Do you believe that economic success is just a matter of having a good work ethic and strong personal motivation?  Most people do.  But in reality this is a perfect example of the Fundamental Attribution Error and the Self Serving Bias.

 

Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate circumstances of others as being a reflection of their character traits rather than as a result of environmental circumstances (e.g., growing up in poverty).  What is even more interesting is that when we mess up, we tend to blame it on environmental factors rather than accepting personal responsibility.  When we are successful however, we take credit for the outcome assigning credit to internal personal attributes and devaluing environmental contributors.  This latter error is the Self Serving Bias.

 

This erroneous thinking is universal, automatic, and it is what drives a wedge between people on different points of the socio-economic spectrum.  If you believe that poor people are impoverished simply because they are lazy free-loaders, you are likely a victim of this thinking error.  The same is true if you believe that your success is completely of your own doing.

 

I have written numerous articles on the impact of poverty on early childhood development (i.e., The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development) and the bottom line is that economic deprivation weakens the social and neurobiological foundation of children in ways that have life-long implications.  In this post I will summarize a review article by Knudsen, Heckman, Cameron, and Shonkoff entitiled: Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce.  This 2006 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an excellent review of the research across many fields including developmental psychology, neuroscience, and economics.  It highlights the core concepts that converge with regard to the fact that the quality of early childhood environment is a strong predictor of adult productivity.  The authors point to the evidence that robustly supports the following notions:

 

  1. Genes and environment play out in an interdependent manner. Knudsen et al., (2006) noted that “… the activation of neural circuits by experience also can cause dramatic changes in the genes that are expressed (“turned on”) in specific circuits (58-60). The protein products of these genes can have far reaching effects on the chemistry of neurons and, therefore, on their excitability and architecture.”  Adverse experiences can and do fundamentally alter one’s temperament and capacity to learn throughout life.
  2. Essential cognitive skills are built in a hierarchical manner, whereby fundamental skills are laid down in early childhood and these foundational neural pathways serve as a basis upon which important higher level skills are built.
  3. Cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent – all nascent in early childhood, when adverse environmental perturbations reek havoc on, and across, each of these fundamental skill sets.
  4. There are crucial and time-sensitive windows of opportunity for building these fundamental competencies.  Should one fail to develop these core skills during this crucial early developmental stage, it becomes increasingly unlikely that later remediation will approximate the potential one had, if those skills were developed on schedule.  A cogent analogy here is learning a new language – it is far easier to learn a new language early in development when the language acquisition window is open, than it is later in life when this window is nearly closed.

 

In my last two posts (Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key and Poverty Preventing Preschool Programs: Fade-Out, Grit, and the Rich get Richer) I discussed two successful early intervention programs (e.g., Perry Preschool Program & Abecedarian Project) that demonstrated positive long-term benefits with regard to numerous important social and cognitive skills. Knudsen, et al, (2006) noted:

 

“At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups.”

 

These findings converge with research on animal analogues investigating the neurodevelopmental impact of early stimulation versus deprivation across species.  Knudsen et al., (2006) point out that:

 

  1. There are indeed cross species negative neurodevelopmental consequences associated with adverse early developmental perturbations.
  2. There clearly are time sensitive windows during which failure to develop crucial skills have life-long consequences.  Neural plasticity decreases with age.
  3. However, there are time sensitive windows of opportunity during which quality programs and therapies can reverse the consequences of adverse environmental circumstances (i.e., poverty, stress, violence).

 

Early learning clearly shapes the architecture of the brain.  Appropriate early stimulation fosters neural development, while conversely, impoverished environments diminish adaptive neural stimulation and thus hinders neural development.  Timing is everything it seems.  Although we learn throughout our lifespan, our capacity to learn is built upon a foundation that can be strengthened or impaired by early environmental experiences.  It is very difficult to make up for lost time later in life – much as it is difficult to build a stable building on an inadequate foundation.  Stimulating environments during these crucial early neurodevelopment periods are far more efficient than remediation after the fact.  These realities provide further justification for universally available evidence based early preschool services for children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.  Proactive stimulation fosters stronger and more productive citizens – yet, we continue to respond in a reactive manner with remedial and/or punitive measures that miss the mark.  The necessary proactive response is clear.

 

References:

 

Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.

 

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In my last post, Halting the Negative Feedback Loop of Poverty: Early Intervention is the Key I looked at the evidence from two quality studies of preschool intervention programs that substantiated a capacity to counteract the impairing impact of growing up in economic deprivation.  Both studies,  Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Project demonstrated positive long-term benefits with regard to numerous important social and cognitive skills.  In this post I shall discuss some interesting issues and concepts that underlie the gains made at Perry and Abecedarian, including fade-out, grit, and positive and negative feedback loops.

 

The issue of fade-out, and its implications, are very important.  In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs there were substantial positive outcomes with regard to immediate IQ and other cognitive scores.  Once the children entered typical school age programs,  some of their gains, particularly their IQ (which had a 10-15 point boost during treatment) faded away.  This fade-out was strikingly true for the Perry Preschool Program but not so for the Abecedarian Project, which had a substantially more intensive program, involving both longer school days and more school days per year.  See Figure 1 below.

 

Figure 1

 

Despite this apparent fade-out, when the recipients of this specialized programing where assessed decades later, they did much better than non-recipients on relative life issues such as high school graduation, four-year college attendance, and home ownership.  These results are encouraging on the one hand, yet puzzling on the other.  Such fade-out renders programs like Head Start vulnerable to those who cherry pick  data in order to advance ideologically driven political agendas.  Regardless, this does raise some important questions.

 

  1. Why do gains in IQ appear to fade-out?
  2. What skill gains account for the long-term gains made?

 

Some prominent researchers (e.g., David Barnett) question whether there is actually any true fade-out at all – suggesting that faulty research design and attrition may better explain these results.  Regardless, IQ is not the sole variable at play here – if anything, this data highlights the questionable validity of the IQ construct itself, relative to important life skills.  If improved IQ is not the variable that results in improved social outcomes we need to understand what happens to these children as a result of the programming they receive.  One likely hypothesis has been proffered to explain these data:

 

the intervention programs may have induced greater powers of self-regulation and self-control in the children, and … these enhanced executive skills may have manifested themselves in greater academic achievement much later in life.” (Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

 

Evidence has been substantiated for this hypothesis by Duckworth et al., (2005, 2007, 2009) who demonstrated that self discipline and perseverance or “grit” is more predictive of academic performance than is IQ and other conventional measures of cognitive ability (Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).  It appears that enhancing one’s grit has the effect of triggering long-term capabilities that are self-reinforcing.  Improved self-control and attentiveness fosters achievement that ultimately feeds-back in a positive way making traditional school more rewarding and thus promoting even more intellectual growth (Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).  Poor children, without intervention, on the other hand, appear less able to focus, attend, and sustain effort on learning and thus enter a negative feedback loop of struggle, failure, and academic disenchantment.

The bottom line is that success begets success and failure begets failure.  Stanovich (1986) offered an analogous explanation for reading proficiency: “…learning to read can produce precisely such effects: the better a child can read, the more likely they are to seek out and find new reading material, thereby improving their reading ability still further.” (Raizada & Kishiyama, 2010).

 

Both the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Programs have impressive long-term outcome data.  See figures 2 & 3 below for a summary of those data.

 

Figure 2

Figure 3

 

The efficacy of each program has spawned other programs such as Knowledge is Power Program and the Harlem’s Children’s Zone.  Both of these intensive programs lack randomized assignment to treatment and non-treatment (control) groups.  As a result, it is difficult to make any claims about their treatment impact on important cognitive and social skills.  Given what we learned from the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, I have to wonder whether it would be ethical to withhold such treatment from those children randomly assigned to the control group.  It now seems to me, that we absolutely have an ethical obligation to short circuit the negative feedback loop of poverty and put into place universally accessible programs that diminish and/or eradicate poverty’s crippling life long impact.

 

We all pay a heavy price for poverty, but no one pays a greater cost than those children, who have been thrust into their circumstances, with little hope of rising out of poverty unless we join together to give them a fair shot at economic and social equality.

 

Yes, such programs cost money, but the long term economic costs of the status-quo are much greater.  Pay me now and build positive contributors to society, or pay me later and pay greater costs for special education, prisons, medicaid, and public assistance.  It certainly pays to step back from ideology and look at the real costs – both in terms of human lives and in terms of dollars and cents.  It makes no sense to continually blame the victims here.  Early intervention is good fiscal policy and it is the right thing to do.  It just makes sense!

 

NOTE: In a future post I will look at the evidence put forward by cognitive neuroscience for such programs.  Also see The Effects of Low SES on Brain Development for further evidence of the negative impact low SES has on children.

 

References:

 

Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.

 

Raizada, R. D. S., and Kishiyama, M. M. (2010). Effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, and how cognitive neuroscience may contribute to leveling the playing field.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. v. 4 article 3.

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The United States is the richest nation in the world, nevertheless, 2007 Census data indicates that 17.4% of our children live in poverty.  That translates into 1 in 6 kids living in a state of economic deprivation.  These huge numbers of our most vulnerable are growing up in circumstances completely beyond their control; yet, they, and ultimately all of us, pay for the lifelong consequences of this state of affairs.

 

A large and growing body of research has been devoted to understanding the real world developmental implications of such deprivation.  It is widely believed that poverty is bad for kids.  Genetic and cognitive neuroscience seems to be substantiating that this relationship does in fact impede the development of important life-long social and cognitive skills.  For example: children who grow up in poverty evidence diminished: (a) phonemic awareness, (b) vocabulary, (c) verbal math skills,  (d) control over attention to task, (e) working memory, (f) executive functioning, and (g) incidental learning capabilities (Knudsen, et al., 2006, Raizada and Kishiyama, 2010).  Diminished capacity in any of these areas degrades one’s ability to make the best of learning opportunities provided.

 

Many folks comfortably blame those in poverty for their circumstances, suggesting that genetic inferiority, personal character traits, or irresponsible choices land poor people in their circumstances.  Some comfortably point at the “culture of poverty” as the culprit while believing that their own superior work ethic and drive for success solely differentiates them from their poor brethren. Despite a plethora of data indicating that this thinking essentially blames the victim, it persists.

 

Evidence suggests that genes may in fact play a part in this affluence disparity, but, it is becoming increasingly clear that environment plays a crucial role in how those genes are expressed.  Specifically, “some genes are turned on or off, or can have their expression levels adjusted by experience.” (Knudsen, et al, 2006). Clearly environment impedes the development of the important social and cognitive skills described above and thus creates a negative feedback loop that sustains folks in perpetual poverty.  With this knowledge in hand, it is becoming ethically and fiscally necessary to understand the mechanism through which deprivation actually affects brain development.

 

Cognitive neuroscience, through brain imaging studies, is increasingly providing an understanding of this mechanism.  More to come on this in subsequent posts.  It is equally important to understand whether there are intervention strategies that can remediate or limit the implications of such deprivation.

 

There are two robust and reasonably well designed studies of Early Intervention Programs for disadvantaged children that do appear to remediate, to a substantial degree, the negative impact of growing up in poverty.  These include the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program.  Each of these programs set out to see if intervention has any hope of blocking this negative feedback.  Each study used randomized child assignment and long-term follow up to evaluate the implications of the provided interventions on social behavior and cognitive development. The summary below is from Knudsen, et al, 2006.

 

The Perry Program was an intensive preschool program that was administered to 64 disadvantaged, black children in Ypsilanti, MI, between 1962 and 1967. The treatment consisted of a daily 2.5-h classroom session on weekday mornings and a weekly 90-min home visit by the teacher on weekday afternoons. The length of each preschool year was 30 weeks. The control and treatment groups have been followed through age 40. The Abecedarian Program involved 111 disadvantaged children, born between 1972 and 1977, whose families scored high on a risk index. The mean age at entry was 4.4 months. The program was a year-round, full-day intervention that continued through age 8. The children were followed up until age 21, and the project is ongoing.

 

In both the Perry and Abecedarian Programs, there was a consistent pattern of successful outcomes for treatment group members compared with control group members. For the Perry Program, an initial increase in IQ disappeared gradually over 4 years after the intervention, as has been observed in other studies.  However, in the more intense Abecedarian Program, which intervened earlier (starting at age 4 months) and lasted longer (until age 8), the gain in IQ persisted into adulthood (21 years old).  This early and persistent increase in IQ is important because IQ is a strong predictor of socioeconomic success.

 

See the figures below (Knudsen, et al, 2006) for the data on these programs.

 

Perry Preschool Data

Abecedarian Program Data

 

As can be seen above, the positive effects of these interventions were also documented for a wide range of social behaviors. Again from Knudsen, et al, 2006:

 

At the oldest ages tested (Perry, 40 yrs; Abecedarian, 21 yrs), individuals scored higher on achievement tests, reached higher levels of education, required less special education, earned higher wages, were more likely to own a home, and were less likely to go on welfare or be incarcerated than individuals from the control groups. Many studies have shown that these aspects of behavior translate directly or indirectly into high economic return. An estimated rate of return (the return per dollar of cost) to the Perry Program is in excess of 17%.  This high rate of return is much higher than standard returns on stock market equity and suggests that society at large can benefit substantially from these kinds of interventions.

 

Clearly, poverty inherently impedes individuals’ potential and renders them less able to contribute to society in a meaningful way. There is ample reason to consider social programs that have proven capacity to limit the negative and disabling consequences of growing up poor. All of us pay a price for poverty whether it be through the criminal justice system, income assistance programs, special education programs, or publicly assisted medical care. Doesn’t it make sense to invest proactively in our children so that we don’t have to respond in a reactive manner after the damage has already been done?

 

It was once said that “every society is judged by how it treats the least fortunate amongst them.”  I believe that this is true.  Even if you don’t believe this to be true, from an economic perspective, it just makes good sense to halt this negative feedback loop – and early intensive intervention is the key to success.  This will benefit all of us.

 

References:

 

Knudsen, E. I., Heckman, J. J., Cameron, J. L., and Shonkoff, J. P. (2006). Economic, neurobiological, and behavioral perspectives on building America’s future workforce.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  v. 103, n. 27. 10155-10162.

 

Raizada, R. D. S., and Kishiyama, M. M. (2010). Effects of socioeconomic status on brain development, and how cognitive neuroscience may contribute to leveling the playing field.  Fontiers in Human Neuroscience. v. 4 article 3.

 

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