“Good Thing We’ve Gotten Past All That P.C. Nonsense”

I came across a study the other day about the effects of fatherlessness on children’s self-control, conducted 60 years ago, that I should have known about in more recent decades, as its results were that vivid and important.  I read about it in a book I also should have known about earlier, first published in 2011, a copy of which Amazon overnighted to my doorstep only last week, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by the top-tier research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, and a well-known journalist who writes about science, John Tierney.

Our story starts when another distinguished scholar, Walter Mischel, went to Trinidad in the 1950s to study racial stereotypes that Trinidadians of African descent held about Trinidadians of Indian descent, and vice versa.  In so doing (in Baumeister and Tierney’s description), “Mischel found some support for the stereotypes, but in the process he stumbled on a much bigger and more meaningful effect.  Children who had a father in the home were far more willing than others to choose the delayed reward.”

The highly valued rewards at hand were two candy bars, with one bigger and ten times more expensive than the other.  If the boys and girls chose the smaller and less expensive candy bar they could have it right away.  But if they chose the bigger and pricier one, they would have to wait a week to get it.  About half of the children of African descent chose the delayed reward, though none of them living apart from their fathers were willing to wait.  As for the children of Indian descent, none of them living apart from their fathers were willing to wait either.  Which is to say, despite historical and cultural differences between the two groups, not a single child living apart from his or her father had sufficient willpower to wait a week for a substantially bigger treat.  For context, the “Indian children generally lived with both parents,” while a “fair number of the African children lived with a single parent.”

Helping explain why I wasn’t familiar with this study, other than simple failure on my part, was the way in which Daniel Patrick Moynihan (according to Baumeister and Tierney) was “excoriated” after the release, in 1965, of what came to be known as the “Moynihan Report,” about how family breakdown was hurting African Americans especially – not that there was a single racist explanation or punctuation mark in the report.  Mischel’s findings, Baumeister and Tierney write, “didn’t attract much attention at the time, or in the ensuing decades, when it was dangerous to one’s career to suggest that there might be drawbacks to single-parent homes.”

Good thing, I say, that we’ve finally gotten well past all that P.C. nonsense.  And that scholars can now do their jobs without worrying about being slandered, threatened, assaulted, or having their classrooms commandeered by their self-identified moral superiors.