Book Club: In Which We Meet Erica

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Book Club: In Which We Meet Erica

So we finally meet Erica. And what a character she is.

In our book club readings this week, David Brooks introduces us to the other half of the happy couple with the wonderfully fulfilling lives we read about in the introduction of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

Erica’s beginnings couldn’t be more different than Harold’s middle-class upbringing. Born out of wedlock to a Chinese American mother and a Mexican American father, Erica’s formative years vacillate between periods of parental overinvolvement and neglect. Alcohol and drugs are not strangers to her household, nor is mental illness—and though Brooks tends to gloss over these factors, in chapter seven, entitled Norms, he very effectively makes a case for how the odds are stacked against a kid from a home like Erica’s.

…Scientists have done elaborate calculations to measure the difference in word flows between middle-class and lower-class households. A classic study…found that by the time they are four, children raised in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children raised in professional families. On an hourly basis, professional children heard about 487 “utterances.” Children growing up in welfare homes heard about 178.

Brooks tells us that numerous studies link these verbal environment differences to academic achievement and IQ. So. Before they even enter the game, kids from a lower SES are behind. And that’s not all.

…According to Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania, stress-hormone levels are higher in poor children than in middle-class children. This affects a variety of cognitive systems, including memory, pattern awareness, cognitive control (the ability to resist obvious but wrong answers), and verbal facility. Poor children are also much less likely to live with two biological parents in the home. Research with small mammals has found that animals raised without a father present were slower to develop neural connections than those raised with a father present, and as a result have less impulse controlStudents from the poorest quarter of the population have an 8.6 percent chance of getting a college degree. Students in the top quarter have a 75 percent chance of earning a college degree…

Determined and strong-willed, Erica knows that to succeed in life she needs to change her environment. In those early days, Erica had a motto for herself. She would look in the mirror and tell herself, “I am strong.” She would need to be.

In the eighth grade Erica manages to finagle acceptance into a prestigious new academy for the rest of her schooling. After that, her life begins to change.

In chapter eight we see how the Academy begins to teach Erica about self-discipline. Brooks wastes no time in pointing out how crucial this will be to his character’s success.

…Research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman found that self-control is twice as important as IQ in predicting high-school performance, school attendance, and final grades. Other researchers disagree that self-control trumps IQ, but there is no question self-control is one of the essential ingredients of a fulfilling life.

In 1970, a researcher name Walter Mischel used four-year-olds and a marshmallow to illustrate this point. He set a group of preschoolers up with a marshmallow on a table in front of them. Mischel then told the youngsters they could eat the marshmallow right away, but he had to leave for a bit. If they waited until he returned he would give them two marshmallows. Study results showed that the kids who could wait the longest later did much better in school and had fewer behavioral problems than the more impulsive kids. They also had better social skills in middle school.  Thirteen years later, follow-up showed that the kids who could wait a full fifteen minutes had SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only thirty seconds. Brooks goes on to tell us, twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and thirty years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems.

A look at the background of the children is telling. Kids who could not resist the marshmallows usually came from disorganized homes. The kids who possessed better impulse-control abilities had usually grown up in organized homes. Their stable environment gave them a better understanding of the link between actions and consequences.

Mischel went on to study the strategies the more successful children employed to help them resist the marshmallow. He found they used their imaginations to either distract their mind or think differently about the marshmallow.

…They pretended it wasn’t real, it wasn’t there, or it wasn’t really a marshmallow. They had techniques to adjust their attention…In later experiments, Mischel told the children to put a mental frame around the marshmallow—to imagine that what they were seeing was a picture of a marshmallow. These children could wait on average three times longer than the children who did not imagine a picture…By using their imagination, they encoded their perceptions of the marshmallow differently. They distanced themselves from it and triggered different, less-impulsive models in their heads…

Through her experiences at the Academy, Erica begins to learn self-control and self-discipline. Chapter nine finds her in her first semester of college, far from her home and family. In this strange place of beginnings, Erica comes to an understanding of just how important culture is.

…She’d worked hard at the Academy to prepare herself for Denver. But some of these kids had been preparing their whole lives…She took a look at those kids and thought about her friends back in the neighborhood who were still working at the mall or hanging out on the street. Her friends back home weren’t just four years behind these Denver kids. They were forever behind.

At the end of chapter nine, I find myself eagerly anticipating the moment when the worlds of the ambitious Erica and the affable Howard collide.

What do you think? Link up below with a post at your blog or simply leave us a thought in the comment section. We tackle three more chapters next week:Intelligence, Choice Architecture, and Freedom and Commitment.

Image by Kirsten Skiles. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura J.Boggess.