If the end of 2014 is any indication, the topic of privilege will hold a prominent place in public discussion this year. Privilege is always a difficult topic to tackle because those who have privilege often cannot or do not realize they have it. That is why this topic can be so problematic, especially when compounded with cognitive phenomena including self-serving bias, just world hypothesis, and fundamental attribution bias. In short, people of success or power like to believe they attained that position on their own merits and without any help from anyone else. That people who are less well-off simply aren’t trying hard enough and should “pull themselves up by their boot straps.”
Which can be pretty tough when you don’t even have boots.
In the January 2015 issue of National Geographic is a wonderful article on the impact of language and socialization in infant neurological development. The article reviews several studies on how the brain grows and adapts. (Stay with me, I promise these two paragraphs relate.)
In one study, the researchers compared the IQs of babies born to mothers addicted to cocaine to babies born to mothers not on cocaine. They were surprised by the difference, that is, that there wasn’t one. They then compared babies born into well-off families to babies born to families and poverty and found a significant difference in IQ scores. 15 to 20 points of difference. The difference was attributed to the nurturance the child received.
Through a series of different studies, it has been found that children raised with low or little nurturance display neurological differences (smaller hippocampus, less white matter) compared to their peers. Babies who receive more warmth and interactivity with caregivers do better. It’s like that classic elementary school science project…
The bottom line is that children even as infants are learning language, and grammar, and syntax, and scarcity of these things significantly negatively impacts brain development, both in IQ scores and brain physiology.
What I found even more interesting was that this effect was evident only when the language was delivered socially, face to face. A study examined learning patterns in toddlers exposed to a foreign language. One group of children interacted with a Mandarin tutor who read and played with them. Another group watched a video of that same tutor reading and playing. The third group just received audio of the same. Interestingly, only the human interaction group demonstrated an increased ability to recognize parts of Mandarin speech. This lead to a social gating hypothesis:
social gating hypothesis: the idea that social experience is a portal to linguistic, cognitive, and emotional development.
In short, there’s something about social engagement which boosts brain development including IQ, cognition, emotions, and language. This dovetails perfectly with the previous research about the impact of parental warmth and nurturance.
There is something very discomforting about acknowledging your own privilege. The idea that all the hard work you did put in, the hours you dedicated, the sacrifices you made, may not be entirely responsible. That your cognitive strengths and life success may be in part attributed to an institutional invisible bias or +1 you received by the fact that your parents who provided good-enough nurturance.
This is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of. Otherwise, you risk looking like Craig T. Nelson.
I realize I am insanely lucky and that I carry with me a knapsack of privilege. That does not mean I haven’t suffered, or that I have not failed or struggled. It just means that I was fortunate to be born to parents who did good enough. It means I have had an easier time than a peer who came up in poverty or neglect. As my husband likes to say…
As a white heterosexual male, I play life on easy mode. As a heterosexual woman, you play life on moderate. A black male plays on difficult, and a black LGBT woman plays life on insane difficulty.