Success and mental health in adulthood comes far more from responsibility and "coping capacity" in childhood than from intelligence, social class or family stability, a study recently completed by a Harvard psychiatrist and his wife indicates.
Dr. George E. Vaillant, professor of Psychiatry at the Cambridge Hospital, and his wife, Caroline O. Vaillant, a social worker at University Health Services, called their results "a lesson for sociology" in an article published this month in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
The subjects of the Vaillants' study have been surveyed periodically since 1940, when Harvard law professor Sheldon Glueck and his wife, Eleanor, studied 456 working-class males between the ages 11 and 16 to determine the causes of juvenile delinquency.
The Gluecks measured "capacity to work" through questions about regular household chores, participation in extracurricular clubs or sports, school grades relative to IQ, regular participation in school activities, and "coping capacity."
The Vaillants found that this coping capacity or "ego strength" helped many underprivileged subjects overcome unstable childhood environments.
They wrote that their findings--that a majority of working-class men surveyed enjoy their jobs and have stable marriages, despite underprivileged backgrounds--contradict the belief that intelligence, social class and family situation determine adult success.
"Everybody's grandmother will say. 'Of course, I told you so,'" Caroline Vaillant said yesterday, adding, "The only thing that was unexpected about our findings was that Grandmother's values still hold true today."
"Warmth of childhood, ego strength, and freedom from mental illness may help to protect us from unemployment and explain a significant amount of variance in social inequality," the Vaillants conclude in the article.
The Vaillants acknowledge in their article that "social variables are also important," but they say a parallel study of upper-middle-class Harvard sophomores in the 1940s, also by the Gluecks, showed the importance of emotional strength rather than social rank.
Later surveys of this group showed that the most emotionally unstable third of the subjects had spent 50 times as many weeks unemployed as the healthiest third, the Vaillants said.