Monday, June 22, 2015

It’s Easier to Swim Downstream than Upstream

Don Siegel

In 1951 Solomon Ash conducted what has become a classic study in social psychology[1]. Ash set-up a testing situation in which a subject was shown a vertical line on the left side of a screen, and asked to match which of three lines on the right side of the screen was the same length. For the most part, this was a relatively easy task, as was shown in a control condition. Subjects easily detected the correct line. But, Ash was interested in determining how social influence affected an individual’s judgment. So unbeknownst to the real subject, he had 3-4 confederates give their responses prior to the actual subject giving his. On 12 of 18 trials they gave a clearly incorrect response. On 75% of these trials the actual subject went along with the confederates and made the incorrect judgment. Subsequent interviews with subjects found that most conformed to the confederates in order to fit in with the group. While there have been many critiques of this particular paradigm over the years, Ash clearly demonstrated how powerful normative group behavior can be in shaping the behavior of individuals in the group.[2] In essence, conforming to what others in a group do is easier than asserting individuality.

Then there was Nathan Pritikin who was a self-made entrepreneur-inventor, who after being diagnosed with heart disease in 1957, was determined to find a holistic cure to his malady.  He scoured the scientific and anthropological literature and developed a low-fat diet that was correlated with having a healthy heart. It was based on unrefined carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. He also included moderate amounts of aerobic exercise in his program. This formula helped him to reverse his condition, and he set out to help others with similar medical conditions that resulted from poor health behaviors.[3] In 1976, he created the Pritikin Longevity Center, where people could go for several weeks or months and learn about and live a Pritikin Lifestyle.[4] Without debating the virtues of the Pritikin Program, people who attend the residential site report how transformative the experience is and how relative easy it is to follow what some have observed to be a very restrictive and hard to follow diet. What is there about being in residence that makes conforming to Pritikin’s regimen possible? I think that the same reason that Ash’s subjects conformed to confederates is at play here. Everyone on the Pritikin staff, which includes dieticians, exercise physiologists, medical doctors, psychologists, and trainers, along with guests, behave in accordance with the program’s diet and exercise tenets. When everyone is aligned, and the environment is self-contained, behavioral change is relatively simple. However, each year, many adherents return to get re-inoculated with the Pritikin Program, as they disappointingly revert back to their pre-Pritikin behaviors once they go home, and reconnect with the people and environment that produced the symptomology that led them to Pritikin in the first place. Like Ash, Pritikin shows us that it is much easier to swim downstream than upstream when significant behavioral change is a goal.

Other Examples

Recently, important data have been reported on two initiatives that reinforce the importance of group values, assets, and behaviors on an individual’s economic prospects and well-being. The first entails a government initiative called Moving to Opportunity (MTO), which attempts to answer the question of whether moving from a high-poverty neighborhood to a lower-poverty community improves the social and economic prospects of low-income families. In essence, the government set-up a controlled experiment in which rental assistance vouchers were provided to a subset of low income families to relocate from high-poverty public housing projects to a low poverty area in five major cities.  Initial results of MTO showed that such a move improved the mental and physical health of adults[5]. However, such a move had little or no impact on their economic outcomes. But, more recent work that is able to examine the effects of such a move on the children in these families shows that they, unlike their parents, benefitted economically as adults. In fact, researchers Chetty and Hendersen[6] found that duration of exposure is a critical factor, and that every year a child spent in the better neighborhood increased the child’s income as an adult. They concluded that “moving a child out of public housing to a low-poverty area when young (at age 8 on average) using a subsidized voucher like the MTO experimental voucher will increase the child's total lifetime earnings by about $302,000.” Other researchers corroborate such effects, and estimate financial returns of $635,000 to children who are born into a bottom income quartile neighborhood and are raised in a top-quartile neighborhood.[7] Such data provide another variation of the group and community effects shown by Ash and Pritikin. Whether explicitly or implicitly one’s behavior is affected by the norms of the community in which one lives.

A final example of such effects entails that of average community longevity that I wrote about in a past post. The Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University has been mapping average longevity in neighborhoods in various cities across America[8], and has reported disparities as great as 20 years in communities separated by only a few miles. Not surprisingly, such longevity differences are highly correlated with the wealth and lifestyles of inhabitants. But, as Dan Buettner, a researcher who has studied what has become known as Blue Zones, where people live significantly longer and healthier lives explains there are specific lessons to be learned from such research that can be applied to other communities. Interestingly, he debunks the notion that individuals have the fortitude to change health behaviors related to diet and exercise on their own over the long-term. While he acknowledges that individuals may be successful in the short-term, data shows that they invariably revert back to their pre-diet and exercise selves. Buettner attributes 80% of the Blue Zone effect to environmental causes that are a function of community wide factors. Again, it appears that for individuals seeking significant change in their lives, whether it be economic, health, or psycho-social well-being, swimming downstream with one’s cohorts is a lot more effective than trying to swim upstream against the prevailing social-environmental currents that exist.

What Does All Of This Have To Do With Youth Development?

So what does all of this mean to those of us who work in youth development programs? While such studies span the fields of psychology, health, economics, and sociology, a common theme is that social influence is powerful, and that the communities in which we grow-up and live are among the most influential factors determining whether we will thrive. Clearly, as research shows us, growing-up in some communities have advantages over growing-up in other communities.

While the MTO initiative illustrates the power of moving from a poorer community to a wealthier one for children, it seems unlikely that we will be having such mass migrations of families anytime soon. Consequently, those of us doing youth development work might think more strategically about how we can construct environments within environments in order to provide as much exposure to our youth of those things that they would get in a wealthier and healthier community if they had the opportunity to do so. This is like having a Pritikin Longevity Institute or a Blue Zone transported and reconstructed in other locales. In many ways, whether by design or not, this is what the best youth development programs are already doing. It is more than their themes, curriculums, or buildings that make them great. It is how their communities work. The question then becomes, how does a program create a Pritikin-like, MTO-like, higher longevity-like, neighborhood that helps kids to thrive beyond what they would normally achieve had such a program not existed?

  Clearly, there are lots of good ideas about how to answer such a question, with lists of properties that researchers have identified over the years.[9] It makes sense that on a basic level that these neighborhoods need to be places that are physically and psychologically safe. This provides the prerequisites for any environment where positive youth development occurs. They also need to be places that are inclusive, irrespective of a child’s race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socio-cultural-economic identity. In essence, they are friendly and safe places where warm and supportive relationships can be developed among peers, and between adult staff and youth. Such relationships can be equated with those in a family in that staff are willing to show unconditional love for participants. Like good parents, they attempt to expose children to enriching experiences, celebrate their successes, and are willing to forgive them for periodically going off the rails. As well, peers, like siblings, support one another and will re-embrace each other after inevitable conflicts. Everyone will also celebrate noteworthy events and accomplishments of each participant, whether they are birthdays, an improving grade, or success in an extracurricular endeavor. Community members will also be supportive and sympathetic to those experiencing personal setbacks. In essence, such neighborhoods are places that promote building strong social bonds among kids and adult mentors; where all feel valued, supported, and connected to one another.

While all sorts of thematic groups can form such connections, the distinguishing quality of those that promote positive youth development is that they develop and reinforce positive behavior by the pervasive social norms that permeate their culture. An example of this in Project Coach is our deep-rooted belief in the growth mindset [10], which asserts that development as coaches, students, and citizens normally comes from learning, practicing, and expending effort, rather than from ethereal innate gifts. We recognize that mistakes are a part of learning, and that taking calculated risks, such as attempting to learn a more difficult skill or enrolling in a more challenging class at school, is to be encouraged despite the increased possibility of failure. Our program culture consistently reinforces such beliefs and behaviors, and recognizes participants for being industrious, enthusiastic, and showing initiative. Other pervasive qualities that Project Coach fosters encompass empathy, friendship, loyalty, self-control, cooperation, and community development. We also value democratic decision-making with regard to selecting staff, program activities, and choosing community projects. By engaging youth in this process we have found that it enhances their sense of efficacy and beliefs about effecting change in their own lives and that of their community. Of critical importance in building and maintaining such a culture is explicitly recognizing what a program stands for, and operationalizing such through its day-to-day activities.

Once such a framework is created, virtually anything else is possible. Having a theme around which such a culture is built is fairly typical of youth development programs. Sports, arts, music, dance, theater, media, environment, and many other activities provide the core that draws everyone together. These thematic activities can also provide opportunities to bridge outward across neighborhoods and to reduce the isolation and social distances between poor and wealthier areas. We have seen underserved kids playing squash at Harvard, others broadcasting their commentary on NPR, and others visiting corporate offices in Boston to deliver art works. We have also seen kids traveling nationally and internationally to work with other kids on various projects. The point here being that enriched neighborhoods are not segregated and insular, but ones that promote connections across racial, ethnic, and socio-economic strata. In essence, this captures some of the benefits of MTOs and other beneficial environmental supports to development, without having to create massive government initiatives that transplant large numbers of families.

In aggregate I have attempted to describe another critical aspect of excellent youth development programs. It is like the spaces between notes in a great piece of music or the pauses and inflections of voice manifested by great actors. They are not as readily emphasized as the notes played by the musician or the words uttered by a thespian, but they make all the difference in the quality of a performance. Barton Hirsch captured the essence of what this quality is in his book entitled A Place to Call Home[11]. Call it a culture, a neighborhood, or a home, but the basic message is that transformative programs for youth need to be more than their themes, curriculum, or physical plants. They need to be places that resemble families, and which have the capacity to instantiate its security, values, and behavioral norms while supporting the growth of its members. When a child becomes part of such a community, good things generally happen, as we have learned, it is a lot easier to swim with the pack, than to swim against it.


[1] Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgment. In H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.
[2] For a good overview of Ash’s work see the following YouTube video at:
[3] The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise. Bantam. ISBN 978-0553271928 co-authored with Patrick M. McGrady (1979).
[5] Ludwig, Jens, Greg J. Duncan, Lisa A. Gennetian, Lawrence F. Katz, Ronald C. Kessler, Jeffrey R. Kling, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu. 2013. “Long-Term Neighborhood Effects on Low-Income Families: Evidence from Moving to Opportunity.” American Economic Review P&P 103(3): 226-31.
[6] Chetty, R, and Hendersen, N. (2015) The impacts of neighborhoods on tentergenerational mobility: childhood exposure effects and county-level estimates.
[7] Rothwell, J., and Massey, D. (2015). Geographic effects on intergenerational income mobility. Economic Geography, volume 91 (1), 83-106.
[10] Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset : The new psychology of success (Ballantine Books). New York: Ballantine Books.
[11] Hirsch, B. J. (2005). A place to call home: After-school programs for urban youth.\ Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association; New York, NY, US: Teachers College Press.

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