Cohort effects

7 Jan

Last year, I heard Tom Brokaw speak at Chautauqua about his book The Greatest Generation.  I don’t want to disparage or discount in anyway the heroism and sacrifice of so many people, but I am always a little bit uneasy about generational talk. After all there were plenty of people in that generation who did not behave bravely, indeed, there were Americans of that generation who actively supported Hitler. Before you make any generalization about a generation, think about the vast range of behaviors among your own contemporaries.

That being said, it would be surprising if there were no cohort effects. The Flynn Effect, for example, shows that cognitive change can occur over the generations. We would expect that changing technologies, educational practices, social mores, and the cumulative experience of the past would have psychological consequences.

Here is a recent article from The Observer, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science, that reviews the research on cohort effects and the related controversies:

 “We tend to view our preferences and idiosyncrasies as inherently singular — a unique cocktail of traits that emerges from mixing genetic predispositions with our familial and social experiences. But ever since Karl Mannheim proposed his theory of generations in a seminal 1923 essay, researchers have tried to elucidate the influence of the sociocultural environment — including those influences unique to each generation — on aspects of our personalities and attitudes.
This work is not without its skeptics. Many social scientists regard the evidence of birth cohort effects on the individual to be inconclusive at best. But others believe they have uncovered some clear, collective traits that distinguish one age group from another.”

 

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