All the simple answers are wrong – what I really learned in graduate school

Ten years of graduate school, two masters degrees, one doctorate and there are four statements that still stand out decades later.

Dr. Irv Balow, our research methods professor had just been asked by a  frustrated student,

“It seems like every time we ask you a question, the answer is always, ‘The data don’t support that hypothesis’ or ‘It depends on other variables’.  Isn’t there anything that you can say a straight yes or no?” 

Dr. Balow pondered this seriously for moment and responded,

“After twenty-five years of research experience, the only thing I can say with great certainty about education and psychology is this – All the simple answers are wrong.”

I am having a great time working on our new course in Developmental Psychology. Many beginning students in psychology find it frustrating that they cannot get “a straight answer” to such questions as, “Why did my cousin, who has two parents who never drink, become an alcoholic?” or “Why do some children who seem to be developing so well before school suddenly have problems when they begin kindergarten or first grade?”

Such frustrations led Urie Bronfenbrenner to comment that we are left with “… a science that tells us precious little about the questions which beckon us to it.”
In fact, with all due respect to Dr. Bronfenbrenner, it seems to me a little naive that we should expect COMPLETE answers to any complex question about human behavior. Let’s take you as an example. (Yes, I am talking about you). You no doubt have relatives who did not attend college, despite the fact that they are about your age, perhaps from the same family, had some of the same teachers, lived in the same community. I challenge you to name a SINGLE reason. I bet you can name a great many reasons, but not point to the ONE and ONLY ONE reason why you attended college and they are not.

One reason life is not so simple is even when you things have the same number, they can actually be different experiences. For example, I just read a New York Times article about Marian Radke-Yarrow, who was doing research at Harvard for years, on maternal depression.  It turns out that not all depression is the same. Some people are “irritably depressed”, other people are “silently depressed” and still others have bipolar disorder where they are alternately depressed and manic.

An article published over twenty years ago, also in the New York Times challenges the assumption that brothers and sisters really do grow up in the same environment. In other words, each person has different friends, different teachers, and even different experiences in the same family. One child may be closer to his father while the other is closer to his mother. A child who is academically talented may feel challenged to achieve by parental demands that he gets straight A’s, while another child who does not have the same ability may be depressed and discouraged, feeling he will never measure up.

So… this is how the course is beginning – with the question of “Why do people turn out  the way they do?”

On our Julia Group Forum, Ronda asked if students only take courses like developmental psychology to try to understand themselves better. My answer was that some do, and so, for what I think is that large majority of students, this will be a good way to start.

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