I am impressed that people continue writing books, an enterprise which is heroic and very possibly futile: everything moves at such a fast pace now, with new results coming out every week, whilst a book must be nursed through many months of hard labour (five and a half years in the case below), during which key research findings may be contradicted, superceded and set aside, rendering the bound volume of arguments and conclusions obsolete. The counter-balancing benefit is that in a book a thesis can be developed at its own pace, generating deeper understanding and thus having more impact than the ephemeral and nugatory postings of a blog.
Adam Perkins. The Welfare Trait: How State benefits affect personality. Palgrave MacMillan 2016. 201pp. ISBN 978-1-137-55528-1.
Adam Perkins is a Lecturer in the Neurobiology of Personality at Kings College, which probably means the old Institute of Psychiatry, world centre of psycho-research, where half an hour in the canteen with other researchers is better than most post-graduate courses.
Perkins has put together an interesting thesis: welfare states are shaping up dependency behaviours, generating an increasing number of employment-resistant persons, who contribute very little, soak up resources, and are likely to have more surving work-shy children.
My initial reaction was that although all persons respond to contingencies, I doubted that the relatively novel effects of welfarism (starting seriously in 1945, but pre-figured in 1911, and evident to some extent from 1870) was too recent to have detectable genetic impact.
I decided to take a closer look. The central thesis of the book is that the benefits of a generous welfare state erode work ethics, and that the longer people live under welfarism, the more they depend on those benefits, and the more likely they are to cheat to obtain them. Dependent households have more children: for every 3% increase in UK benefits the number of children born to claimants rises by 1%, mostly due to discontinuing contraception. Perkins lays great stock on the findings of Heckman, Pinto and Savelyev 2013 that childhood disadvantage promotes anti-social behaviour. He argues that welfare dependency increases the number of children likely to be brought up badly, eroding human capital from generation to generation.
Perkins, who spent quite a few years in humdrum jobs, including times in which he relied on welfare payments, drily observes that governing elites are spared the negative consequences of welfarism, and so are reluctant to deal with its shortcomings. He also notes that the current projected cap on benefits (recently postponed) is still at a level way above what the unskilled can earn in full time work, so it is to their credit that so many remain in the labour market, rather than taking the cash and staying at home.
Understandably, given his job title, Perkins concentrates on personality, not intelligence. This is a drawback, because both are relevant, and inclusion of both measures would test and probably strengthen his thesis. He describes intelligence as the horsepower of the engine of the car, and personality the steering system in charge of setting desired destinations. In a nutshell, he wants the welfare system to be amended to take account of personality (I would say also of intelligence, or simply behaviour generally).
It is a quibble, but Perkins believes that science is “just a refinement of everyday thinking”, and that scientific arguments are “based primarily on evidence obtained by scientific studies that have been written up and published in scientific journals or books”. I think that science is a rare, refined and detached way of thinking, restricted to cognitive elites, based on evidence regardless of publication. Eratosthenes could have muttered his calculations on the circumference of the earth to some friends over dinner, and still have been head and shoulders above most published researchers.
Equally, I disagree with his quotation of Schofield 2013 “Science is not about finding the truth at all” (but the simplest explantion with predictive power). Scientists are truth-seekers.
Perkins rightly draws attention to the work of WL Tonge and colleagues on 66 poor families in Sheffield, 33 of them problem families. This should have been displayed in a summary table. Problem families were more impulsive, irresponsible, apathetic and aggressive than controls. In modern jargon, less conscientious and agreeable. None of these differences were due to income or local job opportunities.
Perkins also notes that the Dunedin study underlines the long term effect of low childhood self-control.
In Chapter 4 Perkins looks at the influence of benefits on claimant reproduction. Low self-control is linearly related to large family size, an r rather than k strategy.
Perkins sees the Hart and Ridley (1995) study as persuasive that parents, by their lack of involvement, create disadvantage in their children. However, the results are mostly due to parental levels of education, a proxy for intelligence, which the children inherit.
Rindermann, H. & Baumeister, A. E. E. (2015). Parents’ SES vs. parental educational behavior and children’s development: A reanalysis of the Hart and Risley study. Learning and Individual Differences, 37, 133-138.
Perkins is also positive about the Perry Pre-School project, but could have alluded to the problems of compromised randomisation, which others have sought to correct for. None of this is fatal, just incomplete.
Perkins gathers together the data on selective breeding for behaviour, bringing in Broadhurst’s Maudsley Reactive rats bred for fearfulness and differing in 10 generations of strict selection; Garland’s ten mouse generations of selection for voluntary wheel running (amusingly described as the Work Ethic); and Belyaev’s selection of foxes for tameness, showing divergence in “a few generations”. The foxes were already moderately tame, so the process had a head start, and the selection was very strong, so the divergence estimates are probably too high. Indeed, the general conclusion that about 100 years of welfare legislation could significantly change human personality by genetics alone seems premature. These four generations could be the start of a trend, which is alarming enough, but many of the work-shy might have married similar persons anyway, and what welfare is doing is ensuring that their children survive, even when they cannot provide for them adequately.
Inevitably, even a book published this year will have left out important new findings, which are the bread and butter of any blog. For example, Perkins quotes Turkheimer 2003 as showing that SES reduces the heritability of intelligence. I have explained why later studies, in my view, gave a more balanced picture.
And here is a more recent meta-analysis
Perkins has raised enough matters to reveal deleterious consequences from welfarism, and to put a warning flag on non-contributory benefits, anathema to Beveridge, who saw his well-balanced ideas (contribute in order to draw on benefits only if you really need them) mutate from the safety net he had intended into a bed of benefits in which some slept all day. There are many good things in this book, many which I have marked in pencil but not mentioned since my comments are already quite long, and if I have been critical of several particulars, then that is part of my tradition: carp at even the hypotheses you believe to be basically correct.
This book deserves to be read. The price needs to come down so it can reach a wider audience, but even at the current price it is worth buying and sending to your elected representative, with the key findings underlined.