“We’ve got this gift of love,” John Lennon once said, “but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.”
But if you look around, it doesn’t look like we’re nurturing much. The nightly news is filled with people’s lives gone awry. Tune into any five o’clock program and you will encounter an unending torrent of murders, shootings, burglaries, and various other nefarious activities that humanity has been up to in the past twenty-four hours. It is enough to leave you feeling distressed and depressed, but also wondering about what went so wrong in these people’s lives that picking up a gun or breaking into a series of houses seemed like a good idea.
What if something could have been done to change the course of these behaviors? Ask Anthony Biglan, a senior scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, and he will tell you there are many things that could have made a difference, could have helped prevent someone from becoming yet another sad headline. In his new book, The Nurture Effect, Biglan demonstrates the power of a nurturing environment to turn the tide and create a prosocial society.
With more than four decades in the field, Biglan is an expert in the science of prevention with a number of accolades. The science, he argues, already exists for us to create a society in which “young people arrive at adulthood with the skills, interests, assets, and health habits needed to live healthy, happy, and productive lives in caring relationships with others.” The key, he proposes, is for us to make changes at the individual and the societal level that nurture others. Part of that is to encourage positive, prosocial behavior by rewarding it with both tangible and intangible benefits, like pay, praise, public recognition, smiling, and love.
Biglan manages to strike the right balance of well-grounded research and individual experience, and that combination makes for a highly readable book that will interest both lay readers and professionals. After discussing what the behavioral and biological sciences have found that makes human thrive, Biglan focuses focuses on interventions at the individual and family level. He includes success stories like the Nurse-Family Partnership, a program that connects single, at-risk mothers with skilled nurses who provide support. While the program lasts just until the child is two years old, Biglan writes, the effects continue to resonate, dramatically reducing the likelihood that these children will be arrested as teenagers.
Biglan than broadens his lens to the societal level. Here he describes the challenges we are up against — such as corporate marketing and income inequality — as well as ways we might overcome these hurdles. He examines how public health practices, originally focused on physical illness and injury, can be leveraged to facilitate behavioral changes. Finally, he brings it back to the individual, emphasizing the importance of cultivating forbearance and forgiveness. “The skill we need,” he writes, “ is ‘stepping over the aversives of others.’ ”
Biglan highlights specific ways we can each intervene. For example, at the end of his chapter on developing nurturing schools, he has action points directed separately at citizens, parents, educators, and policy makers. His ideas show how change can occur on many different levels, suggesting we can all have a role in creating a more nurturing, prosocial future.
If that sounds a bit too utopian, Biglan realizes it. He acknowledges that it might sound unattainable. But, he reminds us, “If that seems like hyperbole, remember how long it took to communicate with someone on the other side of the world in 1850 — before science created telephone networks and the Internet.” He argues that we can capitalize on our scientific understanding of human behavior to make substantial societal gains just as we have used scientific understanding to make progress in other ways.
It is a compelling argument. Use what we know from research to effectively nurture people. Water that plant, as the famous Beatle said, instead of wondering how it got so dried out.
The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World
New Harbinger Publications, March 2015
Hardcover, 272 pages