big consumer organizations and suggested to them that they devote one of their annual meetings to a discussion of consumers and images. Ewen thought nothing of it. Then, three months later, he got a call from the president of the Consumer Federation of America asking him if he wanted to be the keynote speaker at its annual meeting. Was Bernays behind it? Was he still spinning, even as he approached his hundredth birthday? Ewen never found out. "Yet the question remained, and remains, open," he writes, in the breathless opening chapter of his book. "Things had uncannily come to pass much as Bernays had described in his hypothetical disquisition on the work of a P.R. practitioner, and I was left to ponder whether there is any reality anymore, save the reality of public relations."

The curious thing about our contemporary obsession with spin, however, is that we seldom consider whether spin works. We simply assume that, because people are everywhere trying to manipulate us, we’re being manipulated. Yet it makes just as much sense to assume the opposite: that the reason spin is everywhere today is that it doesn’t work–that, because the public is getting increasingly inured to spin, spinners feel they must spin even harder, on and on, in an ever-escalating arms race. The Torches of Freedom march worked because nobody had ever pulled a stunt like that before. Today, those same marchers would be stopped cold at ten feet. (First question at the press conference: Who put you up to this?) Once spun, twice shy. When, last week, the Clinton spokesman Rahm Emanuel called Steven Brill’s revelations about Kenneth Starr’s leaking to the press a "bombshell," that was spin, but we are so accustomed to Rahm Emanuel’s spinning that the principal effect of his comment was to prompt a meta-discussion about, of all things, his comment. ("If the wonderful word oleaginous didn’t exist," Frank Rich wrote in the Times, "someone would have to invent it to describe Rahm Emanuel.")Emanuel might have been better off saying nothing at all, except that–under the Howard Kurtz rule–this, too, would have been decoded as an attempt to spin us, by ostentatiously letting the Brill revelations speak for themselves: Silent Spin, perhaps. Spin sets into motion a never-ending cycle of skepticism.

There is a marvellous illustration of this arms-race problem in the work of two psychology professors, Deborah Gruenfeld and Robert Wyer, Jr. They gave people statements that were said to be newspaper headlines, and asked them to rate their plausibility, on a scale of zero to ten. Since the headlines basically stated the obvious–for example, "black democrats supported jesse jackson for president in 1988"–the scores were all quite high. The readers were then given a series of statements that contradicted the headlines. Not surprisingly, the belief scores went down significantly. Then another group of people was asked to read a series of statements that supported the headlines–statements like "Black Democrats presently support Jesse Jackson for President." This time, the belief scores still dropped. Telling people that what they think is true actually is true, in other words, has almost the same effect as telling them that what they think is true isn’t true. Gruenfeld and Wyer call this a "boomerang effect," and it suggests that people are natural skeptics. How we respond to a media proposition has at least as much to do with its pragmatic meaning (why we think the statement is being made) as with its semantic meaning (what is literally being said). And when the pragmatic meaning is unclear–why, for example, would someone tell us over and over that Jesse Jackson has the support of black Democrats–we start to get suspicious. This is the dilemma of spin. When Rahm Emanuel says "bombshell," we focus not on the actual bombshell but on why he used the word "bombshell."

The point is that spin is too clever by half. In a forthcoming biography, "The Father of Spin," Larry Tye writes that in 1930 Bernays went to work for a number of major book publishers, including Simon &Schuster and Harcourt Brace: "’Where there are bookshelves,’ he reasoned, ‘there will be books.’ So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes–which is why so many homes from that era have built-in bookshelves."

This is the kind of slick move that makes Bernays such an inspiration for contemporary spin meisters. (Tye, admiringly, calls it "infinitely more effective" than simply promoting books one by one, in the conventional way.) But wait a minute. Did Bernays really reach all these architects and contractors? If so, how? Wouldn’t there have been thousands of them? And, if he did, why would they ever have listened to him? (My limited experience with contractors and architects is that advice from someone outside their field has the opposite of its intended effect.) And, even if we assume that he did cause a surge in bookshelf building, is there a magical relationship between built-in shelves and the purchase of books? Most of us, I think, acquire books because we like books and we want to read them–not because we have customized space to fill in our apartments. The best way to promote cigarettes probably isn’t to subsidize ashtrays.

People who worry about spin have bought into a particular mythology about persuasion–a mythology that runs from Tom Sawyer to Vance Packard–according to which the best way to persuade someone to do something is to hide the act of persuasion. The problem is, though, that if the seller is too far removed from the transaction, if his motives are too oblique, there’s a good chance that his message will escape the buyer entirely. (People don’t always think books when they think shelves.) In fact, successful persuasion today is characterized by the opposite principle–that it is better to be obvious and get your message across than it is to pull invisible strings and risk having your message miss the mark. Bernays sacrificed clarity for subtlety. Most effective advertising today sacrifices subtlety for clarity. Recently, at a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conference on how to fight teen-age smoking, one prominent California ad executive talked about the reason for the success of the Marlboro and the Camel brands. It was not, he said, because of any of the fancy behind-the-scenes psychological tricks that Big Tobacco is so often accused of by its critics. On the contrary. The tobacco companies, he said, understand what Nike and Coca- Cola understand: that if they can make their brands ubiquitous–if they can plaster them on billboards, on product displays inside grocery stores, on convenience-store windows, on the sides of buildings, on T-shirts and baseball caps, on the hoods and the roofs of racing cars, in colorful spreads in teen magazines–they can make their message impossible to ignore. The secret is not deception but repetition, not artful spinning but plain speaking.

There’s a second, related difficulty with spin–one that people in the marketing business call the internal-audience problem. Let’s say you are the head of the ad agency that has the Burger King account. Your ultimate goal is to make ads that appeal to the kind of people who buy Burger King burgers. But, in order to keep Burger King’s business and get your commercials on the air, you must first appeal to Burger King’s marketing executives, who are probably quite different in temperament and taste from the target Burger King customer. Ideally, your ads will appeal to the folks at Burger King because they appeal to the Burger King customers; that is, the internal audience will be pleased because the external audience is pleased. But it has always been extremely difficult to measure the actual impact of a television commercial (especially, as is the case with many ads, where the aim is simply to maintain the current market share). Unless you’re careful, then, you may start creating ads that appeal only to your internal audience, with the unfortunate result that the relationship between ad agency and ad buyer becomes a kind of closed loop. The internal audience supplants the real audience.

The internal-audience effect can be seen in all sorts of businesses. The reason so many magazines look alike is that their Manhattan-based editors and writers end up trying to impress not readers but other Manhattan-based editors and writers. It was in an effort to avoid this syndrome that Lincoln Mercury recently decided to move its headquarters from Detroit to California. The company said that the purpose was to get closer to its customers; more precisely, the purpose was to get away from people who weren’t its customers. Why do you think it took so long to get Detroit to install seat belts? Because to the internal audience a seat belt is a cost center. It is only to the external audience that it’s a life saver.

Edward Bernays was a master of the internal audience. He was intellectually indefatigable, a diminutive, mustachioed, impatient dervish. Larry Tye writes that as Bernays sat in his office "four or five young staff members, their chairs pulled close, would have been listening to him spew forth a stream of thoughts about peddling Ivory or keeping Luckies number one. With each new idea he’d scratch out a note, wad it up, and toss it on the floor." Afterward, the floor looked blanketed by snow. But it was all an inside joke. The wadded-up pieces of paper were, Tye quotes one former employee as saying, "a trick to demonstrate all the ideas he was generating." To promote bacon, Bernays persuaded prominent doctors to testify to the benefits of a hearty breakfast. His client, a bacon producer, no doubt regarded this as a dazzling feat. But does a hearty breakfast mean bacon? And does bacon mean his client’s bacon? Bernays’s extraordinary success is proof that in the P.R. world, where no hard-and-fast measures exist to gauge the true effectiveness of a message, he could prosper by playing only to his internal audience. But often the very things that make you successful with that audience prevent you from being successful with your real audience. To Simon & Schuster–to people in the book business–bookshelves really do mean books. To the rest of us, a bookshelf may be no more than a place to put unopened mail.

This is the mistake Howard Kurtz makes in "Spin Cycle." His book is a detailed account of how in the year following the 1996 elections Clinton’s spokesman Mike McCurry successfully spun the White House press corps during the fund-raising and Whitewater scandals. Kurtz tries to argue that this, in turn, reflects Clinton’s ability to manage his image with the wider public–with the external audience. In fact, "Spin Cycle" reads more like an extended treatise on the internal-audience problem, a three-hundred-page account of how McCurry’s heroic attempts to spin the White House press corps had the effect of, well, spinning the White House press corps.

For example, Kurtz recounts the story of Rita Braver, a former White House correspondent for CBS television. Braver believed that the Clinton Administration would go to "unbelievable lengths" to keep her from breaking a story–on the ground, Kurtz says, that "bad stories came across as more sensational on television." In one instance, early in Clinton’s second term, the White House announced that it was turning over a large number of Whitewater documents to the Justice Department. Braver, according to Kurtz, smelled a rat. She knew that you don’t just turn over documents to the Justice Department. She made some calls and found out that, sure enough, the White House had actually been subpoenaed. Braver wrote a script: "CBS News has learned…" Then disaster struck. "Half an hour before the evening news began," Kurtz writes, "White House officials publicly announced the subpoena. No way they were going to let her break the news and look like they were hiding something, which they had been. They were determined to beat her to the punch."

Let’s deconstruct this episode. Braver wanted to write a story that said, in effect, The documents the White House said it is handing over to the Justice Department today are, I have learned, being handed over because of a subpoena. Instead, she was forced to say, The documents that the White House is handing over to the Justice Department today are, the White House said, being handed over because of a subpoena. To the internal audience–to Braver and her colleagues–there is a real distinction between Statements A and B. In the first case, the White House is seen as reluctant to disclose the existence of a subpoena. In the second, it is not. More important, in the first case it is clear that the subpoena story is the result of the efforts of Rita Braver–of the efforts, in other words, of the White House press corps–and in the second that role has been erased. This distinction also matters to Clinton, McCurry’s other internal audience. But why does this matter to the rest of us? The news of interest to the external audience is not the nuance of the White House’s reaction to a subpoena, or the particular reporting talents of Rita Braver; it is the fact of the subpoena itself. Kurtz is entirely correct that the Braver episode is an example of the ascendancy of spin. But the only thing that’s being spun here is ten square blocks in the center of Washington, D.C. This is dog-whistle politics.

The irony of Edward L. Bernays’s enshrinement in the spin literature is that, in fact, he is not the father of contemporary persuasion. That honor belongs–if it belongs to anyone–to the wizard of direct marketing, Lester Wunderman. Wunderman was Bernays’s antithesis. He was born in a tenement in the East Bronx, far from the privilege and wealth of Bernays’s Manhattan. While Bernays was sending women marching down Fifth Avenue, Wunderman was delivering chickens for Izzy, a local kosher butcher. He started off in advertising making twenty-five dollars a week at Casper Pinsker’s mail-order ad agency, in lower Manhattan, and in one of his first successes he turned the memoirs of Hitler’s personal physician into a wartime best-seller by promoting them on the radio with some of the first-ever infomercials. If Bernays was the master of what Tye calls Big Think–splashy media moments, behind-the-scenes manipulations, concocted panels of "experts"–Wunderman, in the course of his career, established himself as the genius of Little Think, of the small but significant details that turn a shopper into a buyer. He was the person who first put bound- in subscription cards in magazines, who sold magazines on late-night television with an 800 number, who invented the forerunner of the scratch-‘n’-sniff ad, who revolutionized the mail-order business, and who, in a thousand other ways, perfected the fine detail of true salesmanship.

In "Being Direct," his recent autobiography, Wunderman relates the story of how he turned the Columbia Record Club into the largest marketing club of its kind in the world. It’s a story worth retelling, if only because it provides such an instructive counterpoint to the ideas of Edward Bernays. The year was 1955. Wunderman was already the acknowledged king of mail order, long since gone from Casper Pinsker, and by then a senior vice-president at the ad firm Maxwell Sackheim & Company, and Columbia came to him with a problem. Independent mail-order companies, using the model of the Book-of-the-Month Club, were starting to chip away at retail sales of records. (In those days, record companies sold records through dealers, the same way that car companies sell cars.) To stem the tide, Columbia wanted to start a club of its own.

Wunderman’s response was to create a kind of mail- order department store, with four sections–classical, Broadway, jazz, and listening and dancing–and a purchase plan that offered a free record for joining. The offer was then advertised in magazines, with a coupon to clip and mail back. This initial campaign did respectably, but not well enough to break even. Wunderman went back to the drawing board. In 1956, he began testing hundreds of different kinds of ads in different publications and in different markets, comparing the response rate to each. The best response was to a plan that allowed the customer, for every four records purchased, to choose three free records from a list of twelve options. He went with that nationwide. By 1957, the club had a million members. But that summer the club-advertising response rate suddenly fell off by twenty per cent. Wunderman, who was travelling in Europe at the time, had another brainstorm:

What I had discovered in Italy was antipasto…. The idea of so many choices intrigued me, and the larger the selection, the longer the line at the antipasto table. Restaurant owners seemed to know this, because antipasto carts and tables were usually displayed prominently at the entrance. I made a point of counting the number of individual antipasto choices people took in relation to the number that were offered, and I discovered that they helped themselves to about the same number of dishes no matter how many were set in front of them.

Wunderman rushed back to New York with the solution. The free records Columbia offered to new members were "antipasto." But three free records from a list of twelve weren’t enough, Wunderman argued. That wasn’t a true antipasto bar. He persuaded Columbia that it should test an ad that increased the choice from twelve records to thirty- two. The response rate doubled. (Today, Columbia members get to choose from more than four hundred albums.) Columbia scrapped its old ad run, and replaced it with the antipasto campaign. The year 1958 was the best one in the club’s history.

The next challenge Wunderman faced was that the club seemed stalled at a million members, so he began searching for new ways to get his message across. Taking an idea he had pioneered several years earlier, while he was selling mail-order roses for Jackson & Perkins, he persuaded a number of publishers to put post-paid insert cards in magazines–the now familiar little cards that are an ad on one side and a coupon on the other. Columbia jumped to two million members. In Life he inserted a sheet of "value stamps," each with the title of an album on it, which readers could stick to a response card. He was also the first to use an "answer card" in newspapers, and among the first to get newspapers to insert freestanding four- and eight-page special advertising sections in their Sunday editions. On another occasion, he put a little gold box in the corner of all Columbia’s print ads, and, in a series of television commercials, instructed viewers to look in the ads for the "buried treasure"; if they found the box, they could get another free record. The gold-box campaign raised responses by eighty per cent. "The Gold Box," he writes, "had made the reader/viewer part of an interactive advertising system. Viewers were not just an audience but had become participants. It was like playing a game."

All these strategies amount to a marketing system of extraordinary sensitivity. Answer cards and gold boxes and antipasto and the other techniques of Little Think are sophisticated ways of listening, of overcoming the problems of distance and distortion which so handicap other forms of persuasion. There are times when we all get annoyed at the business reply cards that Wunderman invented. But at a conceptual level, surely, those cards are a thing of beauty. To the consumer–to us–they offer almost perfect convenience. Is there an easier way to subscribe to a magazine? To the client, they offer ubiquity: it knows that every time a magazine is opened a response card falls on someone’s lap. And to the ad agency they offer a finely calibrated instrument to measure effectiveness: the adman can gauge precisely how successful his campaign is merely by counting the number of cards that come back. Much of the apparatus of modern-day marketing–the computer databases, the psychographic profiles, the mailing lists, the market differentiations, the focus groups–can be seen, in some sense, as an attempt to replicate the elegance and transparency of this model. Marketers don’t want to spin us. They want to hold us perfectly still, so they can figure out who we are, what we want, and how to reach us.

There is a moment in Kurtz’s book in which he stumbles on this truth: that it isn’t spin, after all, that accounts for Clinton’s popularity but, rather, the opposite of spin–the President’s ability to listen, to offer his agenda like antipasto, to sidestep the press and speak directly to the public. Kurtz writes that the former White House communications director Don Baer believed that Clinton "cut through what was said about him":

He was having his own conversation with America, one that, if all went well, sailed over the heads of the journalists, who were nothing but theater critics and did little to shape public opinion. Baer saw the phenomenon time and again. When Clinton unveiled his plan for hope scholarships, which would give parents of college students up to $1500 a year in tax credits, the media verdict was swift: cynical political ploy to pander to middle-class voters. But what the public heard was that Clinton was concerned about the difficulty of sending kids to college and was willing to help them with tax credits. Voters got it. They liked constructive proposals and hated partisan sniping.

But Kurtz doesn’t believe Baer, and why would he? The spin fantasy offers a far more satisfying explanation for the world around us. Spin suggests a drama, a script to decode, a game played at the highest of levels. Spinning is the art of telling a story, even when there is no story to tell, and this is irresistible (particularly to journalists, who make a living by telling stories even when there is no story to tell). In truth, the world of persuasion is a good deal more prosaic. Ideas and candidacies–not to mention albums–are sold by talking plainly and clearly, and the louder and faster the whirring of the spinners becomes, the more effective this clarity and plainspokenness will be. We think we belong to the world of Edward L. Bernays. We don’t. We are all Wundermanians now.

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March 9, search 1998

If it hadn’t gone down, the Titanic
might have gone up in smoke.

If you were, say, the president of Philip Morris and you were fantasizing about how to sell more cigarettes, you’d probably start with the movies. A love story, perhaps, because adolescent girls–who are your target audience–love love stories. The male lead would be a teen idol. He would smoke while lying on a bench, gazing up at the night sky. The young heroine would rebelliously blow smoke in her mother’s face. In a spirited moment at a party, she might snatch a cigarette from the mouth of a stranger and draw deeply, staring into her lover’s eyes. You’d put them on a boat. A big, romantic boat. The boat would sink. The film would be a blockbuster, a movie that teen-age girls would see three and four and five times, until they could mime every line and gesture.

Obviously, this is only a dream, since no self-respecting teen idol would work for a cigarette company, and no cigarette company could ever get away with so blatantly targeting an adolescent audience. But this is the wonderful thing about being in the cigarette business right now: Whatever you cannot do for yourself, Hollywood, apparently, will do for you. "If I were the head of a tobacco company, I’d say, ‘God bless "Titanic," ‘ " Bruce Silverman, a California ad executive, who directed that state’s antismoking media campaign, says.

What makes "Titanic" perfect as a smoking movie is that it transcends the smoking-movie cliché. Most movies are, in some way, linked to a specific brand. Last summer’s "My Best Friend’s Wedding," for example, in which Julia Roberts smoked one cigarette after another as she schemed to defeat a romantic rival, was clearly a Newport movie. In Newport ads, the media critic Mark Crispin Miller has written, "there is always an aggressor acting on a victim–whose expression has, deliberately, been made ambiguous, a look at once of ‘pleasure’ and of terror." (The gray area between pleasure and terror, it can safely be said, is the subtext of all Julia Roberts movies.) Bruce Willis’s chain-smoking loner hero in the "Die Hard" series, on the other hand, is pure Marlboro Man. "The Marlboro Man is almost always alone and is never subject to any authority whatsoever," the marketing expert Richard Pollay wrote in 1995. "There are no parents, no older brothers, no foreman . . . in Marlboro Country."

But what is "Titanic"? Leonardo DiCaprio smoking pensively on the Titanic deck is classic Marlboro Man. The swells in first class trading cigarettes are Dunhill. The rough-and-tumble crowd in steerage rolling their own could be taken as a coded reference to the no-frills, no-additive, no-bull Winston, while Kate Winslet blowing smoke in her mother’s face is very much "You’ve come a long way, baby"–Virginia Slims. As for the climactic smoking scene, in which Winslet coquettishly snatches a cigarette from a man’s mouth, that’s pure Joe Camel. As Camel’s former ad agency, Young and Rubicam, said of the brand’s archetypal smoker, "Always the winner, on top of the situation, beating the system, and covering the scene, whatever he does he does with a style and joie de vivre all his own." In "Titanic," smoking is sexy and social and sophisticated and genuine and rebellious, and in the end virtually everybody dies–which is the most perfect touch of all.

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February 2, medical 1998
ANNALS OF MEDICINE

Can we learn how to lose weight from one of
the most obese people in the world?

1.

Sacton lies in the center of Arizona, cialis just off interstate 10, viagra on the Gila River reservation of the Pima Indian tribe. It is a small town, dusty and unremarkable, which looks as if it had been blown there by a gust of desert wind. Shacks and plywood bungalows are scattered along a dirt-and-asphalt grid. Dogs crisscross the streets. Back yards are filled with rusted trucks and junk. The desert in these parts is scruffy and barren, drained of water by the rapid growth of Phoenix, just half an hour’s drive to the north. The nearby Gila River is dry, and the fields of wheat and cushaw squash and tepary beans which the Pima used to cultivate are long gone. The only prepossessing building in Sacaton is a gleaming low-slung modern structure on the outskirts of town–the Hu Hu Kam Memorial Hospital. There is nothing bigger or more impressive for miles, and that is appropriate, since medicine is what has brought Sacaton any wisp of renown it has.

Thirty-five years ago, a team of National Institutes of Health researchers arrived in Sacaton to study rheumatoid arthritis. They wanted to see whether the Pima had higher or lower rates of the disease than the Blackfoot of Montana. A third of the way through their survey, however, they realized that they had stumbled on something altogether strange–a population in the grip of a plague. Two years later, the N.I.H. returned to the Gila River Indian Reservation in force. An exhaustive epidemiological expedition was launched, in which thousands of Pima were examined every two years by government scientists, their weight and height and blood pressure checked, their blood sugar monitored, and their eyes and kidneys scrutinized. In Phoenix, a modern medical center devoted to Native Americans was built; on its top floor, the N.I.H. installed a state-of-the-art research lab, including the first metabolic chamber in North America–a sealed room in which to measure the precise energy intake and expenditure of Pima research subjects. Genetic samples were taken; family histories were mapped; patterns of illness and death were traced from relative to relative and generation to generation. Today, the original study group has grown from four thousand people to seven thousand five hundred, and so many new studies have been added to the old that the total number of research papers arising from the Gila River reservation takes up almost forty feet of shelf space in the N.I.H. library in Phoenix.

The Pima are famous now–famous for being fatter than any other group in the world, with the exception only of the Nauru islanders of the West Pacific. Among those over thirty- five on the reservation, the rate of diabetes, the disease most closely associated with obesity, is fifty per cent, eight times the national average and a figure unmatched in medical history. It is not unheard of in Sacaton for adults to weigh five hundred pounds, for teen-agers to be suffering from diabetes, or for relatively young men and women to be already disabled by the disease–to be blind, to have lost a limb, to be confined to a wheelchair, or to be dependent on kidney dialysis.

When I visited the town, on a monotonously bright desert day not long ago, I watched a group of children on a playing field behind the middle school moving at what seemed to be half speed, their generous shirts and baggy jeans barely concealing their bulk. At the hospital, one of the tribe’s public-health workers told me that when she began an education program on nutrition several years ago she wanted to start with second graders, to catch the children before it was too late. "We were under the delusion that kids didn’t gain weight until the second grade," she said, shaking her head. "But then we realized we’d have to go younger. Those kids couldn’t run around the block."

From the beginning, the N.I.H. researchers have hoped that if they can understand why the Pima are so obese they can better understand obesity in the rest of us; the assumption is that obesity in the Pima is different only in degree, not in kind. One hypothesis for the Pima’s plight, favored by Eric Ravussin, of the N.I.H.’s Phoenix team, is that after generations of living in the desert the only Pima who survived famine and drought were those highly adept at storing fat in times of plenty. Under normal circumstances, this disposition was kept in check by the Pima’s traditional diet: cholla-cactus buds, honey mesquite, povertyweed, and prickly pears from the desert floor; mule deer, white-winged dove, and black-tailed jackrabbit; squawfish from the Gila River; and wheat, squash, and beans grown in irrigated desert fields. By the end of the Second World War, however, the Pima had almost entirely left the land, and they began to eat like other Americans. Their traditional diet had been fifteen to twenty per cent fat. Their new diet was closer to forty per cent fat. Famine, which had long been a recurrent condition, gave way to permanent plenty, and so the Pima’s "thrifty" genes, once an advantage, were now a liability. N.I.H. researchers are trying to find these genes, on the theory that they may be the same genes that contribute to obesity in the rest of us. Their studies at Sacaton have also uncovered valuable clues to how diabetes works, how obesity in pregnant women affects their children, and how human metabolism is altered by weight gain. All told, the collaboration between the N.I.H. and the Pima is one of the most fruitful relationships in modern medical science–with one fateful exception. After thirty-five years, no one has had any success helping the Pima lose weight. For all the prodding and poking, the hundreds of research papers describing their bodily processes, and the determined efforts of health workers, year after year the tribe grows fatter.

"I used to be a nurse, I used to work in the clinic, I used to be all gung ho about going out and teaching people about diabetics and obesity," Teresa Wall, who heads the tribe’s public-health department, told me. "I thought that was all people needed–information. But they weren’t interested. They had other issues." Wall is a Pima, short and stocky, who has long, straight black hair, worn halfway down her back. She spoke softly. "There’s something missing. It’s one thing to say to people, ‘This is what you should do.’ It’s another to actually get them to take it in."

The Pima have built a new wellness center in downtown Sacaton, with a weight room and a gymnasium. They now have an education program on nutrition aimed at preschoolers and first graders, and at all tribal functions signs identify healthful food choices–a tray of vegetables or of fruit, say. They are doing, in other words, what public-health professionals are supposed to be doing. But results are hard to see.

"We’ve had kids who were diabetic, whose mothers had diabetes and were on dialysis and had died of kidney failure," one of the tribe’s nutritionists told me. "You’d think that that would make a difference–that it would motivate them to keep their diet under control. It doesn’t." She got up from her desk, walked to a bookshelf, and pulled out two bottles of Coca-Cola. One was an old glass bottle. The other was a modern plastic bottle, which towered over it. "The original Coke bottle, in the nineteen-thirties, was six and a half ounces." She held up the plastic bottle. "Now they are marketing one litre as a single serving. That’s five times the original serving size. The McDonald’s regular hamburger is two hundred and sixty calories, but now you’ve got the double cheeseburger, which is four hundred and forty-five calories. Portion sizes are getting way out of whack. Eating is not about hunger anymore. The fact that people are hungry is way down on the list of why they eat." I told her that I had come to Sacaton, the front lines of the weight battle, in order to find out what really works in fighting obesity. She looked at me and shrugged. "We’re the last people who could tell you that," she said.

In the early nineteen-sixties, at about the time the N.I.H. team stumbled on the Pima, seventeen per cent of middle-aged Americans met the clinical definition of obesity. Today, that figure is 32.3 per cent. Between the early nineteen-seventies and the early nineteen-nineties, the percentage of preschool girls who were overweight went from 5.8 per cent to ten per cent. The number of Americans who fall into what epidemiologists call Class Three Obesity–that is, people too grossly overweight, say, to fit into an airline seat–has risen three hundred and fifty per cent in the past thirty years. "We’ve looked at trends by educational level, race, and ethnic group, we’ve compared smokers and non-smokers, and it’s very hard to say that there is any group that is not experiencing this kind of weight gain," Katherine Flegal, a senior research epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics, says. "It’s all over the world. In China, the prevalence of obesity is vanishingly low, yet they are showing an increase. In Western Samoa, it is very high, and they are showing an increase." In the same period, science has unlocked many of obesity’s secrets, the American public has been given a thorough education in the principles of good nutrition, health clubs have sprung up from one end of the country to another, dieting has become a religion, and health food a marketing phenomenon. None of it has mattered. It is the Pima paradox: in the fight against obesity all the things that worked in curbing behaviors like drunk driving and smoking and in encouraging things like safe sex and the use of seat belts–education, awareness, motivation–don’t seem to work. For one reason or another, we cannot stop eating. "Since many people cannot lose much weight no matter how hard they try, and promptly regain whatever they do lose," the editors of The New England Journal of Medicine wearily concluded last month, "the vast amount of money spent on diet clubs, special foods and over-the-counter remedies, estimated to be on the order of $30 billion to $50 billion yearly, is wasted." Who could argue? If the Pima–who are surrounded by the immediate and tangible consequences of obesity, who have every conceivable motivation–can’t stop themselves from eating their way to illness, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In the scientific literature, there is something called Gourmand Syndrome–a neurological condition caused by anterior brain lesions and characterized by an unusual passion for eating. The syndrome was described in a recent issue of the journal Neurology, and the irrational, seemingly uncontrollable obsession with food evinced by its victims seems a perfect metaphor for the irrational, apparently uncontrollable obsession with food which seems to have overtaken American society as a whole. Here is a diary entry from a Gourmand Syndrome patient, a fifty-five-year-old stroke victim who had previously displayed no more than a perfunctory interest in food.

After I could stand on my feet again, I dreamt to go downtown and sit down in this well-known restaurant. There I would get a beer, sausage, and potatoes. Slowly my diet improved again and thus did quality of life. The day after discharge, my first trip brought me to this restaurant, and here I order potato salad, sausage, and a beer. I feel wonderful. My spouse anxiously registers everything I eat and nibble. It irritates me. A few steps down the street, we enter a coffee-house. My hand is reaching for a pastry, my wife’s hand reaches between. Through the window I see my bank. If I choose, I could buy all the pastry I wanted, including the whole store. The creamy pastry slips from the foil like a mermaid. I take a bite.

2.

Is there an easy way out of this problem? Every year, millions of Americans buy books outlining new approaches to nutrition and diet, nearly all of which are based on the idea that overcoming our obsession with food is really just a matter of technique: that the right foods eaten in the right combination can succeed where more traditional approaches to nutrition have failed. A cynic would say, of course, that the seemingly endless supply of these books proves their lack of efficacy, since if one of these diets actually worked there would be no need for another. But that’s not quite fair. After all, the medical establishment, too, has been giving Americans nutritional advice without visible effect. We have been told that we must not take in more calories than we burn, that we cannot lose weight if we don’t exercise consistently, that an excess of eggs, red meat, cheese, and fried food clogs arteries, that fresh vegetables and fruits help to ward off cancer, that fibre is good and sugar is bad and whole-wheat bread is better than white bread. That few of us are able to actually follow this advice is either our fault or the fault of the advice. Medical orthodoxy, naturally, tends toward the former position. Diet books tend toward the latter. Given how often the medical orthodoxy has been wrong in the past, that position is not, on its face, irrational. It’s worth finding out whether it is true.

Arguably the most popular diet of the moment, for example, is one invented by the biotechnology entrepreneur Barry Sears. Sears’s first book, "The Zone," written with Bill Lawren, sold a million and a half copies and has been translated into fourteen languages. His second book, "Mastering the Zone," was on the best-seller lists for eleven weeks. Madonna is rumored to be on the Zone diet, and so are Howard Stern and President Clinton, and if you walk into almost any major bookstore in the country right now Sears’s two best-sellers–plus a new book, "Zone Perfect Meals in Minutes"–will quite likely be featured on a display table near the front. They are ambitious books, filled with technical discussions of food chemistry, metabolism, evolutionary theory, and obscure scientific studies, all apparently serving as proof of the idea that through careful management of"the most powerful and ubiquitous drug we have: food" we can enter a kind of high-efficiency, optimal metabolic state–the Zone.

The key to entering the Zone, according to Sears, is limiting your carbohydrates. When you eat carbohydrates, he writes, you stimulate the production of insulin, and insulin is a hormone that evolved to put aside excess carbohydrate calories in the form of fat in case of future famine. So the insulin that’s stimulated by excess carbohydrates aggressively promotes the accumulation of body fat. In other words, when we eat too much carbohydrate, we’re essentially sending a hormonal message, via insulin, to the body (actually to the adipose cells). The message: "Store fat."

His solution is a diet in which carbohydrates make up no more than forty per cent of all calories consumed (as opposed to the fifty per cent or more consumed by most Americans), with fat and protein coming to thirty per cent each. Maintaining that precise four-to-three ratio between carbohydrates and protein is, in Sears’s opinion, critical for keeping insulin in check. "The Zone" includes all kinds of complicated instructions to help readers figure out how to do things like calculate their precise protein requirements in restaurants. ("Start with the protein, using the palm of your hand as a guide. The amount of protein that can fit into your palm is usually four protein blocks. That’s about one chicken breast or 4 ounces sliced turkey.")

It should be said that the kind of diet Sears suggests is perfectly nutritious. Following the Zone diet, you’ll eat lots of fibre, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and fish, and very little red meat. Good nutrition, though, isn’t really the point. Sears’s argument is that being in the Zone can induce permanent weight loss–that by controlling carbohydrates and the production of insulin you can break your obsession with food and fundamentally alter the way your body works. "Weight loss . . . can be an ongoing and usually frustrating struggle for most people," he writes. "In the Zone it is painless, almost automatic."

Does the Zone exist? Yes and no. Certainly, if people start eating a more healthful diet they’ll feel better about themselves. But the idea that there is something magical about keeping insulin within a specific range is a little strange. Insulin is simply a hormone that regulates the storage of energy. Precisely how much insulin you need to store carbohydrates is dependent on all kinds of things, including how fit you are and whether, like many diabetics, you have a genetic predisposition toward insulin resistance. Generally speaking, the heavier and more out of shape you are, the more insulin your body needs to do its job. The Pima have a problem with obesity and that makes their problem with diabetes worse–not the other way around. High levels of insulin are the result of obesity. They aren’t the cause of obesity. When I read the insulin section of "The Zone" to Gerald Reaven, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University, who is acknowledged to be the country’s leading insulin expert, I could hear him grinding his teeth. "I had the experience ofbeing on a panel discussion with Sears, and I couldn’t believe the stuff that comes out of this guy’s mouth," he said. "I think he’s full of it."

What Sears would have us believe is that when it comes to weight loss your body treats some kinds of calories differently from others–that the combination of the food we eat is more critical than the amount. To this end, he cites what he calls an "amazing" and "landmark" study published in 1956 in the British medical journal Lancet. (It should be a tipoff that the best corroborating research he can come up with here is more than forty years old.) In the study, a couple of researchers compared the effects of two different thousand-calorie diets–the first high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates, and the second low in fat and protein and high in carbohydrates–on two groups of obese men. After eight to ten days, the men on the low-carbohydrate diet had lost more weight than the men on the high-carbohydrate diet. Sears concludes from the study that if you want to lose weight you should eat protein and shun carbohydrates. Actually, it shows nothing of the sort. Carbohydrates promote water retention; protein acts like a diuretic. Over a week or so, someone on a high-protein diet will always look better than someone on a high-carbohydrate diet, simply because of dehydration. When a similar study was conducted several years later, researchers found that after about three weeks–when the effects of dehydration had evened out–the weight loss on the two diets was virtually identical. The key isn’t how you eat, in other words; it’s how much you eat. Calories, not carbohydrates, are still what matters. The dirty little secret of the Zone system is that, despite Sears’s expostulations about insulin, all he has done is come up with another low-calorie diet. He doesn’t do the math for his readers, but some nutritionists have calculated that if you follow Sears’s prescriptions religiously you’ll take in at most seventeen hundred calories a day, and at seventeen hundred calories a day virtually anyone can lose weight. The problem with low-calorie diets, of course, is that no one can stay on them for very long. Just ask Sears. "Diets based on choice restriction and calorie limits usually fail," he writes in the second chapter of"The Zone," just as he is about to present his own choice-restricted and calorie-limited diet. "People on restrictive diets get tired of feeling hungry and deprived. They go off their diets, put the weight back on (primarily, as increased body fat) and then feel bad about themselves for not having enough will power, discipline, or motivation."

These are not, however, the kinds of contradiction that seem to bother Sears. His first book’s dust jacket claims that in the Zone you can "reset your genetic code" and "burn more fat watching TV than by exercising." By the time he’s finished, Sears has held up his diet as the answer to virtually every medical ill facing Western society, from heart disease to cancer and on to alcoholism and PMS. He writes, "Dr. Paul Kahl, the same physician with whom I did the aids pilot study"–yes, Sears’s diet is just the thing for aids, too–"told me the story of one of his patients, a fifty-year-old woman with MS."

Paul put her on a Zone-favorable diet, and after a few months on the program she came in for a checkup. Paul asked the basic question: "How are you feeling?" Her answer was "Great!" Noticing that she was still using a cane for stability, Paul asked her, "If you’re feeling so great, why are you still using the cane?" Her only response was that since developing MS she always had. Paul took the cane away and told her to walk to the end of the hallway and back. After a few tentative steps, she made the round trip quickly. When Paul asked her if she wanted her cane back, she just smiled and told him to keep it for someone who really needed it.

Put down your carbohydrates and walk!

It is hard, while reading this kind of thing, to escape the conclusion that what is said in a diet book somehow matters less than how it’s said. Sears, after all, isn’t the only diet specialist who seems to be making things up. They all seem to be making things up. But if you read a large number of popular diet books in succession, what is striking is that they all seem to be making things up in precisely the same way. It is as if the diet-book genre had an unspoken set of narrative rules and conventions, and all that matters is how skillfully those rules and conventions are adhered to. Sears, for example, begins fearful and despondent, his father dead of a heart attack at fifty-three, a "sword of Damocles" over his head. Judy Moscovitz, author of "The Rice Diet Report" (three months on the Times best-seller list), tells us, "I was always the fattest kid in the class, and I knew all the pain that only a fat kid can know…. I was always the last one reluctantly chosen for the teams." Martin Katahn, in his best-seller "The Rotation Diet," writes, "I was one of those fat kids who had no memory of ever being thin. Instead, I have memories such as not being able to run fast enough to keep up with my playmates, being chosen last for all games that required physical movement."

Out of that darkness comes light: the Eureka Moment, when the author explains how he stumbled on the radical truth that inpired his diet. Sears found himself in the library of the Boston University School of Medicine, reading everything he could on the subject: "I had no preconceptions, no base of knowledge to work from, so I read everything. I eventually came across an obscure report…" Rachael Heller, who was a co-author of the best-selling "The Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet" (and, incidentally, so fat growing up that she was "always the last one picked for the team"), was at home in bed when her doctor called, postponing her appointment and thereby setting in motion an extraordinary chain of events that involved veal parmigiana, a Greek salad, and two French crullers: "I will always be grateful for that particular arrangement of circumstances…. Sometimes we are fortunate enough to recognize and take advantage of them, sometimes not. This time I did. I believe it saved my life." Harvey Diamond, the co-author of the three-million-copy-selling "Fit for Life," was at a music festival two thousand miles from home, when he happened to overhear two people in front of him discussing the theories of a friend in Santa Barbara: "’Excuse me,’ I interrupted, ‘who is this fellow you are discussing?’ In less than twenty-four hours I was on my way to Santa Barbara. Little did I know that I was on the brink of one of the most remarkable discoveries of my life."

The Eureka Moment is followed, typically within a few pages, by the Patent Claim–the point at which the author shows why his Eureka Moment, which explains how weight can be lost without sacrifice, is different from the Eureka Moment of all those other diet books explaining how weight can be lost without sacrifice. This is harder than it appears. Dieters are actually attracted to the idea of discipline, because they attribute their condition to a failure of discipline. It’s just that they know themselves well enough to realize that if a diet requires discipline they won’t be able to follow it. At the same time, of course, even as the dieter realizes that what he is looking for–discipline without the discipline–has never been possible, he still clings to the hope that someday it might be. The Patent Claim must negotiate both paradoxes. Here is Sears, in his deft six-paragraph Patent Claim: "These are not unique claims. The proponents of every new diet that comes along say essentially the same thing. But if you’re reading this book, you probably know that these diets don’t really work."Why don’t they work? Because they "violate the basic biochemical laws required to enter the Zone."Other diets don’t have discipline. The Zone does. Yet, he adds, "The beauty of the dietary system presented in this book is that . . . it doesn’t call for a great deal of the kind of unrealistic self- sacrifice that causes many people to fall off the diet wagon. . . . In fact, I can even show you how to stay within these dietary guidelines while eating at fast-food restaurants." It is the very discipline of the Zone system that allows its adherent to lose weight without discipline.

Or consider this from Adele Puhn’s recent runaway best- seller, "The 5-Day Miracle Diet." America’s No. 1 diet myth, she writes, is that "you have to deprive yourself to lose weight":

Even though countless diet programs have said you can have your cake and eat it, too, in your heart of hearts, you have that "nibbling" doubt: For a diet to really work, you have to sacrifice. I know. I bought into this myth for a long time myself. And the fact is that on every other diet, deprivation is involved. Motivation can only take you so far. Eventually you’re going to grab for that extra piece of cake, that box of cookies, that cheeseburger and fries. But not the 5-Day Miracle Diet.

Let us pause and savor the five-hundred-and-forty-degree rhetorical triple gainer taken in those few sentences: (1) the idea that diet involves sacrifice is a myth; (2) all diets, to be sure, say that on their diets dieting without sacrifice is not a myth; (3) but you believe that dieting without sacrifice is a myth; (4) and I, too, believed that dieting without sacrifice is a myth; (5) because in fact on all diets dieting without sacrifice is a myth; (6) except on my diet, where dieting without sacrifice is not a myth.

The expository sequence that these books follow–last one picked, moment of enlightenment, assertion of the one true way–finally amounts to nothing less than a conversion narrative. In conception and execution, diet books are self- consciously theological. (Whom did Harvey Diamond meet after his impulsive, desperate mission to Santa Barbara? A man he will only identify, pseudonymously and mysteriously, as Mr. Jensen, an ethereal figure with "clear eyes, radiant skin, serene demeanor and well-proportioned body.") It is the appropriation of this religious narrative that permits the suspension of disbelief.

There is a more general explanation for all this in the psychological literature–a phenomenon that might be called the Photocopier Effect, after the experiments of the Harvard social scientist Ellen Langer. Langer examined the apparently common-sense idea that if you are trying to persuade someone to do something for you, you are always better off if you provide a reason. She went up to a group of people waiting in line to use a library copying machine and said, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?" Sixty per cent said yes. Then she repeated the experiment on another group, except that she changed her request to "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?" Ninety-four per cent said yes. This much sounds like common sense: if you say, "because I’m in a rush"–if you explain your need–people are willing to step aside. But here’s where the study gets interesting. Langer then did the experiment a third time, in this case replacing the specific reason with a statement of the obvious: "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make some copies?" The percentage who let her do so this time was almost exactly the same as the one in the previous round–ninety-three per cent. The key to getting people to say yes, in other words, wasn’t the explanation "because I’m in a rush" but merely the use of the word "because." What mattered wasn’t the substance of the explanation but merely the rhetorical form–the conjunctional footprint–of an explanation.

Isn’t this how diet books work? Consider the following paragraph, taken at random from "The Zone":

In paracrine hormonal responses, the hormone travels only a very short distance from a secreting cell to a target cell. Because of the short distance between the secreting cell and the target cell, paracrine responses don’t need the long-distance capabilities of the bloodstream. Instead, they use the body’s version of a regional system: the paracrine system. Finally, there are the autocrine hormone systems, analogous to the cord that links the handset of the phone to the phone itself. Here the secreting cells release a hormone that comes immediately back to affect the secreting cell itself.

Don’t worry if you can’t follow what Sears is talking about here–following isn’t really the point. It is enough that he is using the word "because."

3.

If there is any book that defines the diet genre, however, it is "Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution." Here is the conversion narrative at its finest. Dr. Atkins, a humble corporate physician, is fat. ("I had three chins.") He begins searching for answers. ("One evening I read about the work that Dr. Garfield Duncan had done in nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania. Fasting patients, he reported, lose all sense of hunger after forty-eight hours without food. That stunned me. . . . That defied logic.") He tests his unorthodox views on himself. As if by magic, he loses weight. He tests his unorthodox views on a group of executives at A.T. & T. As if by magic, they lose weight. Incredibly, he has come up with a diet that "produces steady weight loss" while setting "no limit on the amount of food you can eat." In 1972, inspired by his vision, he puts pen to paper. The result is "Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution," one of the fifty best-selling books of all time. In the early nineties, he publishes "Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution," which sells more than three million copies and is on the Times best-seller list for almost all of 1997. More than two decades of scientific research into health and nutrition have elapsed in the interim, but Atkins’ message has remained the same. Carbohydrates are bad. Everything else is good. Eat the hamburger, hold the bun. Eat the steak, hold the French fries. Here is the list of ingredients for one of his breakfast "weight loss" recommendations: scrambled eggs for six. Keep in mind that Atkins is probably the most influential diet doctor in the world.

12 link sausages (be sure they contain no sugar)
1 3-ounce package cream cheese
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup cream
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 teaspoons parsley
8 eggs, beaten

Atkins’ Patent Claim centers on the magical weight-loss properties of something called "ketosis." When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts them into glycogen and stores them for ready use. If you are deprived of carbohydrates, however, your body has to turn to its own stores of fat and muscle for energy. Among the intermediate metabolic products of this fat breakdown are ketones, and when you produce lots of ketones, you’re in ketosis. Since an accumulation of these chemicals swiftly becomes toxic, your body works very hard to get rid of them, either through the kidneys, as urine, or through the lungs, by exhaling, so people in ketosis commonly spend a lot of time in the bathroom and have breath that smells like rotten apples. Ketosis can also raise the risk of bone fracture and cardiac arrhythmia and can result in light-headedness, nausea, and the loss of nutrients like potassium and sodium. There is no doubt that you can lose weight while you’re in ketosis. Between all that protein and those trips to the bathroom, you’ll quickly become dehydrated and drop several pounds just through water loss. The nausea will probably curb your appetite. And if you do what Atkins says, and suddenly cut out virtually all carbohydrates, it will take a little while for your body to compensate for all those lost calories by demanding extra protein and fat. The weight loss isn’t permanent, though. After a few weeks your body adjusts, and the weight–and your appetite–comes back.

For Atkins, however, ketosis is as "delightful as sex and sunshine," which is why he wants dieters to cut out carbohydrates almost entirely. (To avoid bad breath he recommends carrying chlorophyll tablets and purse-size aerosol breath fresheners at all times; to avoid other complications, he recommends regular blood tests.) Somehow, he has convinced himself that his kind of ketosis is different from the bad kind of ketosis, and that his ketosis can actually lead to permanent weight loss. Why he thinks this, however, is a little unclear. In "Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution" he thought that the key was in the many trips to the bathroom:"Hundreds of calories are sneaked out of your body every day in the form of ketones and a host of other incompletely broken down molecules of fat. You are disposing of these calories not by work or violent exercise–but just by breathing and allowing your kidneys to function. All this is achieved merely by cutting out your carbohydrates." Unfortunately, the year after that original edition of Atkins’ book came out, the American Medical Association published a devastating critique of this theory, pointing out, among other things, that ketone losses in the urine and the breath rarely exceed a hundred calories a day–a quantity, the A.M.A. pointed out, "that could not possibly account for the dramatic results claimed for such diets." In "Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution," not surprisingly, he’s become rather vague on the subject, mysteriously invoking something he calls Fat Mobilizing Substance. Last year, when I interviewed him, he offered a new hypothesis: that ketosis takes more energy than conventional food metabolism does, and that it is "a much less efficient pathway to burn up your calories via stored fat than it is via glucose." But he didn’t want to be pinned down. "Nobody has really been able to work out that mechanism as well as I would have liked,"he conceded.

Atkins is a big, white-haired man in his late sixties, well over six feet, with a barrel chest and a gruff, hard-edged voice. On the day we met, he was wearing a high-lapelled, four-button black suit. Given a holster and a six-shooter, he could have passed for the sheriff in a spaghetti western. He is an intimidating figure, his manner brusque and impatient. He gives the impression that he doesn’t like having to explain his theories, that he finds the details tedious and unnecessary. Given the Photocopier Effect, of course, he is quite right. The appearance of an explanation is more important than the explanation itself. But Atkins seems to take this principle farther than anyone else.

For example, in an attempt to convince his readers that eating pork chops, steaks, duck, and rack of lamb in abundance is good for them, Atkins points out that primitive Eskimo cultures had virtually no heart disease, despite a high-fat diet of fish and seal meat. But one obvious explanation for the Eskimo paradox is that cold-water fish and seal meat are rich in n-3 fatty acids–the "good" kind of fat. Red meat, on the other hand, is rich in saturated fat–the "bad" kind of fat. That dietary fats come in different forms, some of which are particularly bad for you and some of which are not, is the kind of basic fact that seventh graders are taught in Introduction to Nutrition. Atkins has a whole chapter on dietary fat in "New Diet Revolution" and doesn’t make the distinction once. All diet-book authors profit from the Photocopier Effect. Atkins lives it.

I watched Atkins recently as he conducted his daily one- hour radio show on New York’s WEVD. We were in a Manhattan town house in the East Fifties, where he has his headquarters, in a sleek, modernist office filled with leather furniture and soapstone sculpture. He sat behind his desk–John Wayne in headphones–as his producer perched in front of him. It was a bravura performance. He spoke quickly and easily, glancing at his notes only briefly, and then deftly gave counsel to listeners around the region.

The first call came from George, on his car phone. George told Atkins his ratio of triglycerides to cholesterol. It wasn’t good. George was a very unhealthy man. "You’re in big trouble," Atkins said. "You have to change your diet. What do you generally eat? What’s your breakfast?"

"I’ve stopped taking junk foods," George says. "I don’t eat eggs. I don’t eat bacon."

"Then that’s– See there." Atkins’ voice rose in exasperation. "What do you have for breakfast?"

"I have skim milk, cereal, with banana."

"That’s three carbs!" Atkins couldn’t believe that in this day and age people were still consuming fruit and skim milk. "That’s how you are getting into trouble!… What you need to do, George, seriously, is get ahold of’New Diet Revolution’ and just read what it says."

Atkins took another call. This time, it was from Robert, forty-one years old, three hundred pounds, and possessed of a formidable Brooklyn accent. He was desperate to lose weight–up on a ledge and wanting Atkins to talk him down. "I really don’t know anything about dieting," he said. "I’m getting a little discouraged."

"It’s really very easy," Atkins told him, switching artfully to the Socratic method. "Do you like meat?"

"Yes."

"Could you eat a steak?"

"Yes."

"All by itself, without any French fries?"

"Yes."

"And let’s say we threw in a salad, but you couldn’t have any bread or anything else."

"Yeah, I could do that."

"Well, if you could go through life like that…. Do you like eggs in the morning? Or a cheese omelette?"

"Yes,"Robert said, his voice almost giddy with relief. He called expecting a life sentence of rice cakes. Now he was being sent forth to eat cheeseburgers. "Yes, I do!"

"If you just eat that way," Atkins told him, "you’ll have eighty pounds off in six months."

When I first arrived at Atkins’ headquarters, two members of his staff took me on a quick tour of the facility, a vast medical center, where Atkins administers concoctions of his own creation to people suffering from a variety of disorders. Starting from the fifth floor, we went down to the third, and then from the third to the second, taking the elevator each time. It’s a small point, but it did strike me as odd that I should be in the headquarters of the world’s most popular weight-loss expert and be taking the elevator one floor at a time. After watching Atkins’ show, I was escorted out by his public-relations assistant. We were on the second floor. He pressed the elevator button, down. "Why don’t we take the stairs?" I asked. It was just a suggestion. He looked at me and then at the series of closed doors along the corridor. Tentatively, he opened the second. "I think this is it," he said, and we headed down, first one flight and then another. At the base of the steps was a door. The P.R. man, a slender fellow in a beautiful Italian suit, peered through it: for the moment, he was utterly lost. We were in the basement. It seemed as if nobody had gone down those stairs in a long time.

4.

Why are the Pima so fat? The answer that diet books would give is that the Pima don’t eat as well as they used to. But that’s what is ultimately wrong with diet books. They talk as if food were the only cause of obesity and its only solution, and we know, from just looking at the Pima, that things are not that simple. The diet of the Pima is bad, but no worse than anyone else’s diet.

Exercise is also clearly part of the explanation for why obesity has become epidemic in recent years. Half as many Americans walk to work today as did twenty years ago. Over the same period, the number of calories burned by the average American every day has dropped by about two hundred and fifty. But this doesn’t explain why obesity has hit the Pima so hard, either, since they don’t seem to be any less active than the rest of us.

The answer, of course, is that there is something beyond diet and exercise that influences obesity–that can make the consequences of a bad diet or of a lack of exercise much worse than they otherwise would be–and this is genetic inheritance. Claude Bouchard, a professor of social and preventive medicine at Laval University, in Quebec City, and one of the world’s leading obesity specialists, estimates that we human beings probably carry several dozen genes that are directly related to our weight. "Some affect appetite, some affect satiety. Some affect metabolic rate, some affect the partitioning of excess energy in fat or lean tissue," he told me. "There are also reasons to believe that there are genes affecting physical-activity level." Bouchard did a study not long ago in which he took a group of men of similar height, weight, and life style and overfed them by a thousand calories a day, six days a week, for a hundred days. The average weight gain in the group was eighteen pounds. But the range was from nine to twenty-six pounds. Clearly, the men who gained just nine pounds were the ones whose genes had given them the fastest possible metabolism–the ones who burn the most calories in daily living and are the least efficient at storing fat. These are people who have the easiest time staying thin. The men at the other end of the scale are closer to the Pima in physiology. Their obesity genes thriftily stored away as much of the thousand extra calories a day as possible.

One of the key roles for genes appears to be in determining what obesity researchers refer to as setpoints. In the classic experiment in the field, researchers took a group of rats and made a series of lesions in the base of each rat’s brain. As a result, the rats began overeating and ended up much more obese than normal rats. The first conclusion is plain: there is a kind of thermostat in the brain that governs appetite and weight, and if you change the setting on that thermostat appetite and weight will change accordingly. With that finding in mind, the researchers took a second step. They took those same brain-damaged rats and put them on a diet, severely limiting the amount of food they could eat. What happened? The rats didn’t lose weight. In fact, after some initial fluctuations, they ended up at exactly the same weight as before. Only, this time, being unable to attain their new thermostat setting by eating, they reached it by becoming less active–by burning less energy.

Two years ago, a group at Rockefeller University in New York published a landmark study essentially duplicating in human beings what had been done years ago in rats. They found that if you lose weight your body responds by starting to conserve energy: your metabolism slows down; your muscles seem to work more efficiently, burning fewer calories to do the same work. "Let’s say you have two people, side by side, and these people have exactly the same body composition," Jules Hirsch, a member of the Rockefeller team, says. "They both weigh a hundred and thirty pounds. But there is one difference–the first person maintains his weight effortlessly, while the second person, who used to weigh two hundred pounds, is trying to maintain a lower weight. The second will need fifteen per cent fewer calories per day to do his work. He needs less oxygen and will burn less energy." The body of the second person is backpedalling furiously in response to all that lost weight. It is doing everything it can to gain it back. In response to weight gain, by contrast, the Rockefeller team found that the body speeds up metabolism and burns more calories during exercise. It tries to lose that extra weight. Human beings, like rats, seem to have a predetermined setpoint, a weight that their body will go to great lengths to maintain.

One key player in this regulatory system may be a chemical called leptin–or, as it is sometimes known, Ob protein–whose discovery four years ago, by Jeff Friedman, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Rockefeller University, prompted a flurry of headlines. In lab animals, leptin tells the brain to cut back on appetite, to speed up metabolism, and to burn stored fat. The theory is that the same mechanism may work in human beings. If you start to overeat, your fat cells will produce more leptin, so your body will do everything it can to get back to the setpoint. That’s why after gaining a few pounds over the holiday season most of us soon return to our normal weight. But if you eat too little or exercise too much, the theory goes, the opposite happens: leptin levels fall. "This is probably the reason that virtually every weight-loss program known to man fails," José F. Caro, vice-president of endocrine research and clinical investigation at Eli Lilly & Company, told me. "You go to Weight Watchers. You start losing weight. You feel good. But then your fat cells stop producing leptin. Remember, leptin is the hormone that decreases appetite and increases energy expenditure, so just as you are trying to lose weight you lose the hormone that helps you lose weight."

Obviously, our body’s fat thermostat doesn’t keep us at one weight all our adult lives. "There isn’t a single setpoint for a human being or an animal," Thomas Wadden, the director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. "The body will regulate a stable weight but at very different levels, depending on food intake–quality of the diet, high fat versus low fat, high sweet versus low sweet–and depending on the amount of physical activity." It also seems to be a great deal easier to move the setpoint up than to move it down–which, if you think about the Pima, makes perfect sense. In their long history in the desert, those Pima who survived were the ones who were very good at gaining weight during times of plenty–very good, in other words, at overriding the leptin system at the high end. But there would have been no advantage for the ones who were good at losing weight in hard times. The same is probably true for the rest of us, albeit in a less dramatic form. In our evolutionary history, there was advantage in being able to store away whatever calorific windfalls came our way. To understand this interplay between genes and environment, imagine two women, both five feet five. The first might have a setpoint range of a hundred and ten to a hundred and fifty pounds; the second a range of a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and eighty. The difference in the ranges of the two women is determined by their genes. Where they are in that range is determined by their life styles.

Not long after leptin was discovered, researchers began testing obese people for the hormone, to see whether a fat person was fat because his body didn’t produce enough leptin. They found the opposite: fat people had lots of leptin. Some of the researchers thought this meant that the leptin theory was wrong–that leptin didn’t do what it was supposed to do. But some other scientists now think that as people get fatter and fatter, their bodies simply get less and less sensitive to leptin. The body still pumps out messages to the brain calling for the metabolism to speed up and the appetite to shrink, but the brain just doesn’t respond to those messages with as much sensitivity as it did. This is probably why it is so much easier to gain weight than it is to lose it. The fatter you get, the less effective your own natural weight-control system becomes.

This doesn’t mean that diets can’t work. In those instances in which dieters have the discipline and the will power to restrict their calories permanently, to get regular and vigorous exercise, and to fight the attempt by their own bodies to maintain their current weight, pounds can be lost. (There is also some evidence that if you can keep weight off for an extensive period–three years, say–a lower setpoint can be established.) Most people, though, don’t have that kind of discipline, and even if they do have it the amount of weight that most dieters can expect to lose on a permanent basis may be limited by their setpoint range. The N.I.H. has a national six-year diabetes-prevention study going on right now, in which it is using a program of intensive, one-on-one counselling, dietary modification, and two and a half hours of exercise weekly to see if it can get overweight volunteers to lose seven per cent of their body weight. If that sounds like a modest goal, it should. "A lot of studies look at ten-per-cent weight loss," said Mary Hoskin, who is coördinating the section of the N.I.H. study involving the Pima. "But if you look at long-term weight loss nobody can maintain ten per cent. That’s why we did seven."

On the other hand, now that we’re coming to understand the biology of weight gain, it is possible to conceive of diet drugs that would actually work. If your body sabotages your diet by lowering leptin levels as you lose weight, why not give extra leptin to people on diets? That’s what a number of drug companies, including Amgen and Eli Lilly, are working on now. They are trying to develop a leptin or leptin-analogue pill that dieters could take to fool their bodies into thinking they’re getting fatter when they’re actually getting thinner. "It is very easy to lose weight," José Caro told me. "The difficult thing is to maintain your weight loss. The thinking is that people fail because their leptin goes down. Here is where replacement therapy with leptin or an Ob-protein analogue might prevent the relapse. It is a subtle and important concept. What it tells you is that leptin is not going to be a magic bullet that allows you to eat whatever you want. You have to initiate the weight loss. Then leptin comes in."

Another idea, which the Hoffmann-La Roche company is exploring, is to focus on the problems obese people have with leptin. Just as Type II diabetics can become resistant to insulin, many overweight people may become resistant to leptin. So why not try to resensitize them? The idea is to find the leptin receptor in the brain and tinker with it to make it work as well in a fat person as it does in a thin person. (Drug companies have actually been pursuing the same strategy with the insulin receptors of diabetics.) Arthur Campfield, who heads the leptin project for Roche, likens the process by which leptin passes the signal about fat to the brain to a firemen’s bucket brigade, where water is passed from hand to hand. "If you have all tall people, you can pass the bucket and it’s very efficient,"he said. "But if two of the people in the chain are small children, then you’re going to spill a lot of water and slow everything down. We want to take a tablet or a capsule that goes into your brain and puts a muscular person in the chain and overcomes that weakness. The elegant solution is to find the place in the chain where we are losing water."

The steps that take place in the brain when it receives the leptin message are known as the Ob pathway, and any number of these steps may lend themselves to pharmaceutical intervention. Using the Ob pathway to fight obesity represents a quantum leap beyond the kinds of diet drugs that have been available so far. Fen-phen, the popular medication removed from the market last year because of serious side effects, was, by comparison, a relatively crude product, which worked indirectly to suppress appetite. Hoffmann-La Roche is working now on a drug called Xenical, a compound that blocks the absorption of dietary fat by the intestine. You can eat fat; you just don’t keep as much of it in your system. The drug is safe and has shown real, if modest, success in helping chronically obese patients lose weight. It will probably be the next big diet drug. But no one is pretending that it has anywhere near the potential of, say, a drug that would resensitize your leptin receptors.

Campfield talks about the next wave of drug therapy as the third leg of a three-legged stool–as the additional element that could finally make diet and exercise an easy and reliable way to lose weight. Wadden speaks of the new drugs as restoring sanity:"What I think will happen is that people on these medications will report that they are less responsive to their environment. They’ll say that they are not as turned on by Wendy’s or McDonald’s. Food in America has become a recreational activity. It is divorced from nutritional need and hunger. We eat to kill time, to stimulate ourselves, to alter our mood. What these drugs may mean is that we’re going to become less susceptible to these messages." In the past thirty years, the natural relationship between our bodies and our environment–a relation that was developed over thousands of years–has fallen out ofbalance. For people who cannot restore that natural balance themselves–who lack the discipline, the wherewithal, or, like the Pima, the genes–drugs could be a way of restoring it for them.

5.

Seven years ago, Peter Bennett, the epidemiologist who first stumbled on the Gila River Pima twenty-eight years earlier, led an N.I.H. expedition to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. Their destination was a a tiny Indian community on the border of Sonora and Chihuahua, seven thousand feet above the desert. "I had known about their existence for at least fifteen years before that," Bennett says. "The problem was that I could never find anyone who knew much about them. In 1991, it just happened that we linked up with an investigator down in Mexico." The journey was a difficult one, but the Mexican government had just built a road linking Sonora and Chihuahua, so the team didn’t have to make the final fifty- or sixty-mile trek on horseback. "They were clearly a group who have got along together for a very long time," Bennett recalls. "My reaction as a stranger going in was: Gee, I think these people are really very friendly, very coöperative. They seem to be interested in what we want to do, and they are willing to stick their arms out and let us take blood samples." He laughed. "Which is always a good sign."

The little town in the Sierra Madre is home to the Mexican Pima, the southern remnants of a tribe that once stretched from present-day Arizona down to central Mexico. Like the Pima of the Gila River reservation, they are farmers, living in small clusters of wood-and-adobe rancherías among the pine trees, cultivating beans, corn, and potatoes in the valleys. On that first trip, the N.I.H. team examined no more than a few dozen Pima. Since then, the team has been back five or six times, staying for as many as ten days at a time. Two hundred and fifty of the mountain Pima have now been studied. They have been measured and weighed, their blood sugar has been checked, and their kidneys and eyes have been examined for signs of damage. Genetic samples have been taken and their metabolism has been monitored. The Mexican Pima, it turns out, eat a diet consisting almost entirely ofbeans, potatoes, and corn tortillas, with chicken perhaps once a month. They take in twenty-two hundred calories a day, which is slightly more than the Pima of Arizona do. But on the average each of them puts in twenty-three hours a week of moderate to hard physical labor, whereas the average Arizona Pima puts in two hours. The Mexican Pima’s rates of diabetes are normal. They are slightly shorter than their American counterparts. In weight, there is no comparison: "I would say they are thin," Bennett says. "Thin. Certainly by American standards."

There are, of course, a hundred reasons not to draw any great lessons from this. Subsistence farming is no way to make a living in America today, nor are twenty-three hours ofhard physical labor feasible in a society where most people sit at a desk from nine to five. And even if the Arizona Pima wanted to return to the land, they couldn’t. It has been more than a hundred years since the Gila River, which used to provide the tribe with fresh fish and with water for growing beans and squash, was diverted upstream for commercial farming. Yet there is value in the example of the Mexican Pima. People who work with the Pima of Arizona say that the biggest problem they have in trying to fight diabetes and obesity is fatalism–a sense among the tribe that nothing can be done, that the way things are is the way things have to be. It is possible to see in the attitudes of Americans toward weight loss the same creeping resignation. As the world grows fatter, and as one best-selling diet scheme after another inevitably fails, the idea that being slender is an attainable–or even an advisable–condition is slowly receding. Last month, when The New England Journal of Medicine published a study suggesting that the mortality costs of obesity had been overstated, the news was greeted with resounding relief, as if we were all somehow off the hook, as if the issue with obesity were only mortality and not the thousand ways in which being fat undermines our quality of life: the heightened risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, gallbladder disease, trauma, gout, blindness, birth defects, and other aches, pains, and physical indignities too numerous to mention. What we are in danger of losing in the epidemic of obesity is not merely our health but our memory of health. Those Indian towns high in the Sierra Madre should remind the people of Sacaton–and all the rest of us as well–that it is still possible, even for a Pima, to be fit.

homethe new yorker archivetop

She’s a grandmother, about it she lives in a big house in Chicago, pilule and you’ve never heard of her. Does she run the world?

1.

Everyone who knows Lois Weisberg has a story about meeting Lois Weisberg, link and although she has done thousands of things in her life and met thousands of people, all the stories are pretty much the same. Lois (everyone calls her Lois) is invariably smoking a cigarette and drinking one of her dozen or so daily cups of coffee. She will have been up until two or three the previous morning, and up again at seven or seven-thirty, because she hardly seems to sleep. In some accounts — particularly if the meeting took place in the winter — she’ll be wearing her white, fur-topped Dr. Zhivago boots with gold tights; but she may have on her platform tennis shoes, or the leather jacket with the little studs on it, or maybe an outrageous piece of costume jewelry, and, always, those huge, rhinestone-studded glasses that make her big eyes look positively enormous. “I have no idea why I asked you to come here, I have no job for you,” Lois told Wendy Willrich when Willrich went to Lois’s office in downtown Chicago a few years ago for an interview. But by the end of the interview Lois did have a job for her, because for Lois meeting someone is never just about meeting someone. If she likes you, she wants to recruit you into one of her grand schemes — to sweep you up into her world. A while back, Lois called up Helen Doria, who was then working for someone on Chicago’s city council, and said, “I don’t have a job for you. Well, I might have a little job. I need someone to come over and help me clean up my office.” By this, she meant that she had a big job for Helen but just didn’t know what it was yet. Helen came, and, sure enough, Lois got her a big job.

Cindy Mitchell first met Lois twenty-three years ago, when she bundled up her baby and ran outside into one of those frigid Chicago winter mornings because some people from the Chicago Park District were about to cart away a beautiful sculpture of Carl von Linné from the park across the street. Lois happened to be driving by at the time, and, seeing all the commotion, she slammed on her brakes, charged out of her car — all five feet of her — and began asking Cindy questions, rat-a-tat-tat: “Who are you? What’s going on here? Why do you care?” By the next morning, Lois had persuaded two Chicago Tribune reporters to interview Cindy and turn the whole incident into a cause célèbre, and she had recruited Cindy to join an organization she’d just started called Friends of the Parks, and then, when she found out that Cindy was a young mother at home who was too new in town to have many friends, she told her, “I’ve found a friend for you. Her name is Helen, and she has a little boy your kid’s age, and you will meet her next week and the two of you will be best friends.” That’s exactly what happened, and, what’s more, Cindy went on to spend ten years as president of Friends of the Park. “Almost everything that I do today and eighty to ninety per cent of my friends came about because of her, because of that one little chance meeting,” Cindy says. “That’s a scary thing. Try to imagine what would have happened if she had come by five minutes earlier.”

It could be argued, of course, that even if Cindy hadn’t met Lois on the street twenty-three years ago she would have met her somewhere else, maybe a year later or two years later or ten years later, or, at least, she would have met someone who knew Lois or would have met someone who knew someone who knew Lois, since Lois Weisberg is connected, by a very short chain, to nearly everyone. Weisberg is now the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for the City of Chicago. But in the course of her seventy-three years she has hung out with actors and musicians and doctors and lawyers and politicians and activists and environmentalists, and once, on a whim, she opened a secondhand-jewelry store named for her granddaughter Becky Fyffe, and every step of the way Lois has made friends and recruited people, and a great many of those people have stayed with her to this day. “When we were doing the jazz festival, it turned out — surprise, surprise — that she was buddies with Dizzy Gillespie,” one of her friends recalls. “This is a woman who cannot carry a tune. She has no sense of rhythm. One night Tony Bennett was in town, and so we hang out with Tony Bennett, hearing about the old days with him and Lois.”

Once, in the mid-fifties, on a whim, Lois took the train to New York to attend the World Science Fiction Convention and there she met a young writer by the name of Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke took a shine to Lois, and next time he was in Chicago he called her up. “He was at a pay phone,” Lois recalls. “He said, ‘Is there anyone in Chicago I should meet?’ I told him to come over to my house.” Lois has a throaty voice, baked hard by half a century of nicotine, and she pauses between sentences to give herself the opportunity for a quick puff. Even when she’s not smoking, she pauses anyway, as if to keep in practice. “I called Bob Hughes, one of the people who wrote for my paper.” Pause. “I said, ‘Do you know anyone in Chicago interested in talking to Arthur Clarke?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Isaac Asimov is in town. And this guy Robert, Robert…Robert Heinlein.’ So they all came over and sat in my study.” Pause. “Then they called over to me and they said, ‘Lois’ — I can’t remember the word they used. They had some word for me. It was something about how I was the kind of person who brings people together.”

This is in some ways the archetypal Lois Weisberg story. First, she reaches out to somebody — somebody outside her world. (At the time, she was running a drama troupe, whereas Arthur C. Clarke wrote science fiction.) Equally important, that person responds to her. Then there’s the fact that when Arthur Clarke came to Chicago and wanted to meet someone Lois came up with Isaac Asimov. She says it was a fluke that Asimov was in town. But if it hadn’t been Asimov it would have been someone else. Lois ran a salon out of her house on the North Side in the late nineteen-fifties, and one of the things that people remember about it is that it was always, effortlessly, integrated. Without that salon, blacks would still have socialized with whites on the North Side — though it was rare back then, it happened. But it didn’t happen by accident: it happened because a certain kind of person made it happen. That’s what Asimov and Clarke meant when they said that Lois has this thing — whatever it is — that brings people together.

2.

Lois is a type — a particularly rare and extraordinary type, but a type nonetheless. She’s the type of person who seems to know everybody, and this type can be found in every walk of life. Someone I met at a wedding (actually, the wedding of the daughter of Lois’s neighbors, the Newbergers) told me that if I ever went to Massapequa I should look up a woman named Marsha, because Marsha was the type of person who knew everybody. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the word is that a tailor named Charlie Davidson knows everybody. In Houston, I’m told, there is an attorney named Harry Reasoner who knows everybody. There are probably Lois Weisbergs in Akron and Tucson and Paris and in some little town in the Yukon Territory, up by the Arctic Circle. We’ve all met someone like Lois Weisberg. Yet, although we all know a Lois Weisberg type, we don’t know much about the Lois Weisberg type. Why is it, for example, that these few, select people seem to know everyone and the rest of us don’t? And how important are the people who know everyone? This second question is critical, because once you begin even a cursory examination of the life of someone like Lois Weisberg you start to suspect that he or she may be far more important than we would ever have imagined — that the people who know everyone, in some oblique way, may actually run the world. I don’t mean that they are the sort who head up the Fed or General Motors or Microsoft, but that, in a very down-to-earth, day-to-day way, they make the world work. They spread ideas and information. They connect varied and isolated parts of society. Helen Doria says someone high up in the Chicago government told her that Lois is “the epicenter of the city administration,” which is the right way to put it. Lois is far from being the most important or the most powerful person in Chicago. But if you connect all the dots that constitute the vast apparatus of government and influence and interest groups in the city of Chicago you’ll end up coming back to Lois again and again. Lois is a connector.

Lois, it must be said, did not set out to know everyone. “She doesn’t network for the sake of networking,” says Gary Johnson, who was Lois’s boss years ago, when she was executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers. “I just think she has the confidence that all the people in the world, whether she’s met them or not, are in her Rolodex already, and that all she has to do is figure out how to reach them and she’ll be able to connect with them.”

Nor is Lois charismatic — at least, not in the way that we think of extroverts and public figures as being charismatic. She doesn’t fill a room; eyes don’t swivel toward her as she makes her entrance. Lois has frizzy blond hair, and when she’s thinking — between her coffee and her cigarette — she kneads the hair on the top of her head, so that by the end of a particularly difficult meeting it will be standing almost straight up. “She’s not like the image of the Washington society doyenne,” Gary Johnson says. “You know, one of those people who identify you, take you to lunch, give you the treatment. Her social life is very different. When I bump into her and she says, ‘Oh, we should catch up,’ what she means is that someday I should go with her to her office, and we’d go down to the snack bar and buy a muffin and then sit in her office while she answered the phone. For a real treat, when I worked with her at the Council of Lawyers she would take me to the dining room in the Wieboldt’s department store.” Johnson is an old-school Chicago intellectual who works at a fancy law firm and has a corner office with one of those Midwestern views in which, if you look hard enough, you can almost see Nebraska, and the memory of those lunches at Wieboldt’s seems to fill him with delight. “Now, you’ve got to understand that the Wieboldt’s department store — which doesn’t exist anymore — was a notch below Field’s, where the suburban society ladies have their lunch, and it’s also a notch below Carson’s,” he says. “There was a kind of room there where people who bring their own string bags to go shopping would have a quick lunch. This was her idea of a lunch out. We’re not talking Pamela Harriman here.”

In the mid-eighties, Lois quit a job she’d had for four years, as director of special events in the administration of Harold Washington, and somehow hooked up with a group of itinerant peddlers who ran the city’s flea markets. “There was this lady who sold jewelry,” Lois said. “She was a person out of Dickens. She was bedraggled. She had a houseful of cats. But she knew how to buy jewelry, and I wanted her to teach me. I met her whole circle of friends, all these old gay men who had antique stores. Once a week, we would go to the Salvation Army.” Lois was arguably the most important civic activist in the city. Her husband was a judge. She lived in a huge house in one of Chicago’s nicest neighborhoods. Yet somehow she managed to be plausible as a flea-market peddler to a bunch of flea-market peddlers, the same way she managed to be plausible as a music lover to a musician like Tony Bennett. It doesn’t matter who she’s with or what she’s doing; she always manages to be in the thick of things. “There was a woman I knew — Sandra — who had a kid in school with my son Joseph,” Lois told me. Lois has a habit of telling stories that appear to be tangential and digressive but, on reflection, turn out to be parables of a sort. “She helped all these Asians living uptown. One day, she came over here and said there was this young Chinese man who wanted to meet an American family and learn to speak English better and was willing to cook for his room and board. Well, I’m always eager to have a cook, and especially a Chinese cook, because my family loves Chinese food. They could eat it seven days a week. So Sandra brought this man over here. His name was Shi Young. He was a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago.” Shi Young lived with Lois and her family for two years, and during that time Chicago was in the midst of political turmoil. Harold Washington, who would later become the first black mayor of the city, was attempting to unseat the remains of the Daley political machine, and Lois’s house, naturally, was the site of late-night, top-secret strategy sessions for the pro- Washington reformers of Chicago’s North Side. “We’d have all these important people here, and Shi Young would come down and listen,” Lois recalls. “I didn’t think anything of it.” But Shi Young, as it turns out, was going back up to his room and writing up what he heard for the China Youth Daily, a newspaper with a circulation in the tens of millions. Somehow, in the improbable way that the world works, a portal was opened up, connecting Chicago’s North Side reform politics and the readers of the China Youth Daily, and that link was Lois’s living room. You could argue that this was just a fluke — just as it was a fluke that Isaac Asimov was in town and that Lois happened to be driving by when Cindy Mitchell came running out of her apartment. But sooner or later all those flukes begin to form a pattern.

3.

In the late nineteen-sixties, a Harvard social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment in an effort to find an answer to what is known as the small-world problem, though it could also be called the Lois Weisberg problem. It is this: How are human beings connected? Do we belong to separate worlds, operating simultaneously but autonomously, so that the links between any two people, anywhere in the world, are few and distant? Or are we all bound up together in a grand, interlocking web? Milgram’s idea was to test this question with a chain letter. For one experiment, he got the names of a hundred and sixty people, at random, who lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and he mailed each of them a packet. In the packet was the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts. Each person was instructed to write his name on a roster in the packet and send it on to a friend or acquaintance who he thought would get it closer to the stockbroker. The idea was that when the letters finally arrived at the stockbroker’s house Milgram could look at the roster of names and establish how closely connected someone chosen at random from one part of the country was to another person chosen at random in another part. Milgram found that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in five or six steps. It is from this experiment that we got the concept of six degrees of separation.

That phrase is now so familiar that it is easy to lose sight of how surprising Milgram’s finding was. Most of us don’t have particularly diverse groups of friends. In one well-known study, two psychologists asked people living in the Dyckman public-housing project, in uptown Manhattan, about their closest friend in the project; almost ninety per cent of the friends lived in the same building, and half lived on the same floor. In general, people chose friends of similar age and race. But if the friend lived down the hall, both age and race became a lot less important. Proximity overpowered similarity. Another study, involving students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else he’ll say that it is because they share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the pairs of students on their attitudes you’ll find out that this is an illusion, and that what friends really tend to have in common are activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, not necessarily with the people we resemble. We don’t seek out friends; we simply associate with the people who occupy the same physical places that we do: People in Omaha are not, as a rule, friends with people who live in Sharon, Massachusetts. So how did the packets get halfway across the country in just five steps? “When I asked an intelligent friend of mine how many steps he thought it would take, he estimated that it would require 100 intermediate persons or more to move from Nebraska to Sharon,” Milgram wrote. “Many people make somewhat similar estimates, and are surprised to learn that only five intermediaries will — on the average — suffice. Somehow it does not accord with intuition.”

The explanation is that in the six degrees of separation not all degrees are equal. When Milgram analyzed his experiments, for example, he found that many of the chains reaching to Sharon followed the same asymmetrical pattern. Twenty-four packets reached the stockbroker at his home, in Sharon, and sixteen of those were given to him by the same person, a clothing merchant whom Milgram calls Mr. Jacobs. The rest of the packets were sent to the stockbroker at his office, and of those the majority came through just two men, whom Milgram calls Mr. Brown and Mr. Jones. In all, half of the responses that got to the stockbroker were delivered to him by these three people. Think of it. Dozens of people, chosen at random from a large Midwestern city, sent out packets independently. Some went through college acquaintances. Some sent their packets to relatives. Some sent them to old workmates. Yet in the end, when all those idiosyncratic chains were completed, half of the packets passed through the hands of Jacobs, Jones, and Brown. Six degrees of separation doesn’t simply mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those few.

There’s an easy way to explore this idea. Suppose that you made a list of forty people whom you would call your circle of friends (not including family members or co-workers), and you worked backward from each person until you could identify who was ultimately responsible for setting in motion the series of connections which led to that friendship. Imet my oldest friend, Bruce, for example, in first grade, so I’m the responsible party. That’s easy. I met my college friend Nigel because he lived down the hall in the dormitory from Tom, whom I had met because in my freshman year he invited me to play touch football. Tom, then, is responsible for Nigel. Once you’ve made all the connections, you will find the same names coming up again and again. I met my friend Amy when she and her friend Katie came to a restaurant where I was having dinner. I know Katie because she is best friends with my friend Larissa, whom I know because I was told to look her up by a mutual friend, Mike A., whom I know because he went to school with another friend of mine, Mike H., who used to work at a political weekly with my friend Jacob. No Jacob, no Amy. Similarly, I met my friend Sarah S. at a birthday party a year ago because she was there with a writer named David, who was there at the invitation of his agent, Tina, whom I met through my friend Leslie, whom I know because her sister Nina is best friends with my friend Ann, whom I met through my old roommate Maura, who was my roommate because she had worked with a writer named Sarah L., who was a college friend of my friend Jacob. No Jacob, no Sarah S. In fact, when I go down my list of forty friends, thirty of them, in one way or another, lead back to Jacob. My social circle is really not a circle but an inverted pyramid. And the capstone of the pyramid is a single person, Jacob, who is responsible for an overwhelming majority of my relationships. Jacob’s full name, incidentally, is Jacob Weisberg. He is Lois Weisberg’s son.

This isn’t to say, though, that Jacob is just like Lois. Jacob may be the capstone of my pyramid, but Lois is the capstone of lots and lots of people’s pyramids, and that makes her social role different. In Milgram’s experiment, Mr. Jacobs the clothing merchant was the person to go through to get to the stockbroker. Lois is the kind of person you would use to get to the stockbrokers of Sharon and also the cabaret singers of Sharon and the barkeeps of Sharon and the guy who gave up a thriving career in orthodontics to open a small vegetarian falafel hut.

4.

There is another way to look at this question, and that’s through the popular parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea behind the game is to try to link in fewer than six steps any actor or actress, through the movies they’ve been in, to the actor Kevin Bacon. For example, O. J. Simpson was in “Naked Gun” with Priscilla Presley, who was in “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” with Gilbert Gottfried, who was in “Beverly Hills Cop II” with Paul Reiser, who was in “Diner” with Kevin Bacon. That’s four steps. Mary Pickford was in “Screen Snapshots” with Clark Gable, who was in “Combat America” with Tony Romano, who, thirty-five years later, was in “Starting Over” with Bacon. That’s three steps. What’s funny about the game is that Bacon, although he is a fairly young actor, has already been in so many movies with so many people that there is almost no one to whom he can’t be easily connected. Recently, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia by the name of Brett Tjaden actually sat down and figured out what the average degree of connectedness is for the quarter million or so actors and actresses listed in the Internet Movie Database: he came up with 2.8312 steps. That sounds impressive, except that Tjaden then went back and performed an even more heroic calculation, figuring out what the average degree of connectedness was for everyone in the database. Bacon, it turns out, ranks only six hundred and sixty- eighth. Martin Sheen, by contrast, can be connected, on average, to every other actor, in 2.63681 steps, which puts him almost six hundred and fifty places higher than Bacon. Elliott Gould can be connected even more quickly, in 2.63601. Among the top fifteen are people like Robert Mitchum, Gene Hackman, Donald Sutherland, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters, and Burgess Meredith.

Why is Kevin Bacon so far behind these actors? Recently, in the journal Nature, the mathematicians Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz published a dazzling theoretical explanation of connectedness, but a simpler way to understand this question is to look at who Bacon is. Obviously, he is a lot younger than the people at the top of the list are and has made fewer movies. But that accounts for only some of the difference. A top-twenty person, like Burgess Meredith, made a hundred and fourteen movies in the course of his career. Gary Cooper, though, starred in about the same number of films and ranks only eight hundred and seventy-eighth, with a 2.85075 score. John Wayne made a hundred and eighty-three movies in his fifty-year career and still ranks only a hundred and sixteenth, at 2.7173. What sets someone like Meredith apart is his range. More than half of John Wayne’s movies were Westerns, and that means he made the same kind of movie with the same kind of actors over and over again. Burgess Meredith, by contrast, was in great movies, like the Oscar-winning “Of Mice and Men” (1939), and in dreadful movies, like “Beware! The Blob” (1972). He was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “The Day of the Locust” and also made TV commercials for Skippy peanut butter. He was in four “Rocky” movies, and also played Don Learo in Godard’s “King Lear.” He was in schlocky made- for-TV movies, in B movies that pretty much went straight to video, and in pictures considered modern classics. He was in forty-two dramas, twenty-two comedies, eight adventure films, seven action films, five sci-fi films, five horror flicks, five Westerns, five documentaries, four crime movies, four thrillers, three war movies, three films noir, two children’s films, two romances, two mysteries, one musical, and one animated film. Burgess Meredith was the kind of actor who was connected to everyone because he managed to move up and down and back and forth among all the different worlds and subcultures that the acting profession has to offer. When we say, then, that Lois Weisberg is the kind of person who “knows everyone,” we mean it in precisely this way. It is not merely that she knows lots of people. It is that she belongs to lots of different worlds.

In the nineteen-fifties, Lois started her drama troupe in Chicago. The daughter of a prominent attorney, she was then in her twenties, living in one of the suburbs north of the city with two small children. In 1956, she decided to stage a festival to mark the centenary of George Bernard Shaw’s birth. She hit up the reclusive billionaire John D. MacArthur for money. (“I go to the Pump Room for lunch. Booth One. There is a man, lurking around a pillar, with a cowboy hat and dirty, dusty boots. It’s him.”) She invited William Saroyan and Norman Thomas to speak on Shaw’s legacy; she put on Shaw plays in theatres around the city; and she got written up in Life. She then began putting out a newspaper devoted to Shaw, which mutated into an underground alternative weekly called the Paper. By then, Lois was living in a big house on Chicago’s near North Side, and on Friday nights people from the Paper gathered there for editorial meetings. William Friedkin, who went on to direct “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” was a regular, and so were the attorney Elmer Gertz (who won parole for Nathan Leopold) and some of the editors from Playboy, which was just up the street. People like Art Farmer and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Lenny Bruce would stop by when they were in town. Bruce actually lived in Lois’s house for a while. “My mother was hysterical about it, especially one day when she rang the doorbell and he answered in a bath towel,” Lois told me. “We had a window on the porch, and he didn’t have a key, so the window was always left open for him. There were a lot of rooms in that house, and a lot of people stayed there and I didn’t know they were there.” Pause. Puff. “I never could stand his jokes. I didn’t really like his act. I couldn’t stand all the words he was using.”

Lois’s first marriage — to a drugstore owner named Leonard Solomon — was breaking up around this time, so she took a job doing public relations for an injury-rehabilitation institute. From there, she went to work for a public-interest law firm called B.P.I., and while she was at B.P.I. she became concerned about the fact that Chicago’s parks were neglected and crumbling, so she gathered together a motley collection of nature lovers, historians, civic activists, and housewives, and founded the lobbying group Friends of the Parks. Then she became alarmed on discovering that a commuter railroad that ran along the south shore of Lake Michigan — from South Bend to Chicago — was about to shut down, so she gathered together a motley collection of railroad enthusiasts and environmentalists and commuters, and founded South Shore Recreation, thereby saving the railroad. Lois loved the railroad buffs. “They were all good friends of mine,” she says. “They all wrote to me. They came from California. They came from everywhere. We had meetings. They were really interesting. I came this close” — and here she held her index finger half an inch above her thumb — “to becoming one of them.” Instead, though, she became the executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, a progressive bar association. Then she ran Congressman Sidney Yates’s reëlection campaign. Then her sister June introduced her to someone who got her the job with Mayor Washington. Then she had her flea-market period. Finally, she went to work for Mayor Daley as Chicago’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs.

If you go through that history and keep count, the number of worlds that Lois has belonged to comes to eight: the actors, the writers, the doctors, the lawyers, the park lovers, the politicians, the railroad buffs, and the flea-market aficionados. When I asked Lois to make her own list, she added musicians and the visual artists and architects and hospitality-industry people whom she works with in her current job. But if you looked harder at Lois’s life you could probably subdivide her experiences into fifteen or twenty worlds. She has the same ability to move among different subcultures and niches that the busiest actors do. Lois is to Chicago what Burgess Meredith is to the movies.

Lois was, in fact, a friend of Burgess Meredith. I learned this by accident, which is the way I learned about most of the strange celebrity details of Lois’s life, since she doesn’t tend to drop names. It was when I was with her at her house one night, a big, rambling affair just off the lakeshore, with room after room filled with odds and ends and old photographs and dusty furniture and weird bric-a- brac, such as a collection of four hundred antique egg cups. She was wearing bluejeans and a flowery-print top and she was smoking Carlton Menthol 100s and cooking pasta and holding forth to her son Joe on the subject of George Bernard Shaw, when she started talking about Burgess Meredith. “He was in Chicago in a play called ‘Teahouse of the August Moon,’ in 1956,” she said, “and he came to see my production of ‘Back to Methuselah,’ and after the play he came up to me and said he was teaching acting classes, and asked would I come and talk to his class about Shaw. Well, I couldn’t say no.” Meredith liked Lois, and when she was running her alternative newspaper he would write letters and send in little doodles, and later she helped him raise money for a play he was doing called “Kicks and Company.” It starred a woman named Nichelle Nichols, who lived at Lois’s house for a while. “Nichelle was a marvellous singer and dancer,” Lois said. “She was the lead. She was also the lady on the first…” Lois was doing so many things at once — chopping and stirring and smoking and eating and talking — that she couldn’t remember the name of the show that made Nichols a star. “What’s that space thing?” She looked toward Joe for help. He started laughing. “Star something,” she said. “‘Star…Star Trek’! Nichelle was Lieutenant Uhura!”

5.

On a sunny morning not long ago, Lois went to a little café just off the Magnificent Mile, in downtown Chicago, to have breakfast with Mayor Daley. Lois drove there in a big black Mercury, a city car. Lois always drives big cars, and, because she is so short and the cars are so big, all that you can see when she drives by is the top of her frizzy blond head and the lighted ember of her cigarette. She was wearing a short skirt and a white vest and was carrying a white cloth shopping bag. Just what was in the bag was unclear, since Lois doesn’t have a traditional relationship to the trappings of bureaucracy. Her office, for example, does not have a desk in it, only a sofa and chairs and a coffee table. At meetings, she sits at the head of a conference table in the adjoining room, and, as often as not, has nothing in front of her except a lighter, a pack of Carltons, a cup of coffee, and an octagonal orange ceramic ashtray, which she moves a few inches forward or a few inches back when she’s making an important point, or moves a few inches to the side when she is laughing at something really funny and feels the need to put her head down on the table.

Breakfast was at one of the city’s tourist centers. The Mayor was there in a blue suit, and he had two city officials by his side and a very serious and thoughtful expression on his face. Next to him was a Chicago developer named Al Friedman, a tall and slender and very handsome man who is the chairman of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Lois sat across from them, and they all drank coffee and ate muffins and batted ideas back and forth in the way that people do when they know each other very well. It was a “power breakfast,” although if you went around the table you’d find that the word “power” meant something very different to everyone there. Al Friedman is a rich developer. The Mayor, of course, is the administrative leader of one of the largest cities in the country. When we talk about power, this is usually what we’re talking about: money and authority. But there is a third kind of power as well — the kind Lois has — which is a little less straightforward. It’s social power.

At the end of the nineteen-eighties, for example, the City of Chicago razed an entire block in the heart of downtown and then sold it to a developer. But before he could build on it the real-estate market crashed. The lot was an eyesore. The Mayor asked for ideas about what to do with it. Lois suggested that they cover the block with tents. Then she heard that Keith Haring had come to Chicago in 1989 and worked with Chicago high-school students to create a giant five-hundred-foot-long mural. Lois loved the mural. She began to think. She’d long had a problem with the federal money that Chicago got every year to pay for summer jobs for disadvantaged kids. She didn’t think it helped any kid to be put to work picking up garbage. So why not pay the kids to do arts projects like the Haring mural, and put the whole program in the tents? She called the program Gallery 37, after the number of the block. She enlisted the help of the Mayor’s wife, Maggie Daley, whose energy and clout were essential in order to make the program a success. Lois hired artists to teach the kids. She realized, though, that the federal money was available only for poor kids, and, Lois says, “I don’t believe poor kids can advance in any way by being lumped together with other poor kids.” So Lois raised money privately to bring in middle-income kids, to mix with the poor kids and be put in the tents with the artists. She started small, with two hundred and sixty “apprentices” the first year, 1990. This year, there were more than three thousand. The kids study sculpture, painting, drawing, poetry, theatre, graphic design, dance, textile design, jewelry-making, and music. Lois opened a store downtown, where students’ works of art are sold. She has since bought two buildings to house the project full time. She got the Parks Department to run Gallery 37 in neighborhoods around the city, and the Board of Education to let them run it as an after- school program in public high schools. It has been copied all around the world. Last year, it was given the Innovations in American Government Award by the Ford Foundation and the Harvard school of government.

Gallery 37 is at once a jobs program, an arts program, a real- estate fix, a schools program, and a parks program. It involves federal money and city money and private money, stores and buildings and tents, Maggie Daley and Keith Haring, poor kids and middle-class kids. It is everything, all at once — a jumble of ideas and people and places which Lois somehow managed to make sense of. The ability to assemble all these disparate parts is, as should be obvious, a completely different kind of power from the sort held by the Mayor and Al Friedman. The Mayor has key allies on the city council or in the statehouse. Al Friedman can do what he does because, no doubt, he has a banker who believes in him, or maybe a lawyer whom he trusts to negotiate the twists and turns of the zoning process. Their influence is based on close relationships. But when Lois calls someone to help her put together one of her projects, chances are she’s not calling someone she knows particularly well. Her influence suggests something a little surprising — that there is also power in relationships that are not close at all.

6.

The sociologist Mark Granovetter examined this question in his classic 1974 book “Getting a Job.” Granovetter interviewed several hundred professional and technical workers from the Boston suburb of Newton, asking them in detail about their employment history. He found that almost fifty-six per cent of those he talked to had found their jobs through a personal connection, about twenty per cent had used formal means (advertisements, headhunters), and another twenty per cent had applied directly. This much is not surprising: the best way to get in the door is through a personal contact. But the majority of those personal connections, Granovetter found, did not involve close friends. They were what he called “weak ties.” Of those who used a contact to find a job, for example, only 16.7 per cent saw that contact “often,” as they would have if the contact had been a good friend; 55.6 per cent saw their contact only “occasionally”; and 27.8 per cent saw the contact “rarely.” People were getting their jobs not through their friends but through acquaintances.

Granovetter argues that when it comes to finding out about new jobs — or, for that matter, gaining new information, or looking for new ideas — weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties. Your friends, after all, occupy the same world that you do. They work with you, or live near you, and go to the same churches, schools, or parties. How much, then, do they know that you don’t know? Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something that you don’t. To capture this apparent paradox, Granovetter coined a marvellous phrase: “the strength of weak ties.” The most important people in your life are, in certain critical realms, the people who aren’t closest to you, and the more people you know who aren’t close to you the stronger your position becomes.

Granovetter then looked at what he called “chain lengths” — that is, the number of people who had to pass along the news about your job before it got to you. A chain length of zero means that you learned about your job from the person offering it. A chain length of one means that you heard about the job from someone who had heard about the job from the employer. The people who got their jobs from a zero chain were the most satisfied, made the most money, and were unemployed for the shortest amount of time between jobs. People with a chain of one stood second in the amount of money they made, in their satisfaction with their jobs, and in the speed with which they got their jobs. People with a chain of two stood third in all three categories, and so on. If you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has lots of acquaintances, in other words, you have a leg up. If you know someone who knows someone who has lots of acquaintances, your chances are that much better. But if you know someone who has lots of acquaintances — if you know someone like Lois — you are still more fortunate, because suddenly you are just one step away from musicians and actors and doctors and lawyers and park lovers and politicians and railroad buffs and flea-market aficionados and all the other weak ties that make Lois so strong.

This sounds like a reformulation of the old saw that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s much more radical than that, though. The old idea was that people got ahead by being friends with rich and powerful people — which is true, in a limited way, but as a practical lesson in how the world works is all but useless. You can expect that Bill Gates’s godson is going to get into Harvard and have a fabulous job waiting for him when he gets out. And, of course, if you play poker with the Mayor and Al Friedman it is going to be a little easier to get ahead in Chicago. But how many godsons can Bill Gates have? And how many people can fit around a poker table? This is why affirmative action seems pointless to so many people: It appears to promise something — entry to the old-boy network — that it can’t possibly deliver. The old-boy network is always going to be just for the old boys.

Granovetter, by contrast, argues that what matters in getting ahead is not the quality of your relationships but the quantity — not how close you are to those you know but, paradoxically, how many people you know whom you aren’t particularly close to. What he’s saying is that the key person at that breakfast in downtown Chicago is not the Mayor or Al Friedman but Lois Weisberg, because Lois is the kind of person who it really is possible for most of us to know. If you think about the world in this way, the whole project of affirmative action suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. Minority-admissions programs work not because they give black students access to the same superior educational resources as white students, or access to the same rich cultural environment as white students, or any other formal or grandiose vision of engineered equality. They work by giving black students access to the same white students as white students — by allowing them to make acquaintances outside their own social world and so shortening the chain lengths between them and the best jobs.

This idea should also change the way we think about helping the poor. When we’re faced with an eighteen-year-old high-school dropout whose only career option is making five dollars and fifty cents an hour in front of the deep fryer at Burger King, we usually talk about the importance of rebuilding inner-city communities, attracting new jobs to depressed areas, and re-investing in neglected neighborhoods. We want to give that kid the option of another, better-paying job, right down the street. But does that really solve his problem? Surely what that eighteen-year-old really needs is not another marginal inducement to stay in his neighborbood but a way to get out of his neighborhood altogether. He needs a school system that provides him with the skills to compete for jobs with middle-class kids. He needs a mass-transit system to take him to the suburbs, where the real employment opportunities are. And, most of all, he needs to know someone who knows someone who knows where all those good jobs are. If the world really is held together by people like Lois Weisberg, in other words, how poor you are can be defined quite simply as how far you have to go to get to someone like her. Wendy Willrich and Helen Doria and all the countless other people in Lois’s circle needed to make only one phone call. They are well-off. The dropout wouldn’t even know where to start. That’s why he’s poor. Poverty is not deprivation. It is isolation.

7.

I once met a man named Roger Horchow. If you ever go to Dallas and ask around about who is the kind of person who might know everyone, chances are you will be given his name. Roger is slender and composed. He talks slowly, with a slight Texas drawl. He has a kind of wry, ironic charm that is utterly winning. If you sat next to him on a plane ride across the Atlantic, he would start talking as the plane taxied to the runway, you would be laughing by the time the seat-belt sign was turned off, and when you landed at the other end you’d wonder where the time had gone.

I met Roger through his daughter Sally, whose sister Lizzie went to high school in Dallas with my friend Sara M., whom I know because she used to work with Jacob Weisberg. (No Jacob, no Roger.) Roger spent at least part of his childhood in Ohio, which is where Lois’s second husband, Bernie Weisberg, grew up, so I asked Roger if he knew Bernie. It would have been a little too apt if he did — that would have made it all something out of “The X-Files” — but instead of just answering, “Sorry, I don’t,” which is what most of us would have done, he paused for a long time, as if to flip through the “W”s in his head, and then said, “No, but I’m sure if I made two phone calls…”

Roger has a very good memory for names. One time, he says, someone was trying to talk him into investing his money in a business venture in Spain, and when he asked the names of the other investors he recognized one of them as the same man with whom one of his ex-girlfriends had had a fling during her junior year abroad, fifty years before. Roger sends people cards on their birthdays: he has a computerized Rolodex with sixteen hundred names on it. When I met him, I became convinced that these techniques were central to the fact that he knew everyone — that knowing everyone was a kind of skill. Horchow is the founder of the Horchow Collection, the first high-end mail-order catalogue, and I kept asking him how all the connections in his life had helped him in the business world, because I thought that this particular skill had to have been cultivated for a reason. But the question seemed to puzzle him. He didn’t think of his people collection as a business strategy, or even as something deliberate. He just thought of it as something he did — as who he was. One time, Horchow said, a close friend from childhood suddenly resurfaced. “He saw my catalogue and knew it had to be me, and when he was out here he showed up on my doorstep. I hadn’t seen him since I was seven. We had zero in common. It was wonderful.” The juxtaposition of those last two sentences was not ironic; he meant it.

In the book “The Language Instinct,” the psychologist Steven Pinker argues against the idea that language is a cultural artifact — something that we learn “the way we learn to tell time.” Rather, he says, it is innate. Language develops “spontaneously,” he writes, “without conscious effort or formal instruction,” and “is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic…. People know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.” The secret to Roger Horchow and Lois Weisberg is, I think, that they have a kind of social equivalent of that instinct — an innate and spontaneous and entirely involuntary affinity for people. They know everyone because — in some deep and less than conscious way — they can’t help it.

8.

Once, in the very early nineteen-sixties, after Lois had broken up with her first husband, she went to a party for Ralph Ellison, who was then teaching at the University of Chicago. There she spotted a young lawyer from the South Side named Bernie Weisberg. Lois liked him. He didn’t notice her, though, so she decided to write a profile of him for the Hyde Park Herald. It ran with a huge headline. Bernie still didn’t call. “I had to figure out how I was going to get to meet him again, so I remembered that he was standing in line at the reception with Ralph Ellison,” Lois says. “So I called up Ralph Ellison” — whom she had never met — “and said, ‘It’s so wonderful that you are in Chicago. You really should meet some people on the North Side. Would it be O.K. if I have a party for you?'” He said yes, and Lois sent out a hundred invitations, including one to Bernie. He came. He saw Dizzy Gillespie in the kitchen and Ralph Ellison in the living room. He was impressed. He asked Lois to go with him to see Lenny Bruce. Lois was mortified; she didn’t want this nice Jewish lawyer from the South Side to know that she knew Lenny Bruce, who was, after all, a drug addict. “I couldn’t get out of it,” she said. “They sat us down at a table right at the front, and Lenny keeps coming over to the edge of the stage and saying” — here Lois dropped her voice down very low — “‘Hello, Lois.’I was sitting there like this.” Lois put her hands on either side of her face. “Finally I said to Bernie, ‘There are some things I should tell you about. Lenny Bruce is a friend of mine. He’s staying at my house. The second thing is I’m defending a murderer.'”(But that’s another story.) Lois and Bernie were married a year later.

The lesson of this story isn’t obvious until you diagram it culturally: Lois got to Bernie through her connections with Ralph Ellison and Lenny Bruce, one of whom she didn’t know (although later, naturally, they became great friends) and one of whom she was afraid to say that she knew, and neither of whom, it is safe to speculate, had ever really been connected with each other before. It seems like an absurdly roundabout way to meet someone. Here was a thirtyish liberal Jewish intellectual from the North Side of Chicago trying to meet a thirtyish liberal Jewish intellectual from the South Side of Chicago, and to get there she charted a cross-cultural social course through a black literary lion and an avant-garde standup comic. Yet that’s a roundabout journey only if you perceive the worlds of Lenny Bruce and Ralph Ellison and Bernie Weisberg to be impossibly isolated. If you don’t — if, like Lois, you see them all as three points of an equilateral triangle — then it makes perfect sense. The social instinct makes everyone seem like part of a whole, and there is something very appealing about this, because it means that people like Lois aren’t bound by the same categories and partitions that defeat the rest of us. This is what the power of the people who know everyone comes down to in the end. It is not — as much as we would like to believe otherwise — something rich and complex, some potent mixture of ambition and energy and smarts and vision and insecurity. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the same lesson they teach in Sunday school. Lois knows lots of people because she likes lots of people. And all those people Lois knows and likes invariably like her, too, because there is nothing more irresistible to a human being than to be unqualifiedly liked by another.

Not long ago, Lois took me to a reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago — a brand-new, Bauhaus-inspired building just north of the Loop. The gallery space was impossibly beautiful — cool, airy, high-ceilinged. The artist on display was Chuck Close. The crowd was sleek and well groomed. Black-clad young waiters carried pesto canapés and glasses of white wine. Lois seemed a bit lost. She can be a little shy sometimes, and at first she stayed on the fringes of the room, standing back, observing. Someone important came over to talk to her. She glanced up uncomfortably. I walked away for a moment to look at the show, and when I came back her little corner had become a crowd. There was her friend from the state legislature. A friend in the Chicago Park District. A friend from her neighborhood. A friend in the consulting business. A friend from Gallery 37. A friend from the local business- development group. And on and on. They were of all ages and all colors, talking and laughing, swirling and turning in a loose circle, and in the middle, nearly hidden by the commotion, was Lois, clutching her white bag, tiny and large-eyed, at that moment the happiest person in the room.
Science and the Perils of a Parable

In the movie “A Civil Action, visit this site ” the families of eight leukemia victims accuse two major corporations of contaminating the drinking water of Woburn, search Massachusetts. John Travolta’s portrayal of the lawyer who argues their case has been justifiably praised by critics for its subtlety: he is neither a villain nor a hero but an uncomfortable and ambiguous combination of the two–a man of equal parts greed and idealism who is in the grip of a powerful obsession. Curiously, though, when it comes to the scientific premise of the story, “A Civil Action” (like Jonathan Harr’s best-seller, on which it is based) permits no ambiguity at all. It is taken as a given that the chemical allegedly dumped, trichloroethylene (TCE), is a human carcinogen– even though, in point of fact, TCE is only a probable human carcinogen: tests have been made on animals, but no human-based data have tied it to cancer. It is also taken as a given that the particular carcinogenic properties of TCE were what resulted in the town’s leukemia outbreak, even though the particular causes and origins of that form of cancer remain mysterious. The best that can be said is that there might be a link between TCE and disease. But the difference between what “might be” and what “is”–which in scientific circles is all the difference in the world–does not appear to amount to much among the rest of us. We know that human character can be complex and ambiguous. But we want science to conform to a special kind of narrative simplicity: to begin from obvious premises and proceed, tidily and expeditiously, to morally satisfying conclusions.

Consider the strange saga of silicone breast implants. Almost seven years ago, the Food and Drug Administration placed a moratorium on most uses of silicone implants, because the devices had been inadequately tested and the agency wanted to give researchers time to gather new data on their safety. Certain that the data would indict implants in the end, personal-injury lawyers rounded up hundreds of thousands of women in a massive class- action suit. By 1994, four manufacturers of implants had been instructed to pay out the largest class-action settlement in history: $4.25 billion. And when that amount proved insufficient for all the plaintiffs, the largest of the defendants–Dow Corning–filed for Chapter 11, offering $3.2 billion last November to settle its part of the suit.

Now, however, we actually have the evidence on implant safety. More than twenty studies have been completed, by institutions ranging from Harvard Medical School to the Mayo Clinic. The governments of Germany, Australia, and Britain have convened scientific panels. The American College of Rheumatology, the American Academy of Neurology, and the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association have published reviews of the evidence, and last month, in a long-awaited decision, an independent scientific panel, appointed by a federal court, released its findings. All of the groups have reached the same conclusion: there is little or no reason to believe that breast implants cause disease of any kind. The author of the toxicological section of the federal court’s panel concluded, “There is no evidence silicone breast implants precipitate novel immune responses or induce systemic inflammation,” and the author of the immunology section of the same report stated, “Women with silicone breast implants do not display a silicone-induced systemic abnormality in the types or functions of cells of the immune system.”

There is some sense now that with the unequivocal of the December report, the tide against implants may finally be turning. But that is small consolation. For almost seven years, at a cost of billions and in the face of some twenty-odd studies to the contrary, the courts and the public clung to a conclusion with no particular merit other than that it sounded as if it might be true. Here, after all, was a group of profit-driven multinationals putting gooey, leaky, largely untested patties of silicone into the chests of a million American women. In the narrative we have imposed on science, that act ought to have consequences, just as the contamination of groundwater by a profit-seeking multinational ought to cause leukemia. Our moral sense said so, and, apparently, that was enough. Of course, if science always made moral sense we would not need scientists. We could staff our laboratories with clergy.

It may be hard to shed a tear for implant manufacturers Dow Corning, even though their shareholders have been royally ransomed for no good reason. Those who sell drugs and medical devices must expect to be held hostage, from time to time, by the irrationalities of the legal system. The women in this country with breast implants do, however, deserve our compassion. They chose cosmetic in order to feel better about themselves. For this, they were first accused of an unnatural vanity and then warned that they had placed themselves in physical peril, and the first charge informed the second until the imagined threat of silicone implants took on the force of moral judgment: they asked for it, these women. They should have been satisfied with what God gave them and stayed home to reread “The Beauty Myth.” Well, they didn’t ask for anything, and what they did with their bodies turns out to have no larger meaning at all. Science, tempting though it is to believe otherwise, is not in the business of punishing the politically retrograde, nor is it a means of serving retribution to the wicked and the irresponsible. In the end, one may find that the true health toll of breast implants was the seven years of needless anxiety suffered by implant wearers at the hands of all those lawyers and health “advocates” who were ostensibly acting on their behalf.
Sagaponack Homeowners Association vs. Ira Rennert

Now that the strange case of the Sagaponack Homeowners Association vs. Ira Rennert appears to be concluded, viagra 40mg it may be time to reflect on what has–and has not–been learned from this, ailment the season’s most engrossing episode of rich-on-rich violence. Rennert, as is now widely known, is the multimillionaire industrialist who is building a forty-two- thousand-square-foot single-family home, reported to cost a hundred million dollars, on a sixty-three-acre Hamptons potato field. The Sagaponack Homeowners Association is the opposing group of angry neighbors whose petition to withdraw Rennert’s building permits was voted down earlier this month by the Town of Southampton’s Zoning Appeals Board. The battle has been a long and heated one, about zoning laws and ocean views, and it has left those of us without homes in the Hamptons more than a little confused. Herewith, then, a brief guide for the uninitiated.

Let’s start with the least technical, but perhaps the philosophically thorniest, question raised by the case. Why, in an area full of very big houses, is the prospect of a very, very big house so controversial? The answer is that “big” is a relative term. A standard new monster home in the Hamptons, for example, now runs between ten thousand and fourteen thousand square feet, which is to say that it probably has six or seven large bedrooms (each with its own bathroom), a great hall, a formal living room, an informal living room, a dining room, a media room, a library, a five-to-six-hundred-square-foot kitchen, maids’ quarters, a pantry, and, say, a three-or four-car garage. “Some houses have a squash court, and I’ve built a few with bowling alleys,” Kurt Andreassen, a local contractor, said.

When Southampton decided, this fall, to place a limit on the size of all new houses, it settled on twenty thousand square feet, on the ground that that figure represents a reasonable limit, given the big-house norms of the area. At twenty thousand square feet, a house has perhaps ten or eleven bedrooms, a dozen bathrooms, a six-car garage, and maybe, oh, a mini- trading floor for the kids. By comparison, Rennert’s house, at forty-two thousand square feet, has twenty-nine bedrooms, thirty-three bathrooms, and two bowling alleys. What the Town of Southampton was saying, in other words, is that twelve bedrooms and one bowling alley is fine, but twenty-nine bedrooms and two bowling alleys is not. Think of the twenty-thousand figure as the community standard–a social consensus–for the maximum size a Hamptons monster home ought to be. With that extra bowling alley and those seventeen additional bedrooms, Rennert just went too far.

Which brings us to question two: If twenty thousand square feet represents the Hamptons monster-home limit, then why didn’t the Town of Southampton pass this zoning restriction long ago, before Rennert started building his dream house? You might think that it was because the town had been lax about zoning. But that is not the case. For example, the Sagaponack potato field where Rennert is building his house is zoned R-120, which means that the minimum lot size in the area for anyone looking to build a new house is three acres. There is also on eastern Long Island virtually no land zoned specifically for multifamily rental apartments. If you wanted to build an apartment house in the town of Southampton for people who are not millionaires, you would have to go before the town board and ask for a special variance. In Sagaponack, according to Paul Houlihan, Southampton’s chief building inspector, such a variance would be impossible to get.

Suppose, then, that Rennert was not a multimillionaire but only a millionaire and couldn’t afford the standard Sagaponack three-acre plot–which runs somewhere between seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars and a million dollars. He wants one acre. And suppose that, to make things more affordable, he wants to put up a small town house with a couple of apartments that he could rent out. Under Southampton zoning rules, his application would be denied outright, even though that little town house wouldn’t block anyone’s view of the beach. But a forty-two-thousand-square-foot house on sixty-three acres? According to the original zoning laws of the town, perfectly legal. In other words, the citizens of Southampton have lots of rules in place to protect their community from people who have less money than they do. It just never occurred to them, until Rennert came their way, that they also need to protect their community from people who have more money than they do.
Is the hectic pace of contemporary life really to blame for A.D.D.? Not so fast.

1.

There has always been a temptation in American culture to think of drugs as social metaphors. In the early sixties, view the pharmaceutical metaphor for the times was Valium. During the sexual revolution, click it was the Pill, sales and that was followed, in quick succession, by marijuana in the nineteen-seventies, cocaine in the nineteen-eighties, and Prozac in the early nineteen-nineties. Today, of course, the drug that has come to symbolize our particular predicaments is Ritalin, the widely prescribed treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or attention-deficit disorder, as it is more popularly known. In his new book, “The Hyperactivity Hoax,” the neuropsychiatrist Sydney Walker calls attention disorders and the rise of Ritalin “symptoms of modern life, rather than symptoms of modern disease.” In “Ritalin Nation” the psychologist Richard DeGrandpre argues that Ritalin and A.D.H.D. are the inevitable by-products of a culture-wide addiction to speed–to cellular phones and beepers and faxes and overnight mail and computers with powerful chips and hard-driving rock music and television shows that splice together images at hundredth-of-a-second intervals, and a thousand other social stimulants that have had the effect of transforming human expectations. The soaring use of Ritalin, the physician Lawrence Diller concludes in his new book, “Running on Ritalin,” reveals something about the kind of society we are at the turn of the millennium…. It throws a spotlight on some of our most sensitive issues: what kind of parents we are, what kind of schools we have, what kind of health care is available to us. It brings into question our cultural standards for behavior, performance, and punishment; it reaches into the workplace, the courts and the halls of Congress. It highlights the most basic psychological conundrum of nature versus nurture, and it raises fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of free will and responsibility.

In a recent Time cover story on Ritalin, the mother of a child with A.D.H.D. is described as tearing up her daughter’s Ritalin prescription. “I thought, maybe there is something else we can do,” she says. “I knew that medicine can mask things.” That is the kind of question that Ritalin provokes–not the simple, traditional “Will this cure my child?” but the harder, postmodern question “In curing my child, what deeper pathology might this drug be hiding?”

It’s important that we ask questions like this, particularly of drugs that are widely used. The problem with Ritalin is that many of the claims made to support the drug’s status as a symbol turn out, on closer examination, to be vague or confusing. Diller, DeGrandpre, and Walker are all, for example, deeply suspicious of our reliance on Ritalin. They think that it is overprescribed–that it is being used to avoid facing broader questions about our values and our society. This sounds plausible: the amount of Ritalin consumed in the United States has more than tripled since 1990. Then again, it has been only in the last ten years that clinical trials have definitively proved that Ritalin is effective in treating A.D.H.D. And, even with that dramatic increase, the number of American children taking Ritalin is estimated to be one or two per cent. Given that most estimates put the incidence of A.D.H.D. at between three and five per cent, are too many children taking the drug–or too few? “You really run into problems with teen-agers,” William Pelham, a professor of psychology at SUNY Buffalo and a prominent A.D.H.D. expert, told me. “They don’t want to take this medication. They don’t feel they need to. It’s part of the oppositional stuff you run into. The kids whom you most want to take it are the ones who are aggressive, and they are the most likely to blow it off.”

Or consider how A.D.H.D. is defined. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, a child has A.D.H.D. if, for a period of six months, he or she exhibits at least six symptoms from a list of behavioral signs. Among them: “often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities,” “often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly,” “is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli,” “is often ‘on the go’ or acts as if ‘driven by a motor,'” and “often blurts out answers before questions have been completed,” and so on. “Ritalin Nation” argues that all these are essentially symptoms of boredom–the impatience of those used to the rapid-fire pace of MTV, Nintendo, and the rest of contemporary culture. The A.D.H.D. child blurts out answers before questions have been completed because, DeGrandpre says, “listening is usually a waiting situation that provides a low level of stimulation.” The A.D.H.D. child is easily distracted because, “by definition, extraneous stimuli are novel.” Give A.D.H.D. kids something novel to do, something that can satisfy their addiction, DeGrandpre argues, and they’ll be fine. Diller works with a different definition of A.D.H.D. but comes to some of the same conclusions. High-stimulus activities like TV and video games “constitute a strange sort of good-fit situation for distractible children,” he writes. “These activities are among the few things they can concentrate on well.”

2.

When A.D.H.D. kids are actually tested on activities like video games, however, this alleged “good fit” disappears. Rosemary Tannock, a behavioral scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, recently looked at how well a group of boys between the ages of eight and twelve actually did at Pac Man and Super Mario World, and she found that the ones with A.D.H.D. completed fewer levels and had to restart more games than their unaffected peers. “They often failed to inhibit their forward trajectory and crashed headlong into obstacles,” she explained. A.D.H.D. kids may like the stimulation of a video game, but that doesn’t mean they can handle it. Tannock has also given a group of A.D.H.D. children what’s called a letter-naming test. The child is asked to read as quickly as he can five rows of letters, each of which consists of five letters repeated in different orders–“A, B, C, D, E,” for example, followed by “D, E, B, A, C,” and so on. A normal eight-year-old might take twenty-five seconds to complete the list. His counterpart with attention deficit might take thirty-five seconds, which is the kind of performance usually associated with dyslexia. “Some of our most articulate [A.D.H.D.] youngsters describe how doing this test is like speaking a foreign language in a foreign land,” Tannock told me. “You get exhausted. That’s how they feel. They have a thousand different ideas crowding into their heads at the same time.” This doesn’t sound like a child attuned to the quicksilver rhythms of the modern age. This sounds like a garden-variety learning disorder.

What further confounds the culture-of-Ritalin school is that A.D.H.D. turns out to have a considerable genetic component. As a result of numerous studies of twins conducted around the world over the past decade, scientists now estimate that A.D.H.D. is about seventy per cent heritable. This puts it up there with the most genetically influenced of traits–traits such as blood pressure, height, and weight. Meanwhile, the remaining thirty per cent–the environmental contribution to the disorder–seems to fall under what behavioral geneticists call “non-shared environment,” meaning that it is likely to be attributable to such factors as fetal environment or illness and injury rather than factors that siblings share, such as parenting styles or socioeconomic class. That’s why the way researchers describe A.D.H.D. has changed over the past decade. There is now less discussion of the role of bad parents, television, and diet and a lot more discussion of neurology and the role of specific genes.

This doesn’t mean that there is no social role at all in the expression of A.D.H.D. Clearly, something has happened to make us all suddenly more aware of the disorder. But when, for instance, Diller writes that “the conditions that have fueled the A.D.D. epidemic and the Ritalin boom” will not change until “America somehow regains its balance between material gain and emotional and spiritual satisfaction,” it’s clear that he is working with a definition of A.D.H.D. very different from that of the scientific mainstream. In fact, books like “Running on Ritalin” and “Ritalin Nation” don’t seem to have a coherent definition of A.D.H.D. at all. This is what is so confusing about the popular debate over this disorder: it’s backward. We’ve become obsessed with what A.D.H.D. means. Don’t we first have to figure out what it is?

3.

One of the tests researchers give to children with A.D.H.D. is called a stop-signal task. A child sits down at a computer and is told to hit one key if he sees an “X” on the screen and another key if he sees an “O.” If he hears a tone, however, he is to refrain from hitting the key. By changing the timing of the tone–playing it just before or just as or just a millisecond after the “X” or “O” appears on the screen–you can get a very good idea of how well someone reacts. “Kids with A.D.H.D. have a characteristically longer reaction time,” Gordon Logan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois, told me. “They’re fifty per cent slower than other kids.” Unless the tone is played very early, giving them plenty of warning, they can’t stop themselves from hitting the keys.

The results may seem a relatively trivial matter–these are differences measured in fractions of a second, after all. But for many researchers the idea that children with A.D.H.D. lack some fundamental ability to inhibit themselves, to stop a pre-programmed action, is at the heart of the disorder. Suppose, for example, that you have been given a particularly difficult math problem. Your immediate, impulsive response might be to throw down your pencil in frustration. But most of us wouldn’t do that. We would check those impulses, and try to slog our way through the problem, and, with luck, maybe get it right. Part of what it takes to succeed in a complex world, in other words, is the ability to inhibit our impulses. But the child with A.D.H.D., according to the official diagnosis, “often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace” and “often runs about or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate.” He cannot apply himself because he cannot regulate his behavior in a consistent manner. He is at the mercy of the temptations and distractions in his immediate environment. “It’s not that a child or an individual is always hyperactive or always inattentive or distracted,” Tannock says. “The same individual can one minute be restless and fidgeting or the next minute lethargic or yawning. The individual can be overfocussed one minute and incredibly distractible the next. It is this variability, from day to day and moment to moment, that is the most robust finding we have.”

Russell Barkley, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester, has done experiments that look at the way A.D.H.D. kids experience time, and the results demonstrate how this basic problem with self-regulation can have far-reaching consequences. In one experiment, he turns on a light for a predetermined length of time and then asks a child to turn the light back on and off for what the child guesses to be the same interval. Children without A.D.H.D. perform fairly consistently. At twelve seconds, for example, their guesses are just a little low. At thirty-six seconds, they are slightly less accurate–still on the low side–and at sixty seconds their guesses are coming in at about fifty seconds. A.D.H.D. kids, on the other hand, are terrible at this game. At twelve seconds, they are well over; apparently, twelve seconds seems much, much longer to them. But at sixty seconds their guesses are much lower than everyone else’s; apparently, the longer interval is impossible to comprehend. The consequences of having so profoundly subjective a sense of time are obvious. It’s no surprise that people with A.D.H.D. often have problems with punctuality and with patience. An accurate sense of time is a function of a certain kind of memory–an ability to compare the duration of ongoing events with that of past events, so that a red light doesn’t seem like an outrageous imposition, or five minutes doesn’t seem so impossibly long that you can imagine getting from one side of town to the other in that amount of time. Time is about imposing order, about exercising control over one’s perceptions, and that’s something that people with attention deficit have trouble with.

This way of thinking about A.D.H.D. clarifies some of the more confusing aspects of the disorder. In DeGrandpre’s formulation, the A.D.H.D. child can’t follow through on instructions or behaves inappropriately because there isn’t enough going on in his environment. What the inhibition theory implies is the opposite: that the A.D.H.D. child can’t follow through or behaves inappropriately because there is too much going on; he falters in situations that require him to exercise self-control and his higher cognitive skills. DeGrandpre cannot explain why A.D.H.D. kids like video games but are also so bad at them. Shouldn’t they thrive in that most stimulating of environments? If their problem is self-control, that apparent contradiction makes perfect sense. The A.D.H.D. child likes video games because they permit–even encourage–him to play impulsively. But he’s not very good at them because to succeed at Pac Man or Super Mario World a child must learn to overcome the temptation posed by those games to respond impulsively to every whiz and bang: the child has to learn to stop and think (ever so quickly) before reacting.

At the same time, this theory makes it a lot clearer what kind of problem A.D.H.D. represents. The fact that children with the disorder can’t finish the hard math problem doesn’t mean that they’re not smart enough to know the answer. It means they can’t focus long enough to get to the answer. As Barkley puts it, A.D.H.D. is a problem not of knowing what you should do but, rather, of doing what you know. Motivation and memory and higher cognitive skills are intact in people with attention deficit. “But they are secondarily delayed,” Barkley says. “They have no chance. They are rarely engaged and highly ineffective, because impulsive actions take precedence.” The inability to stop pressing that “X” or “O” key ends up causing much more serious problems down the road.

This way of thinking about A.D.H.D. also demystifies Ritalin. Implicit in the popular skepticism about the drug has always been the idea that you cannot truly remedy something as complicated as A.D.H.D. with a pill. That’s why the mother quoted in the Time story ripped up her child’s Ritalin prescription, and why Diller places so much emphasis on the need for “real” social and spiritual solutions. But if A.D.H.D. is merely a discrete problem in inhibition why couldn’t Ritalin be a complete solution? People with A.D.H.D. don’t need a brain overhaul. They just need a little help with stopping..

4.

There is another way to look at the A.D.H.D.-Ritalin question, which is known as the dopamine theory. This is by no means a conclusive account of A.D.H.D., but it may help clarify some of the issues surrounding the disorder. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain–the neurotransmitter–that appears to play a major role in things like attention and inhibition. When you tackle a difficult task or pay attention to a complex social situation, you are essentially generating dopamine in the parts of the brain that deal with higher cognitive tasks. If you looked at a thousand people at random, you would find a huge variation in their dopamine systems, just as you would if you looked at, say, blood pressure in a random population. A.D.H.D., according to this theory, is the name we give to people whose dopamine falls at the lower end of the scale, the same way we say that people suffer from hypertension if their blood pressure is above a certain point. In order to get normal levels of attention and inhibition, you have to produce normal levels of dopamine.

This is what Ritalin does. Dopamine is manufactured in the brain by special receptors, and each of those receptors has a “transport,” a kind of built-in vacuum cleaner that sucks up any excess dopamine floating around and stores it inside the neuron. Ritalin shuts down that transport, so the amount of dopamine available for cognition remains higher than it would be otherwise. In about sixty-five per cent of those who take the drug, Ritalin appears to make them “normal,” and in an additional ten per cent it appears to bring about substantial improvement. It does have a few minor side effects–appetite loss and insomnia, in some users–but by and large it’s a remarkably safe drug, with remarkably specific effects.

So what does the fact that we seem to be relying more and more on Ritalin mean? The beginning of the answer, I think, lies in the fact that Ritalin is not the only drug in existence that enhances dopamine. Cocaine affects the brain in almost exactly the same way. Nicotine, too, is a dopamine booster, although its mechanism is somewhat different. Obviously, taking Ritalin doesn’t have the same consequences as snorting cocaine or smoking a cigarette. It’s not addictive, and its effect is a lot more specific. Still, nicotine, cocaine, and Ritalin are all performing the same basic neurological function.

What, for instance, was the appeal of cocaine at the beginning of the coke epidemic of the eighties? It was a feel-good drug. But it was a feel-good drug of a certain kind–a drug that people thought would help them master the complexity and the competitive pressures of the world around them. In the now infamous Time story on cocaine that ran in the summer of 1981, there is a picture of a “freelance artist” in Manhattan doing lines on his lunch break, with the caption “Feeling stronger, smarter, faster, more able to cope.” Cocaine, the article begins, “is becoming the all-American drug,” and its popularity, in the words of one expert, is a symptom of the fact that “right from childhood in this country there is pressure for accomplishment.” At the moment of its greatest popularity, cocaine was considered a thinking drug, an achievement drug, a drug for the modern world. Does that sound familiar?

Nicotine has a similar profile. Cigarettes aid concentration. Understandably, this isn’t a fact that has received much publicity in recent years. But there are plenty of data showing that nicotine does exactly what you would expect a dopamine enhancer to do. In one experiment, for example, smokers were given three minutes to read randomly ordered letters, in rows of thirty, and cross out the letter “e” every time they encountered it. The smokers took the test twice, before and after smoking a cigarette, and, on average, they were able to read 161.5 more letters–or more than five extra lines–after smoking than before. It’s no surprise that this test sounds a lot like the test that A.D.H.D. kids do so poorly on, because we are really talking about the same set of cognitive skills–the ability to concentrate and screen out distractions. Numerous studies have shown that children with A.D.H.D. are much more likely to smoke and take illegal drugs in later life; what the dopamine theory suggests is that many people resort to such substances as a way of medicating themselves. Nora Volkow, the chairman of medicine at Brookhaven National Laboratory, says that between ten and twenty per cent of drug addicts have A.D.H.D. “In studies, when they were given Ritalin they would stop taking cocaine,” she told me. Timothy Wilens, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, presented data at a recent National Institutes of Health conference on A.D.H.D. which showed that treating A.D.H.D. kids with Ritalin and the like lowered the risk of their developing drug problems in adolescence by an extraordinary sixty-eight per cent. Among people with dopamine deficits, Ritalin is becoming a safe pharmaceutical alternative to the more dangerous dopamine boosters of the past.

Here, surely, is one of the deeper implications of the rise of Ritalin–particularly among adults, whose use of the drug has increased rapidly in recent years. For decades, in this country and around the world, millions of people used smoking as a way of boosting their dopamine and sharpening focus and concentration. Over the past twenty years, we have gradually taken away that privilege, by making it impossible for people to smoke at work and by marshalling an array of medical evidence to convince people that they should not start at all. From a public-health standpoint, this has been of critical importance: countless lives have been saved. But the fact remains that millions of people have lost a powerful pharmacological agent–nicotine–that they had been using to cope with the world around them. In fact, they have lost it precisely at a moment when the rising complexity of modern life would seem to make dopamine enhancement more important than ever. Among adults, Ritalin is a drug that may fill the void left by nicotine.

Among children, Ritalin is clearly performing a similar function. We are extending to the young cognitive aids of a kind that used to be reserved exclusively for the old. It is this reliance on a drug–the idea that children should have to be medicated–that, of course, people like Diller, Walker, and DeGrandpre find so upsetting. If some children need to take a drug in order to be “normal,” they think that the problem is with our definition of “normal.” Diller asks, “Is there still a place for childhood in the anxious, downsizing America of the late nineteen-nineties? What if Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn were to walk into my office tomorrow? Tom’s indifference to schooling and Huck’s ‘oppositional’ behavior would surely have been cause for concern. Would I prescribe Ritalin for them, too?” But this is just the point. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer lived in an age where difficult children simply dropped out of school, or worked on farms, or drifted into poverty and violence. The “childhood” Diller romanticizes was a ruthlessly Darwinian place, which provided only for the most economically–and genetically–privileged. Children are now being put into situations that demand attention and intellectual consideration, and it is no longer considered appropriate simply to cast aside those who because of some neurological quirk have difficulty coping. Only by a strange inversion of moral responsibility do books like “Ritalin Nation” and “Running on Ritalin” seek to make those parents and physicians trying to help children with A.D.H.D. feel guilty for doing so. The rise of A.D.H.D. is a consequence of what might otherwise be considered a good thing: that the world we live in increasingly values intellectual consideration and rationality–increasingly demands that we stop and focus. Modernity didn’t create A.D.H.D. It revealed it.
Last week, order New York City began confiscating the automobiles of people caught drinking and driving. On the first day of the crackdown, the police seized three cars, including one from a man who had been arrested for drunk driving on eight previous occasions. The tabloids cheered. Mothers Against Drunk Driving nodded in approval. After a recent series of brutal incidents involving the police tarnished the Giuliani administration, the Mayor’s anti-crime crusade appeared to right itself. The city now has the toughest anti-drunk-driving policy in the country, and the public was given a welcome reminder that the vast majority of the city’s thirty-eight thousand cops are neither racist nor reckless and that the justice they mete out is largely deserved. “There’s a very simple way to stay out of this problem, for you, your family, and anyone else,” a triumphant Giuliani said. “Do not drink and get behind the wheel of a car.”

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the question of whether the new policy is constitutional. That is a matter for the courts. A more interesting issue is what the willing acceptance of such a hard-line stance on drunk driving says about the sometimes contradictory way we discuss traffic safety. Suppose, for example, that I was stopped by the police for running a red light on Madison Avenue. I would get points on my license and receive a fine. If I did the same thing while my blood-alcohol level was above the prescribed limit, however, I would be charged with drunk driving and lose my car. The behavior is the same in both cases, but the consequences are very different. We believe, as a society, that the combination of alcohol and driving deserves particular punishment. And that punishment isn’t necessarily based on what you have actually done. It’s often based on what you could do–or, to be more precise, on the extra potential for harm that your drinking poses.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. We have laws against threatening people with guns for the same reason. It hardly makes sense to wait for drunks or people waving guns to kill someone before we arrest them. But if merely posing a threat to others on the road is the threshold for something as drastic as civil forfeiture, then why are we stopping with drunks? Fifty per cent of all car accidents in the United States are attributed to driver inattention, for example. Some of that inattention is caused by inebriation, but there are other common and obvious distractions. Two studies made in the past three years–the first conducted at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the second published in the New England Journal of Medicine– suggest that the use of car phones is associated with a four-to-fivefold increase in the risk of accidents, and that hands-free phones may not be any safer than conventional ones. The driver on the phone is a potential risk to others, just as the driver who has been drinking is. It is also now abundantly clear that sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks can–by virtue of their weight, high clearance, and structural rigidity–do far more damage in an accident than conventional automobiles can. S.U.V.s and light trucks account for about a third of the vehicles on the road. But a disproportionate number of the fatalities in two-vehicle crashes are caused by collisions between those bigger vehicles and conventional automobiles, and the people riding in the cars make up a stunning eighty-one per cent of those killed.

The reason we don’t like drunk drivers is that by making the decision to drink and drive an individual deliberately increases his or her chance of killing someone else with a vehicle. But how is the moral culpability of the countless Americans who have walked into a dealership and made a decision to buy a fifty-six- hundred-pound sport utility any different? Of course, there are careful S.U.V. drivers and careful car-phone users. Careful people can get drunk, too, and overcompensate for their impairment by creeping along at twenty-five miles an hour, and in New York City we won’t hesitate to take away their vehicles. Obviously, Giuliani, even in his most crusading moments, isn’t about to confiscate all the car phones and S.U.V.s on the streets of New York. States should, however, stop drivers from using car phones while the car is in motion, as some countries, including England, do. And a prohibitive weight tax on sport utilities would probably be a good idea. The moneys collected could be used to pay the medical bills and compensate the family of anyone hit by some cell-phone-wielding yuppie in a four-wheeled behemoth.
Hair dye and the hidden history of postwar America.

1.

During the Depression–long before she became one of the most famous copywriters of her day–Shirley Polykoff met a man named George Halperin. He was the son of an Orthodox rabbi from Reading, purchase Pennsylvania, and soon after they began courting he took her home for Passover to meet his family. They ate roast chicken, tzimmes, and sponge cake, and Polykoff hit it off with Rabbi Halperin, who was warm and funny. George’s mother was another story. She was Old World Orthodox, with severe, tightly pulled back hair; no one was good enough for her son.

“How’d I do, George?” Shirley asked as soon as they got in the car for the drive home. “Did your mother like me?”

He was evasive. “My sister Mildred thought you were great.”

“That’s nice, George,” she said. “But what did your mother say?”

There was a pause. “She says you paint your hair.” Another pause. “Well, do you?”

Shirley Polykoff was humiliated. In her mind she could hear her future mother-in-law: Fahrbt zi der huer? Oder fahrbt zi nisht? Does she color her hair? Or doesn’t she?

The answer, of course, was that she did. Shirley Polykoff always dyed her hair, even in the days when the only women who went blond were chorus girls and hookers. At home in Brooklyn, starting when she was fifteen, she would go to Mr. Nicholas’s beauty salon, one flight up, and he would “lighten the back” until all traces of her natural brown were gone. She thought she ought to be a blonde-or, to be more precise, she thought that the decision about whether she could be a blonde was rightfully hers, and not God’s. Shirley dressed in deep oranges and deep reds and creamy beiges and royal hues. She wore purple suede and aqua silk, and was the kind of person who might take a couture jacket home and embroider some new detail on it. Once, in the days when she had her own advertising agency, she was on her way to Memphis to make a presentation to Maybelline and her taxi broke down in the middle of the expressway. She jumped out and flagged down a Pepsi-Cola truck, and the truck driver told her he had picked her up because he’d never seen anyone quite like her before. “Shirley would wear three outfits, all at once, and each one of them would look great,” Dick Huebner, who was her creative director, says. She was flamboyant and brilliant and vain in an irresistible way, and it was her conviction that none of those qualities went with brown hair. The kind of person she spent her life turning herself into did not go with brown hair. Shirley’s parents were Hyman Polykoff, small-time necktie merchant, and Rose Polykoff, housewife and mother, of East New York and Flatbush, by way of the Ukraine. Shirley ended up on Park Avenue at Eighty-second. “If you asked my mother ‘Are you proud to be Jewish?’ she would have said yes,” her daughter, Alix Nelson Frick, says. “She wasn’t trying to pass. But she believed in the dream, and the dream was that you could acquire all the accouterments of the established affluent class, which included a certain breeding and a certain kind of look. Her idea was that you should be whatever you want to be, including being a blonde.”

In 1956, when Shirley Polykoff was a junior copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding, she was given the Clairol account. The product the company was launching was Miss Clairol, the first hair-color bath that made it possible to lighten, tint, condition, and shampoo at home, in a single step-to take, say, Topaz (for a champagne blond) or Moon Gold (for a medium ash), apply it in a peroxide solution directly to the hair, and get results in twenty minutes. When the Clairol sales team demonstrated their new product at the International Beauty Show, in the old Statler Hotel, across from Madison Square Garden, thousands of assembled beauticians jammed the hall and watched, openmouthed, demonstration after demonstration. “They were astonished,” recalls Bruce Gelb, who ran Clairol for years, along with his father, Lawrence, and his brother Richard. “This was to the world of hair color what computers were to the world of adding machines. The sales guys had to bring buckets of water and do the rinsing off in front of everyone, because the hairdressers in the crowd were convinced we were doing something to the models behind the scenes.”

Miss Clairol gave American women the ability, for the first time, to color their hair quickly and easily at home. But there was still the stigma-the prospect of the disapproving mother-in-law. Shirley Polykoff knew immediately what she wanted to say, because if she believed that a woman had a right to be a blonde she also believed that a woman ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion. “Does she or doesn’t she?” she wrote, translating from the Yiddish to the English. “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Clairol bought thirteen ad pages in Life in the fall of 1956, and Miss Clairol took off like a bird. That was the beginning. For Nice ‘n Easy, Clairol’s breakthrough shampoo-in hair color, she wrote, “The closer he gets, the better you look.” For Lady Clairol, the cream-and-bleach combination that brought silver and platinum shades to Middle America, she wrote, “Is it true blondes have more fun?” and then, even more memorably, “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” (In the summer of 1962, just before “The Feminine Mystique” was published, Betty Friedan was, in the words of her biographer, so “bewitched” by that phrase that she bleached her hair.) Shirley Polykoff wrote the lines; Clairol perfected the product. And from the fifties to the seventies, when Polykoff gave up the account, the number of American women coloring their hair rose from seven per cent to more than forty per cent.

Today, when women go from brown to blond to red to black and back again without blinking, we think of hair-color products the way we think of lipstick. On drugstore shelves there are bottles and bottles of hair-color products with names like Hydrience and Excellence and Preference and Natural Instincts and Loving Care and Nice ‘n Easy, and so on, each in dozens of different shades. Feria, the new, youth-oriented brand from L’Oreal, comes in Chocolate Cherry and Champagne Cocktail-colors that don’t ask “Does she or doesn’t she?” but blithely assume “Yes, she does.” Hair dye is now a billion-dollar-a-year commodity.

Yet there was a time, not so long ago-between, roughly speaking, the start of Eisenhower’s Administration and the end of Carter’s-when hair color meant something. Lines like “Does she or doesn’t she?” or the famous 1973 slogan for L’Oreal’s Preference-“Because I’m worth it” were as instantly memorable as “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” or “Things go better with Coke.” They lingered long after advertising usually does and entered the language; they somehow managed to take on meanings well outside their stated intention. Between the fifties and the seventies, women entered the workplace, fought for social emancipation, got the Pill, and changed what they did with their hair. To examine the hair-color campaigns of the period is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial. In writing the history of women in the postwar era, did we forget something important? Did we leave out hair?

2.

When the “Does she or doesn’t she?” campaign first ran, in 1956, most advertisements that were aimed at women tended to be high glamour-“cherries in the snow, fire and ice,” as Bruce Gelb puts it. But Shirley Polykoff insisted that the models for the Miss Clairol campaign be more like the girl next door-“Shirtwaist types instead of glamour gowns,” she wrote in her original memo to Clairol. “Cashmere-sweater-over-the-shoulder types. Like larger-than-life portraits of the proverbial girl on the block who’s a little prettier than your wife and lives in a house slightly nicer than yours.” The model had to be a Doris Day type-not a Jayne Mansfield-because the idea was to make hair color as respectable and mainstream as possible. One of the earliest “Does she or doesn’t she?” television commercials featured a housewife, in the kitchen preparing hors d’ouvres for a party. She is slender and pretty and wearing a black cocktail dress and an apron. Her husband comes in, kisses her on the lips, approvingly pats her very blond hair, then holds the kitchen door for her as she takes the tray of hors d’ouvres out for her guests. It is an exquisitely choreographed domestic tableau, down to the little dip the housewife performs as she hits the kitchen light switch with her elbow on her way out the door. In one of the early print ads-which were shot by Richard Avedon and then by Irving Penn-a woman with strawberry-blond hair is lying on the grass, holding a dandelion between her fingers, and lying next to her is a girl of about eight or nine. What’s striking is that the little girl’s hair is the same shade of blond as her mother’s. The “Does she or doesn’t she?” print ads always included a child with the mother to undercut the sexual undertones of the slogan-to make it clear that mothers were using Miss Clairol, and not just “fast” women-and, most of all, to provide a precise color match. Who could ever guess, given the comparison, that Mom’s shade came out of a bottle?

The Polykoff campaigns were a sensation. Letters poured in to Clairol. “Thank you for changing my life,”read one, which was circulated around the company and used as the theme for a national sales meeting. “My boyfriend, Harold, and I were keeping company for five years but he never wanted to set a date. This made me very nervous. I am twenty-eight and my mother kept saying soon it would be too late for me.” Then, the letter writer said, she saw a Clairol ad in the subway. She dyed her hair blond, and “that is how I am in Bermuda now on my honeymoon with Harold.” Polykoff was sent a copy with a memo: “It’s almost too good to be true!” With her sentimental idyll of blond mother and child, Shirley Polykoff had created something iconic.

“My mother wanted to be that woman in the picture,” Polykoff’s daughter, Frick, says. “She was wedded to the notion of that suburban, tastefully dressed, well-coddled matron who was an adornment to her husband, a loving mother, a long-suffering wife, a person who never overshadowed him.She wanted the blond child. In fact, I was blond as a kid, but when I was about thirteen my hair got darker and my mother started bleaching it.” Of course-and this is the contradiction central to those early Clairol campaigns-Shirley Polykoff wasn’t really that kind of woman at all. She always had a career. She never moved to the suburbs. “She maintained that women were supposed to be feminine, and not too dogmatic and not overshadow their husband, but she greatly overshadowed my father, who was a very pure, unaggressive, intellectual type,” Frick says. “She was very flamboyant, very emotional, very dominating.”

One of the stories Polykoff told about herself repeatedly- and that even appeared after her death last year, in her Times obituary-was that she felt that a woman never ought to make more than her husband, and that only after George’s death, in the early sixties, would she let Foote, Cone & Belding raise her salary to its deserved level. “That’s part of the legend, but it isn’t the truth,” Frick says. “The ideal was always as vividly real to her as whatever actual parallel reality she might be living. She never wavered in her belief in that dream, even if you would point out to her some of the fallacies of that dream, or the weaknesses, or the internal contradictions, or the fact that she herself didn’t really live her life that way.” For Shirley Polykoff, the color of her hair was a kind of useful fiction, a way of bridging the contradiction between the kind of woman she was and the kind of woman she felt she ought to be. It was a way of having it all. She wanted to look and feel like Doris Day without having to be Doris Day. In twenty-seven years of marriage, during which she bore two children, she spent exactly two weeks as a housewife, every day of which was a domestic and culinary disaster. “Listen, sweetie,” an exasperated George finally told her. “You make a lousy little woman in the kitchen.” She went back to work the following Monday.

This notion of the useful fiction-of looking the part without being the part-had a particular resonance for the America of Shirley Polykoff’s generation. As a teen-ager, Shirley Polykoff tried to get a position as a clerk at an insurance agency and failed. Then she tried again, at another firm, applying as Shirley Miller. This time, she got the job. Her husband, George, also knew the value of appearances. The week Polykoff first met him, she was dazzled by his worldly sophistication, his knowledge of out-of-the-way places in Europe, his exquisite taste in fine food and wine. The second week, she learned that his expertise was all show, derived from reading the Times. The truth was that George had started his career loading boxes in the basement of Macy’s by day and studying law at night. He was a faker, just as, in a certain sense, she was, because to be Jewish-or Irish or Italian or African-American or, for that matter, a woman of the fifties caught up in the first faint stirrings of feminism–was to be compelled to fake it in a thousand small ways, to pass as one thing when, deep inside, you were something else. “That’s the kind of pressure that comes from the immigrants’ arriving and thinking that they don’t look right, that they are kind of funny-looking and maybe shorter than everyone else, and their clothes aren’t expensive,” Frick says. “That’s why many of them began to sew, so they could imitate the patterns of the day. You were making yourself over. You were turning yourself into an American.” Frick, who is also in advertising (she’s the chairman of Spier NY), is a forcefully intelligent woman, who speaks of her mother with honesty and affection. “There were all those phrases that came to fruition at that time-you know, ‘clothes make the man’ and ‘first impressions count.'” So the question “Does she or doesn’t she?” wasn’t just about how no one could ever really know what you were doing. It was about how no one could ever really know who you were. It really meant not “Does she?” but “Is she?” It really meant “Is she a contented homemaker or a feminist, a Jew or a Gentile–or isn’t she?”

3. I am Ilon Specht, hear me roar

In 1973, Ilon Specht was working as a copywriter at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency, in New York. She was a twenty-three-year-old college dropout from California. She was rebellious, unconventional, and independent, and she had come East to work on Madison Avenue, because that’s where people like that went to work back then. “It was a different business in those days,” Susan Schermer, a long-time friend of Specht’s, says. “It was the seventies. People were wearing feathers to work.” At her previous agency, while she was still in her teens, Specht had written a famous television commercial for the Peace Corps. (Single shot. No cuts. A young couple lying on the beach. “It’s a big, wide wonderful world” is playing on a radio. Voice-over recites a series of horrible facts about less fortunate parts of the world: in the Middle East half the children die before their sixth birthday, and so forth. A news broadcast is announced as the song ends, and the woman on the beach changes the station.)

“Ilon? Omigod! She was one of the craziest people I ever worked with,” Ira Madris, another colleague from those years, recalls, using the word “crazy” as the highest of compliments. “And brilliant. And dogmatic. And highly creative. We all believed back then that having a certain degree of neurosis made you interesting. Ilon had a degree of neurosis that made her very interesting.”

At McCann, Ilon Specht was working with L’Oreal, a French company that was trying to challenge Clairol’s dominance in the American hair-color market. L’Oreal had originally wanted to do a series of comparison spots, presenting research proving that their new product-Preference-was technologically superior to Nice ‘n Easy, because it delivered a more natural, translucent color. But at the last minute the campaign was killed because the research hadn’t been done in the United States. At McCann, there was panic. “We were four weeks before air date and we had nothing-nada,” Michael Sennott, a staffer who was also working on the account, says. The creative team locked itself away: Specht, Madris-who was the art director on the account-and a handful of others. “We were sitting in this big office,” Specht recalls. “And everyone was discussing what the ad should be. They wanted to do something with a woman sitting by a window, and the wind blowing through the curtains. You know, one of those fake places with big, glamorous curtains. The woman was a complete object. I don’t think she even spoke. They just didn’t get it. We were in there for hours.”

Ilon Specht is now the executive creative director of Jordan, McGrath, Case & Partners, in the Flatiron district, with a big office overlooking Fifth Avenue. She has long, thick black hair, held in a loose knot at the top of her head, and lipstick the color of maraschino cherries. She talks fast and loud, and swivels in her chair as she speaks, and when people walk by her office they sometimes bang on her door, as if the best way to get her attention is to be as loud and emphatic as she is. Reminiscing not long ago about the seventies, she spoke about the strangeness of corporate clients in shiny suits who would say that all the women in the office looked like models. She spoke about what it meant to be young in a business dominated by older men, and about what it felt like to write a line of copy that used the word “woman” and have someone cross it out and write “girl.”

“I was a twenty-three-year-old girl-a woman,” she said. “What would my state of mind have been? I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.”

Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: “I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. I expect great color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m” -and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest-“worth it.”

The power of the commercial was originally thought to lie in its subtle justification of the fact that Preference cost ten cents more than Nice ‘n Easy. But it quickly became obvious that the last line was the one that counted. On the strength of “Because I’m worth it,” Preference began stealing market share from Clairol. In the nineteen-eighties, Preference surpassed Nice ‘n Easy as the leading hair-color brand in the country, and two years ago L’Oreal took the phrase and made it the slogan for the whole company. An astonishing seventy-one per cent of American women can now identify that phrase as the L’Oreal signature, which, for a slogan-as opposed to a brand name-is almost without precedent.

4.

From the very beginning, the Preference campaign was unusual. Polykoff’s Clairol spots had male voice-overs. In the L’Oreal ads, the model herself spoke, directly and personally. Polykoff’s commercials were “other-directed” -they were about what the group was saying (“Does she or doesn’t she?”) or what a husband might think (“The closer he gets, the better you look”). Specht’s line was what a woman says to herself. Even in the choice of models, the two campaigns diverged. Polykoff wanted fresh, girl-next-door types. McCann and L’Oreal wanted models who somehow embodied the complicated mixture of strength and vulnerability implied by “Because I’m worth it.” In the late seventies, Meredith Baxter Birney was the brand spokeswoman. At that time, she was playing a recently divorced mom going to law school on the TV drama “Family.” McCann scheduled her spots during “Dallas” and other shows featuring so-called “silk blouse” women–women of strength and independence. Then came Cybill Shepherd, at the height of her run as the brash, independent Maddie on “Moonlighting,” in the eighties. Now the brand is represented by Heather Locklear, the tough and sexy star of “Melrose Place.” All the L’Oreal spokeswomen are blondes, but blondes of a particular type. In his brilliant 1995 book, “Big Hair: A Journey into the Transformation of Self,” the Canadian anthropologist Grant McCracken argued for something he calls the “blondness periodic table,” in which blondes are divided into six categories: the “bombshell blonde” (Mae West, Marilyn Monroe), the “sunny blonde” (Doris Day, Goldie Hawn), the “brassy blonde” (Candice Bergen), the “dangerous blonde” (Sharon Stone), the “society blonde” (C.Z. Guest), and the “cool blonde” (Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly). L’Oreal’s innovation was to carve out a niche for itself in between the sunny blondes-the “simple, mild, and innocent” blondes-and the smart, bold, brassy blondes, who, in McCracken’s words, “do not mediate their feelings or modulate their voices.”

This is not an easy sensibility to capture. Countless actresses have auditioned for L’Oreal over the years and been turned down. “There was one casting we did with Brigitte Bardot,” Ira Madris recalls (this was for another L’Oreal product), “and Brigitte, being who she is, had the damnedest time saying that line. There was something inside of her that didn’t believe it. It didn’t have any conviction.” Of course it didn’t: Bardot is bombshell, not sassy. Clairol made a run at the Preference sensibility for itself, hiring Linda Evans in the eighties as the pitchwoman for Ultress, the brand aimed at Preference’s upscale positioning. This didn’t work, either. Evans, who played the adoring wife of Blake Carrington on “Dynasty,” was too sunny. (“The hardest thing she did on that show,” Michael Sennott says, perhaps a bit unfairly, “was rearrange the flowers.”)

Even if you got the blonde right, though, there was still the matter of the slogan. For a Miss Clairol campaign in the seventies, Polykoff wrote a series of spots with the tag line “This I do for me.” But “This I do for me” was at best a halfhearted approximation of “Because I’m worth it”–particularly for a brand that had spent its first twenty years saying something entirely different. “My mother thought there was something too brazen about ‘I’m worth it,'” Frick told me. “She was always concerned with what people around her might think. She could never have come out with that bald-faced an equation between hair color and self-esteem.”

The truth is that Polykoff’s sensibility-which found freedom in assimilation-had been overtaken by events. In one of Polykoff’s “Is it true blondes have more fun?” commercials for Lady Clairol in the sixties, for example, there is a moment that by 1973 must have been painful to watch. A young woman, radiantly blond, is by a lake, being swung around in the air by a darkly handsome young man. His arms are around her waist. Her arms are around his neck, her shoes off, her face aglow. The voice-over is male, deep and sonorous. “Chances are,” the voice says, “she’d have gotten the young man anyhow, but you’ll never convince her of that.” Here was the downside to Shirley Polykoff’s world. You could get what you wanted by faking it, but then you would never know whether it was you or the bit of fakery that made the difference. You ran the risk of losing sight of who you really were. Shirley Polykoff knew that the all-American life was worth it, and that “he” -the handsome man by the lake, or the reluctant boyfriend who finally whisks you off to Bermuda-was worth it. But, by the end of the sixties, women wanted to know that they were worth it, too.

5. What Herta Herzog knew

Why are Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht important? That seems like a question that can easily be answered in the details of their campaigns. They were brilliant copywriters, who managed in the space of a phrase to capture the particular feminist sensibilities of the day. They are an example of a strange moment in American social history when hair dye somehow got tangled up in the politics of assimilation and feminism and self-esteem. But in a certain way their stories are about much more: they are about the relationship we have to the products we buy, and about the slow realization among advertisers that unless they understood the psychological particulars of that relationship-unless they could dignify the transactions of everyday life by granting them meaning-they could not hope to reach the modern consumer. Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht perfected a certain genre of advertising which did just this, and one way to understand the Madison Avenue revolution of the postwar era is as a collective attempt to define and extend that genre. The revolution was led by a handful of social scientists, chief among whom was an elegant, Viennese-trained psychologist by the name of Herta Herzog. What did Herta Herzog know? She knew-or, at least, she thought she knew-the theory behind the success of slogans like “Does she or doesn’t she?” and “Because I’m worth it,” and that makes Herta Herzog, in the end, every bit as important as Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht.

Herzog worked at a small advertising agency called Jack Tinker & Partners, and people who were in the business in those days speak of Tinker the way baseball fans talk about the 1927 Yankees. Tinker was the brainchild of the legendary adman Marion Harper, who came to believe that the agency he was running, McCann-Erickson, was too big and unwieldy to be able to consider things properly. His solution was to pluck a handful of the very best and brightest from McCann and set them up, first in the Waldorf Towers (in the suite directly below the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s and directly above General Douglas MacArthur’s) and then, more permanently, in the Dorset Hotel, on West Fifty-fourth Street, overlooking the Museum of Modern Art. The Tinker Group rented the penthouse, complete with a huge terrace, Venetian-tiled floors, a double-height living room, an antique French polished-pewter bar, a marble fireplace, spectacular skyline views, and a rotating exhibit of modern art (hung by the partners for motivational purposes), with everything-walls, carpets, ceilings, furnishings-a bright, dazzling white. It was supposed to be a think tank, but Tinker was so successful so fast that clients were soon lined up outside the door. When Buick wanted a name for its new luxury coup?, the Tinker Group came up with Riviera. When Bulova wanted a name for its new quartz watch, Tinker suggested Accutron. Tinker also worked with Coca-Cola and Exxon and Westinghouse and countless others, whose names-according to the strict standards of secrecy observed by the group-they would not divulge. Tinker started with four partners and a single phone. But by the end of the sixties it had taken over eight floors of the Dorset.

What distinguished Tinker was its particular reliance on the methodology known as motivational research, which was brought to Madison Avenue in the nineteen-forties by a cadre of European intellectuals trained at the University of Vienna. Advertising research up until that point had been concerned with counting heads-with recording who was buying what. But the motivational researchers were concerned with why: Why do people buy what they do?What motivates them when they shop? The researchers devised surveys, with hundreds of questions, based on Freudian dynamic psychology. They used hypnosis, the Rosenzweig Picture-Frustration Study, role-playing, and Rorschach blots, and they invented what we now call the focus group. There was Paul Lazarsfeld, one of the giants of twentieth-century sociology, who devised something called the Lazarsfeld-Stanton Program Analyzer, a little device with buttons to record precisely the emotional responses of research subjects. There was Hans Zeisel, who had been a patient of Alfred Adler’s in Vienna, and went to work at McCann-Erickson. There was Ernest Dichter, who had studied under Lazarsfeld at the Psychological Institute in Vienna, and who did consulting for hundreds of the major corporations of the day. And there was Tinker’s Herta Herzog, perhaps the most accomplished motivational researcher of all, who trained dozens of interviewers in the Viennese method and sent them out to analyze the psyche of the American consumer.

“For Puerto Rican rum once, Herta wanted to do a study of why people drink, to tap into that below-the-surface kind of thing,” Rena Bartos, a former advertising executive who worked with Herta in the early days, recalls. “We would would invite someone out to drink and they would order whatever they normally order, and we would administer a psychological test. Then we’d do it again at the very end of the discussion, after the drinks. The point was to see how people’s personality was altered under the influence of alcohol.” Herzog helped choose the name of Oasis cigarettes, because her psychological research suggested that the name-with its connotations of cool, bubbling springs-would have the greatest appeal to the orally-fixated smoker.

“Herta was graceful and gentle and articulate,” Herbert Krugman, who worked closely with Herzog in those years, says. “She had enormous insights. Alka-Seltzer was a client of ours, and they were discussing new approaches for the next commercial. She said, ‘You show a hand dropping an Alka-Seltzer tablet into a glass of water. Why not show the hand dropping two? You’ll double sales.’ And that’s just what happened. Herta was the gray eminence. Everybody worshipped her.”

Herta Herzog is now eighty-nine. After retiring from Tinker, she moved back to Europe, first to Germany and then to Austria, her homeland. She wrote an analysis of the TV show “Dallas” for the academic journal Society. She taught college courses on communications theory. She conducted a study on the Holocaust for the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, in Jerusalem. Today, she lives in the mountain village of Leutasch, half an hour’s hard drive up into the Alps from Innsbruck, in a white picture-book cottage with a sharply pitched roof. She is a small woman, slender and composed, her once dark hair now streaked with gray. She speaks in short, clipped, precise sentences, in flawless, though heavily accented, English. If you put her in a room with Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht, the two of them would talk and talk and wave their long, bejeweled fingers in the air, and she would sit unobtrusively in the corner and listen. “Marion Harper hired me to do qualitative research-the qualitative interview, which was the specialty that had been developed in Vienna at the .sterreichische Wirtschaftspsychologische Forschungsstelle,” Herzog told me. “It was interviewing not with direct questions and answers but where you open some subject of the discussion relevant to the topic and then let it go. You have the interviewer not talk but simply help the person with little questions like ‘And anything else?’ As an interviewer, you are not supposed to influence me. You are merely trying to help me. It was a lot like the psychoanalytic method.” Herzog was sitting, ramrod straight, in a chair in her living room. She was wearing a pair of black slacks and a heavy brown sweater to protect her against the Alpine chill. Behind her was row upon row of bookshelves, filled with the books of a postwar literary and intellectual life: Mailer in German, Reisman in English. Open and face down on a long couch perpendicular to her chair was the latest issue of the psychoanalytic journal Psyche. “Later on, I added all kinds of psychological things to the process, such as word-association tests, or figure drawings with a story. Suppose you are my respondent and the subject is soap. I’ve already talked to you about soap. What you see in it. Why you buy it. What you like about it. Dislike about it. Then at the end of the interview I say, ‘Please draw me a figure-anything you want-and after the figure is drawn tell me a story about the figure.'”

When Herzog asked her subjects to draw a figure at the end of an interview, she was trying to extract some kind of narrative from them, something that would shed light on their unstated desires. She was conducting, as she says, a psychoanalytic session. But she wouldn’t ask about hair-color products in order to find out about you, the way a psychoanalyst might; she would ask about you in order to learn about hair-color products. She saw that the psychoanalytic interview could go both ways. You could use the techniques of healing to figure out the secrets of selling. “Does she or doesn’t she?” and “Because I’m worth it” did the same thing: they not only carried a powerful and redemptive message, but-and this was their real triumph-they succeeded in attaching that message to a five-dollar bottle of hair dye. The lasting contribution of motivational research to Madison Avenue was to prove that you could do this for just about anything-that the products and the commercial messages with which we surround ourselves are as much a part of the psychological furniture of our lives as the relationships and emotions and experiences that are normally the subject of psychoanalytic inquiry.

“There is one thing we did at Tinker that I remember well,”Herzog told me, returning to the theme of one of her, and Tinker’s, coups. “I found out that people were using Alka-Seltzer for stomach upset, but also for headaches,” Herzog said. “We learned that the stomach ache was the kind of ache where many people tended to say ‘It was my fault.’ Alka-Seltzer had been mostly advertised in those days as a cure for overeating, and overeating is something you have done. But the headache is quite different. It is something imposed on you.” This was, to Herzog, the classic psychological insight. It revealed Alka-Seltzer users to be divided into two apparently incompatible camps-the culprit and the victim-and it suggested that the company had been wooing one at the expense of the other. More important, it suggested that advertisers, with the right choice of words, could resolve that psychological dilemma with one or, better yet, two little white tablets. Herzog allowed herself a small smile. “So I said the nice thing would be if you could find something that combines these two elements. The copywriter came up with ‘the blahs.'” Herzog repeated the phrase, “the blahs,” because it was so beautiful. “The blahs was not one thing or the other-it was not the stomach or the head. It was both.”

6.

This notion of household products as psychological furniture is, when you think about it, a radical idea. When we give an account of how we got to where we are, we’re inclined to credit the philosophical over the physical, and the products of art over the products of commerce. In the list of sixties social heroes, there are musicians and poets and civil-rights activists and sports figures. Herzog’s implication is that such a high-minded list is incomplete. What, say, of Vidal Sassoon? In the same period, he gave the world the Shape, the Acute Angle, and the One-Eyed Ungaro. In the old “cosmology of cosmetology,” McCracken writes, “the client counted only as a plinth…the conveyor of the cut.” But Sassoon made individualization the hallmark of the haircut, liberating women’s hair from the hair styles of the times-from, as McCracken puts it, those “preposterous bits of rococo shrubbery that took their substance from permanents, their form from rollers, and their rigidity from hair spray.” In the Herzogian world view, the reasons we might give to dismiss Sassoon’s revolution-that all he was dispensing was a haircut, that it took just half an hour, that it affects only the way you look, that you will need another like it in a month-are the very reasons that Sassoon is important. If a revolution is not accessible, tangible, and replicable, how on earth can it be a revolution?

“Because I’m worth it” and “Does she or doesn’t she?” were powerful, then, precisely because they were commercials, for commercials come with products attached, and products offer something that songs and poems and political movements and radical ideologies do not, which is an immediate and affordable means of transformation. “We discovered in the first few years of the ‘Because I’m worth it’ campaign that we were getting more than our fair share of new users to the category-women who were just beginning to color their hair,” Sennott told me. “And within that group we were getting those undergoing life changes, which usually meant divorce. We had far more women who were getting divorced than Clairol had. Their children had grown, and something had happened, and they were reinventing themselves.” They felt different, and Ilon Specht gave them the means to look different-and do we really know which came first, or even how to separate the two? They changed their lives and their hair. But it wasn’t one thing or the other. It was both.

7.

Since the mid-nineties, the spokesperson for Clairol’s Nice ‘n Easy has been Julia Louis-Dreyfus, better known as Elaine, from “Seinfeld.” In the Clairol tradition, she is the girl next door-a postmodern Doris Day. But the spots themselves could not be less like the original Polykoff campaigns for Miss Clairol. In the best of them, Louis-Dreyfus says to the dark-haired woman in front of her on a city bus, “You know, you’d look great as a blonde.” Louis-Dreyfus then shampoos in Nice ‘n Easy Shade 104 right then and there, to the gasps and cheers of the other passengers. It is Shirley Polykoff turned upside down: funny, not serious; public, not covert.

L’Oreal, too, has changed. Meredith Baxter Birney said “Because I’m worth it” with an earnestness appropriate to the line. By the time Cybill Shepherd became the brand spokeswoman, in the eighties, it was almost flip-a nod to the materialism of the times-and today, with Heather Locklear, the spots have a lush, indulgent feel. “New Preference by L’Oreal,”she says in one of the current commercials. “Pass it on. You’re worth it.” The “because” -which gave Ilon Specht’s original punch line such emphasis-is gone. The forceful “I’m” has been replaced by “you’re.” The Clairol and L’Oreal campaigns have converged. According to the Spectra marketing firm, there are almost exactly as many Preference users as Nice ‘n Easy users who earn between fifty thousand and seventy-five thousand dollars a year, listen to religious radio, rent their apartments, watch the Weather Channel, bought more than six books last year, are fans of professional football, and belong to a union.

But it is a tribute to Ilon Specht and Shirley Polykoff’s legacy that there is still a real difference between the two brands. It’s not that there are Clairol women or L’Oreal women. It’s something a little subtler. As Herzog knew, all of us, when it comes to constructing our sense of self, borrow bits and pieces, ideas and phrases, rituals and products from the world around us-over-the-counter ethnicities that shape, in some small but meaningful way, our identities. Our religion matters, the music we listen to matters, the clothes we wear matter, the food we eat matters-and our brand of hair dye matters, too. Carol Hamilton, L’Oreal’s vice-president of marketing, says she can walk into a hair-color focus group and instantly distinguish the Clairol users from the L’Oreal users. “The L’Oreal user always exhibits a greater air of confidence, and she usually looks better-not just her hair color, but she always has spent a little more time putting on her makeup, styling her hair,” Hamilton told me. “Her clothing is a little bit more fashion-forward. Absolutely, I can tell the difference.” Jeanne Matson, Hamilton’s counterpart at Clairol, says she can do the same thing. “Oh, yes,” Matson told me. “There’s no doubt. The Clairol woman would represent more the American-beauty icon, more naturalness. But it’s more of a beauty for me, as opposed to a beauty for the external world. L’Oreal users tend to be a bit more aloof. There is a certain warmth you see in the Clairol people. They interact with each other more. They’ll say, ‘I use Shade 101.’ And someone else will say, ‘Ah, I do, too!’ There is this big exchange.”

These are not exactly the brand personalities laid down by Polykoff and Specht, because this is 1999, and not 1956 or 1973. The complexities of Polykoff’s artifice have been muted. Specht’s anger has turned to glamour. We have been left with just a few bars of the original melody. But even that is enough to insure that “Because I’m worth it” will never be confused with “Does she or doesn’t she?” Specht says, “It meant I know you don’t think I’m worth it, because that’s what it was with the guys in the room. They were going to take a woman and make her the object. I was defensive and defiant. I thought, I’ll fight you. Don’t you tell me what I am. You’ve been telling me what I am for generations.” As she said “fight,” she extended the middle finger of her right hand. Shirley Polykoff would never have given anyone the finger. She was too busy exulting in the possibilities for self-invention in her America-a land where a single woman could dye her hair and end up lying on a beach with a ring on her finger. At her retirement party, in 1973, Polykoff reminded the assembled executives of Clairol and of Foote, Cone & Belding about the avalanche of mail that arrived after their early campaigns: “Remember that letter from the girl who got to a Bermuda honeymoon by becoming a blonde?”

Everybody did.

“Well,” she said, with what we can only imagine was a certain sweet vindication, “I wrote it.”