The importance of social intimacy for individual growth.


I posted this on another of my blogs back in 2011. However, I thought it would be good to re-post:

In my last post I wrote something to the effect that our lives are like dances between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, between self-expressive individuality and the need to pay homage to our collectivities, those groups and associations upon which we completely depend for life and prosperity.

All of us are caught in a tango of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we need to express ourselves as individuals while not turning our noses up at our collectivities (societies, nations, families, workplaces, etc.). We ignore our collectivities at our own peril. It’s built into our genes. There is research that demonstrates clearly the importance social connection is to us. In 1945 Rene Spitz conducted research comparing children raised in orphanages and those raised with their mothers in prison. After four years, a quarter of the orphanage children were dead, the others seriously socially impaired. By contrast, those children raised by their mothers in prison were fine. The difference between the two groups of children was the amount of daily physical and emotional contact they experienced. Children in prison had lots of physical and emotional contact, those in orphanages very little sporadic attention. The sparse research done on feral children supports the idea that without human intimate contact we do not fully develop as humans. Our very intelligence (IQ) is dependent on social contact. A longitudinal study conducted by Skeels and Dye (in Roberta Berns, 2009; Shackne: http://www.schackne.com/Nurture.htm) starting in the 1930s and concluding in 1966 found that two children removed from an orphanage as hopelessly retarded and were moved to an adult facility that cared for retarded adults substantially improved within a few months and displayed increased sociability and intelligence. They subsequently moved 13 children to the adult facility and all of them improved dramatically. In a follow up study done 25 years later, “they found that all of these “hopelessly retarded” children had grown up to live normal and productive lives. Some even made it to college and became professionals.” (Shackne) In contrast, the control group of children left in the orphanage for ‘retarded’ children experienced no such improvement. More recently a study found the same kind of results with Romanian children confined to orphanages and moved to foster homes.(http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/feb/18/medicineandhealth.lifeandhealth/print)

So we are by definition social animals, so much so that in the absence of social contact we die or are severely cognitively and physically impaired, sometimes permanently. We are beholden to our societies for all that we are. As Ernest Becker points out repeatedly in his books The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, our societies are the source of all power. It behooves us to keep a watchful eye out to make sure we don’t get irretrievably cut off from this source of power by exhibiting too much individuality. The glue that holds us together in societies is tested every day in every aspect of our lives. Shame, guilt, embarrassment and opprobrium are institutions that maintain strong social ties as much as love does. And we dance. We try a little self-expression and see how that goes. We try a little more and see how that goes. We test the limits of individual possibility. We retreat. We get up on the dance floor but soon sit down if we notice people noticing us too much. Our language is replete with mechanisms for enforcing and re-enforcing social ties and for allowing the expression of individuality without compromising our social connections.

3 thoughts on “The importance of social intimacy for individual growth.

  1. Very interesting, Roger. I likely read this when you posted it earlier. When I was a girl in school the nature/nurture debate was part of our studies. I am not sure which courses it was mentioned, but when I was young and sheltered and somewhat privileged, I believed that if a person was determined to do something, they could achieve anything (in other words, nature was more important than nurture.) When I married and moved to Sointula, an isolated community with a library that was about 75 % made up of Finnish books and was very, very limited, no place to pursue postsecondary education, my opinion shifted and I realized that there were very real barriers to postsecondary education to people living in such communities.

    Regarding the orphanage experience, I am puzzled by the findings on poor brain and social development in those raised in an orphanage, because of the fact that Michael, who was in an orphanage until he was 15, had an exceptionally high IQ. His mother was a maid servant in the home of Bertrand Russell, at the time of his divorce from his wife, Dora. Catherine became pregnant with Michael and it is quite substantially shown that Russell was Michael’s father. (You can see some resemblance in the photos). Being pregnant, Catherine was dismissed and from what I can determine, married a man named John Crosbie, who is listed as Michael’s father on his Baptismal certificate. There is no record of his birth certificate. I found out from the records on Michael that he was in the care of his own mother until he was 15 months old, contrary to what he always believed. He believed that his mother gave him up when he was only a few days old. Perhaps the nurturing he received from his mother for the first 15 months aided in his emotional and intellectual development, combined with the genes from Bertrand Russell made him the brilliant man that he was, it’s difficult to know for certain, but he was anything but “retarded.”

    Michael did tell me that many of his friends in the orphanage, committed suicide or were otherwise unable to succeed in life.

    I wonder, too, if the contact that the children in an orphanage have with their other children are of some help in their development.

    I have requested that my friend, Dr. Wendy Rogers, who is a psychologist, read your blog entry, if she has time and asked her to make a comment on it from her perspective.

    1. Thanks for this, Marilyn. Michael’s experience is obviously anecdotal. That doesn’t diminish it, but the articles to which I refer report on population level studies. They deal with averages. There will always be exceptions. That said, I think the premise of my piece that we need intimate social contact to develop and even to survive stands I do believe. There is a lot more I could have written, but a blog isn’t really appropriate for developing a complex argument. Norbert Elias’ work is highly relevant here too but he wrote several books on how personality is not individual but collective. It’s complicated, but amazing at the same time. Elias was not mainstream sociology but he was brilliant in my opinion.

  2. I believe the army training and the privilege of attending the Royal Military School of Music was also beneficial for Michael. He did experience some difficulties throughout his life due to his bipolar disorder and his lack of experience of nuclear family.

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