Letter: Psychiatrists reply

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The Independent Culture
Sir: In his article of 17 November ("Psychologists need their heads examined") Oliver James challenges our thesis that early experience does not, by itself, predestine children's futures. He admits, however, that it is impossible without further long-term research wholly to refute our claims. James fails to comprehend two major points.

First, most children experience strong continuities in their care, be it good, bad or indifferent, so early characteristics tend to be followed by later similar influences. Hence a correlation between early and later development is to be expected and is found. But this cannot prove that the early caused the later. Correlations do not by themselves imply causal links.

Second, James fails to note the many careful studies which show that where a sharp break occurs between early adversity followed by a strong intervention (eg adoption) recovery is impressive. This represents a tough test of our thesis; later, cumulative influences over-ride the earlier. If this were not so, there would be no hope for rescued children.

Early experiences are not unimportant, but their effects represent no more that a first step on a long and very complex life path. The people who need their heads examined are those who carry with them the baggage of ancient traditions or who fail dispassionately to examine findings contrary to their expectations.

Professor ANN CLARKE


London EN5