adam_alter's picture
Psychologist; Assistant Professor of Marketing, Stern School of Business, NYU; Author, Irresistible
The End Of Hardship Inoculation

When psychologists ask people to tackle a novel mental task in the laboratory, they begin with a round of practice trials. As the novelty of the experience wears off, participants develop a tentative mastery over the task, no longer wasting their limited cognitive resources on trying to remember which buttons to push, or repeatedly rehearsing the responses they're expected to perform. Just as medical vaccines inoculate people against disease, a small dose of practice trials prepares participants for the rigors of the experiment proper.

This same logic explains how children come to master the mental difficulties that confront them as they mature into adulthood. Trivial hardships inure them to greater future challenges that might otherwise defeat them but for the help of these earlier experiential scaffolds. A child who remembers his mother's phone number is thereafter better equipped to memorize other numerical information. Another who routinely performs basic mental arithmetic in math class develops the basic skills required to perform more complex mental algorithms. A third who sits bored at home on a rainy day is forced to devise novel forms of entertainment, meanwhile learning the rudiments of critical thinking.

Unfortunately, these critical experiences are declining with the rise of lifestyle technologies. iPhones and iPads are miraculously intuitive, but their user-friendliness means that children as young as three or four years of age can learn to use them. Smartphones and tablets singlehandedly eradicate the need to remember phone numbers, to perform mental calculations, and to seek new forms of entertainment, so children of the 21st century and beyond never experience the minor hardships that attend those tasks. They certainly derive other benefits from technology, but convenience and stimulation are double-edged swords, also heralding the decline of hardship inoculation. Consequently, today's children might be poorly prepared for the more difficult tasks that meet them as time passes.

What's particularly worrying is not that today's children will grow up to be cognitively unprepared, but the question of what the trend portends for their children, grandchildren, and so on. The "ideal" world-the one that looks more and more like the contemporary world with each passing generation-is the same world that fails to prepare us to memorize, compute, generate, elaborate, and, more generally, to think. We don't yet know which cognitive capacities will be usurped by machines and gadgets, but the range will widen over time, and the people who run governments, businesses, and scientific enterprises will be the poorer prepared for this foregone vaccination.