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20210711 – The Nurture Effect



The main idea of this book is to provide information on the latest research in behavioral science that demonstrated human need for support and nurturing throughout the life. Based on this information author provides suggestion of how this support should be provided, what results author expect from this support / nurturing, and how it should overcome deficiencies of contemporary society caused by poorly regulated capitalism.


Introduction: The Way Forward
Author begins introduction with the statement that he believes that:” we have the knowledge to achieve a healthier, happier, and more prosperous society than has ever been seen in human history.” He then presents his work history and qualifications as scientist to demonstrate that he knows what he is talking about. Author uses example of successful movement against smoking and expresses his believe that similar movement could be started:” This book is about how we can create such a movement. Nearly all problems of human behavior stem from our failure to ensure that people live in environments that nurture their well-being.” Author declares that evolution, even cultural evolution is too slow to notice change within lifetime, but behavioral sciences now developed knowledge and practical program that would allow create nurturing environment for everybody and everything. Author then provides overview of the book and graphic representation of various interventions that he believes are necessary:

Part 1: Science Equal to the Challenge of the Human Condition

In this part author discusses scientific principles developed over the last 50 years that if implemented would provide:” proven benefit in preventing multiple problems and nurturing successful development.”

  • A Pragmatic Science of Human Behavior: Evolution and Pragmatism; Humans: The Cooperative Species; Nurturing Environments; Building a Nurturing Society

Here author discusses progress in understanding and treatment of mental disorders, something that was impossible in 1960s when author started, but is more or less reality now. Author them discusses evolution as model of causation when features selected by consequences. Here is author’s definition:” An evolutionary analysis starts by studying the phenomenon of interest and its context and seeks to explain the phenomenon as a function of its context. This is true for behavioral explanations as much as it is for the study of species and genes.” Author then proceeds to analyze humans as “the cooperative species” and describes various experiments supporting such ideas as “helpful babies”. The next stop is description of nurturing environments and requirements for interventions to achieve this:” All successful interventions make environments more nurturing in at least three of four ways:

  • Promoting and reinforcing prosocial behavior
  • Minimizing socially and biologically toxic conditions such as coercion
  • Monitoring and setting limits on influences and opportunities to engage in problem behavior
  • Promoting the mindful, flexible, and pragmatic pursuit of prosocial values

Part 2: A Wealth of Knowledge About How to Help People Thrive

In this part author describes how scientific principles:” helped in the development of interventions that assist families, schools, and peer groups to become environments that nurture human development and well-being.”

  • Nurturing Families: Nurturing Development During Pregnancy and the first two Years of Life; Nurturing Young Children; Thriving in Childhood; Keeping Early Adolescents Out of Trouble; Helping Delinquent Adolescents; Action Implications

Here author provides a number of anecdotes describing effective and ineffective approach to raising children and discusses importance of this process to future behavior of individuals. The bottom line is developing ability for emotional regulation and habits of prosocial behavior. Author also expresses strong support for “evidence-based” and cost-effective programs.   

  • Nurturing Schools: Nurturing Prosocial Behavior; Teaching Children Well: The Importance of an Evidence-Based Approach; Action Implications

Here author stresses need to minimize coercion and use positive reinforcement of prosocial behavior in schools. As example author describes “good behavior game” that really improved behavioral patterns of students. Author also stresses need for close monitoring of behavior and progress.  

  • Peers and Problems: Deviancy Training; The Pathway to Deviance; Preventing Deviant Peer Influences; Action Implications

This chapter about causes of deviant behavior. Author points out that it is often result of peer pressure based around antisocial values instilled as result of nonnurturing environment. Author discusses variety of measures used to prevent peer influences, substitution of peers with others who could provide pro-social influence. Important point author makes is necessity to isolate deviant individuals in order to prevent them from congregating in self-referencing community.  Closely monitor troubled individuals and provide strong positive feedback for pro-social behavior.

  • The Behavioral Revolution in Clinical Psychology: My Own Journey; The Schism in Behavior Therapy; Psychological Flexibility and the Third Wave of Behavior Therapy; Implications of the Progress in Clinical Psychology; Action Implications

In this chapter author moves from behavior problems of children and adolescents to adults. He retells his own story of disappointment in social psychology and change of specialization to clinical psychology that eventually led him to establishing Behavior Change Center in middle 1970s treating anxiety and depression. He then narrates the history of development of behavioral treatments and provides reference to relevant several books:

Cultivate psychological flexibility, perhaps using one or more of the many recent ACT books for the general public:

To develop more psychological flexibility, The Happiness Trap (Harris 2007)

For overcoming psychological problems in general, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life (Hayes 2005)

For depression, The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression (Robinson and Strosahl 2008)

For anxiety, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders (Eifert and Forsyth 2005)

For strengthening partner relationships, ACT on Love (Harris 2009b)

Part 3: The Larger Social Context Affecting Well-Being

In this part author:” explore how the public health framework can guide such efforts, describing the major, society-wide factors that undermine well-being and showing how we can understand most of these factors in terms of the influence of recent developments in the evolution of corporate capitalism.”

  • From People to Populations:  Targeting Incidence and Prevalence; Epidemiology; Good Surveillance; Programs, Policies, and Practices; Advocacy; Action Implications

In this chapter author discusses public health and suggests that there are five key practices that should be targeted to improve populations well-being:

Author provides recommendation on wide range of interventions and examples of research that show that doubling of tax on alcohol leads to great many wonderful things.

  • Harmful Corporate Marketing Practices:  Marketing; Free Speech and Corporate Marketing; Guidelines for Restrictions of Marketing Practices; Action Implications

In this chapter author shifts his attention to evil corporations that market all kinds of bad staff such as cigarettes to innocent people using behavior science to make this marketing more and more effective. As usual author’s action recommendations mainly come down to more government spending on research and increase in regulations. On interesting point that author makes here is suggestion that advertisement should be evaluated not merely on “literal truth”, but on “functional effects of ads on unhealthful behavior”

  • Poverty and Economic Inequality:  Imagining Being Poor; The Damage Done by Poverty; The Damage Done by Economic Inequality; The Benefits of Improving Families’ Economic Well-Being; Policies That Have Increased Poverty and Economic Inequality; Action Implications

This chapter is kind of funny because it is dedicated to explaining that poverty is bad and how all kinds of negative consequences for health and well-being comes from being poor. As usual for these discussions author provides comparison of USA with smaller, homogeneous, and rich countries:

Author provides graphs demonstrating how poverty levels changes in USA over years, but somehow fails to note that it demonstrates dramatic decrease of poverty before the beginning of war on poverty after which poverty levels stop falling and mainly stabilized.  Author also fails to note that the only age group for which poverty raised a bit in 1980s were people under 18 – those who become victims of family destruction, minimal wage limitations on their entry level employment, and war on drugs that often make them into unemployable criminals. Author’s suggested actions pretty much the same: more taxes, more regulation, more limitation on business.

  • The Recent Evolution of Corporate Capitalism: A Contextual Approach to Policy Making; The Powell Memo; Capitalism from an Evolutionary Perspective; Increasing Materialism; Changing the Consequences for Corporate Practices; The Critical Role of Advocacy Organizations; A Comprehensive Strategy; Action Implications

Author’s discussion of evolution of corporate capitalism brings in somewhat famous Powell memo, which called for capitalists fight back against attacks by intelligentsia and bureaucracy on free markets and capitalism. Interestingly author admits that Powell’s concerns were well justified and business did become more active in self-defense resulting in cultural and psychological change in late 1980s and 90s in support of capitalism. Author also noted that evolution of capitalism in USA moved away from market to lobbying. Here how he defines his overall position:” I want to stress that this is not a critique of capitalism per se. The benefits of the evolutionary process that is capitalism are evident in all of the products and services that have evolved in the last two hundred years, including the computer on which I am writing this book. However, we need to evolve a system that retains the benefits of capitalism while also restraining its worst excesses.” Author also discusses and even somewhat laments increasing prevalence of materialism that he perceives as negative and somehow links it to conservatives and market rather than to leftists and government. The Action Implications per author are needs for more and better regulated advocacy groups.

Part 4: Evolving the Nurturing Society

In the last part of the book author:” pull all of this together to describe how we can use our accumulated scientific knowledge about human behavior to produce improvements in human well-being that go beyond anything ever achieved in human history. 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.”

  • In Caring Relationships with Others: Coercion: The Main Obstacle to Caring; Cultivating Forbearance and Forgiveness; Action Implications

In this chapter author links nurturing with caring relationships and then discusses what prevents or impedes caring relationships. Obviously, the main obstacle is coercion that author defines as:” There is no shortage of types of conflict and coercion: war, genocide, murder, harassment, bullying, cheating, child abuse, marital conflict, discriminatory behavior; the list goes on.” Somehow the type of coercion that author constantly calls for – government regulation and taxation did not make the list, which is kind of funny. Author then discusses evolutionary reasons for coercion and cooperation as tools of interaction and looks at costs of coercion for health and overall well-being of people. At the end of chapter author suggest measures to decrease levels of coercion in society.

  • Evolving the Society, We Want: A Compelling Vision; Creative Epidemiology; Disseminating Evidence-Based Programs, Policies, and Practices; Creating a New Breed of Advocacy Organizations; Evolving a More Beneficial Form of Capitalism; Changing Popular Culture; Empowering Dramatic Cultural Change; 

Author begins this chapter with somewhat utopian vision of 2042 and statement that such future is not only possible, but inevitable. He then proceeds describe how it could happen. The key words each subchapter are “WE”, “SHOULD”, and “POLICY”.


It is a very nice book by obviously a very nice person. It is also based on seemingly solid research in human behavior and dependency of individual behavior and well-being on surrounding environment, most importantly other humans and their attitudes to the individual. The book leaves no doubt that it would be much better if everybody were surrounded by nurturing environment from birth to death with no gaps in between. The only small problem that I have with all this is that it is kind of obvious. It is like saying that “Better to be healthy and wealthy than sick and poor”. To the author’s credit he is clearly trying to move beyond trivialities and provide recommendations as “Action implications” at the end of each chapter, but these implications mainly come down to similar points for everything:

  • Coerce everybody to give us, scientists more money for research and experimentation(taxation)
  • Coerce everybody to comply with our recommendations (regulation)

I just do not think that this is much helpful because there is no such thinking and feeling entity as government or corporations or businesses, but there are feeling and thinking human beings: politicians, bureaucrats, both governmental and corporate, seeking to maximize their material and psychological well-being, rich who are struggling to invest money for best returns and not to lose them in process, poor straggling to get more resources whether by working, getting benefits, stealing, or whatever. The mindset of putting all human individuals on one side and calling them “WE” is not productive and could not possibly lead to solution of any problem. The solution could come only from recognizing that all resource flows are between humans and all humans are self-interested, even if self-interest could be non-material feeling good about self. The simple example would be welfare bureaucrat. Would anybody think that giving magic wand to instantly eliminate all poverty a professional welfare bureaucrat would use it, making him/herself unemployed and pretty much unemployable since his/her decades of experience instantly devalued to null? I don’t think so. The solution could come only from restructuring system in such way that maximum of individuals would benefit from the change and minimum would be hurt, which pretty much exclude solutions based overwhelmingly on coercion, which actually means government regulations and interventions. 

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