Kennon-Green & Co. Global Asset Management, Wealth Management, Investment Advisory, and Value Investing

Mental Model: Intergenerational Transmission and What It Has to Do With Adrian Peterson Beating His Child

A huge percentage of the people in this community are fans of the mental model concept – ideas, like tools, that can be used to analyze, study, and understand both why and how something is happening – made popular by Charles Munger.  From signaling theory to satisficing, the Dunning-Kruger effect to Goldovsky errors, calibration errors to social loafing, veblen goods to the mere exposure effect, mental models can give your family advantages that put you far ahead of the typical household.  They can transform your lives for the better by harnessing forces beyond yourself in your favor.  They change how you structure your processes at a business, how you incentive yourself to manipulate your own behavior, and how to get to the heart of complex situations that need to be broken down into their constituent parts.  They are, to borrow a concept I’ve used before, the equivalent to video game cheat codes for life.

Tonight, I’ve been thinking about a mental model known as “Intergenerational Transmission”.  Intergenerational transmission refers to a phenomenon in which children replicate behaviors, traits, beliefs, and other characteristics modeled by their parents, repeating them later in their own lives.  Specifically, your children aren’t so much listening to what you say as they are watching what you do.  You’re constantly teaching them whether you realize it or not.  We’ve talked many, many times about this concept but I’ve never referred to it by name, hoping those of you who catalog and index mental models yourself “reached for it”.  Once you found that phrase, it became a lot easier to research studies and data on how it works.  It’s one of the big explanations behind the habits of successful families we were discussing less than 48 hours ago when we were having a conversation about the advantages inherent to being born to certain parents; a long-running theme as it pertains to economics and upward income mobility around these parts.

If you need a shorthand to remember this mental model, think of the words of St. Francis Xavier.  As he so famously put it, “Give me the child until he is seven and I’ll give you the man.”  That is intergenerational transmission summed up in a sentence.  There are neurological reasons as to why it happens that are, themselves, worth studying.  To oversimplify it, children basically accept almost anything they are taught, ascribing it as fact, and then later, when they encounter conflicting information, compare it to that original information.  This makes them very unlikely to change their mind from that early indoctrination and seems to indicate this particular mental model might closely related to something known as first conclusion bias in terms of the underlying architecture of what is happening in the mind.

[mainbodyad]Investors should care about intergenerational transmission if they are looking at a business like Procter & Gamble or Clorox as it is one of the big drivers of brand equity over long periods of time.  If you doubt it, go watch a group of college freshman away from home for the first time making a run to the store.  They are very likely to buy the same deodorant, laundry soap, dish soap, toothpaste, and bleach their parents did, automatically replicating the behavior without a lot of cognitive load.  It’s a powerful tool in the hands of marketers and one of the reasons that society bans things like tobacco advertising to children.  Breaking it can require other, more powerful mental models, social proof being the chief among them.

Intergenerational Transmission and the Story of the Ham

The intergenerational transmission mental model is what was behind the story often told by Zig Ziglar.  In what is now a well-known business management lesson, Ziglar said he won a prized country ham in a sales contest and went home to his wife, Jean.  She walked into the kitchen, cleaned the ham, and cut off the ends, discarding them in the trash.

“Why’d you do that?!” he wanted to know.  “Those are perfectly good ham ends!”

Jean thought for a moment and responded, “I don’t know.  My mom always did it.”

“Call her and find out the reason!” Zig said.

Jean picked up the phone, dialing her mother.  “Mom,” she inquired, “why do we cut the ends off a ham before cooking it?”

Her mom thought a moment and said, “I don’t know, honey, but my mom always did it.  Give grandma a call.”

Jean hung up the phone, called her grandmother, and repeated the question.  “Grandma,” she asked, “Why do we cut the ends off the ham off before cooking it?”

Confused, her grandmother responded, “I don’t know why you do it, but my pan was always too small.  I couldn’t get a ham to fit into it unless I discarded the ends.”

Subsequent decades had wasted countless ham ends, and money, by repeating a practice that made no sense absent the original conditions that led to its development.

What the Intergenerational Transmission Mental Model Can Teach Us About the Adrian Peterson Case

Unless you haven’t seen the news in the past five days, you are aware that one of the best athletes in the world, Adrian Peterson, is facing charges for beating his son.  TMZ obtained photographic police evidence showing the legs and arms of Peterson’s child after the 6 foot, 1 inch, 217 pound running back for the Minnesota Vikings took a switch and repeatedly hit the 4-year old child so badly he bled from some of the wounds.  This came only two months after one of Peterson’s other children, a 2 year old, was beaten to death by the boyfriend of the woman who had borne that child.

Adrian Peterson Child Abuse Photos

Source: TMZ. Click the image to read the story, with more details, along with updates about the Peterson case.

What is fascinating about this case when you move beyond the sickening images of a defenseless kid cowering from a man who lumbers over most grown adults, is the reaction a lot of people have had to the case.  Several newspapers have carried articles explaining that this is intergenerational transmission; that Peterson is running a script and likely sees nothing wrong with his behavior.  They are absolutely correct.

Personally, I cannot count the number of times in the past week I have heard people defend Peterson, saying it was his right, as a parent, to use a switch and that he wasn’t that far out of line.  “I did it to my own kids,” and “I was beat till I was blue by my parents” are common refrains.  I’ve heard people go so far as to say that it’s okay to leave welts or bruises as long as they aren’t too bad.  I live in a bit of a bubble so spanking isn’t really something I see very often among parents of young children and, to be blunt about it, the fact some parents saw these pictures and considered them acceptable took my breath away.

And it’s not just locals, either.  Yesterday, Sean Hannity took the national air waves to talk about his concern that punishing Peterson opens a door to infringing on parents’ rights to “instill their values” in their children – which is certainly the most generous euphemism I’ve seen so far for what the pro athlete was was supposedly doing when he hit his son – and is a slippery slope to the government allowing underage kids to have abortions, birth control handed out like candy, and kids learning in school that it’s okay if they are gay.  Although Hannity admits to Peterson “going too far”, in his view, the larger concern of holding a massive man accountable for relentlessly and mercilessly thwacking his tiny son with a stick until the kid bleeds is somehow indicative of government overreach into private family life.  You couldn’t even make this stuff up if you wanted to try.  Here’s the audio clip from his own show in which he laments the apparent danger of punishing a parent who does this to a preschooler.  Wait for the co-host, who repeatedly says, “He has a right to discipline his child.  He has a right to discipline his child.”

What’s behind this visceral defense of spanking, even in extreme cases like Peterson that cross the line into domestic assault (or not, depending on how you feel, which I cannot wrap my mind around even now).  You got it: Intergenerational transmission.  Practices absorbed through it become so integral to the person’s identity that they feel attacked if the practice or behavior itself is attacked.  You’re not criticizing it anymore, you are indicting them.  And their parents, and their grandparents; their culture, their history, their religion, their government.  From honor killing of rape victims and female genital mutilation to toothpaste brand preferences and “spare the rod, spoil the child”, the mere questioning of something rooted in the intergenerational transmission model, something that has been taken for granted their entire life, sends up all sorts of instantaneous, emotional, sometimes violent, defense mechanisms.  The person is unlikely to even consider the possibility the other side might be correct.  After all, what does it say about them if they have been wrong all along?  Other models kick in to avoid answering that question; the denial mental model, the self preservation and identity consistency mental models, etc.

[mainbodyad]That means to understand this situation, we can’t so much trust what people say as what they do.  As with most things, it’s useful to look at data to see how differently the successful and non-successful behave in all sorts of areas, this being no exception.  Spanking, whipping, or swatting – physically hitting a child with your hand or an object to try and inflect pain in order to modify their behavior – is one of those practices that stands out as a big differential between the top of the bell curve and the bottom of the bell curve in life.

Generally speaking, you can predict the probability of whether or not someone spanks their child by their socio-demographic history.  Low income?  Probably spanks.  Low education?  Probably spanks.  Lives in a poor neighborhood or disadvantaged area?  Probably spanks.  Young parent without experience (30 years old or younger)?  Probably spanks.  Marital problems?  Probably spanks.  Has financial difficulties such as missed payments or bill collectors?  Probably spanks.

The opposite is also true.  If you’re 40 years old, happily married, pulling down $500,000 a year, well educated, highly intelligent, with a portfolio full of stocks, bonds, and real estate assets, the odds are good that you refuse to spank your children.  Instead, you utilize all sorts of other methods that include reasoning, privilege restriction, and isolation (time out).  In the process, you arm your kids with tools that later serve them well in their adult lives and careers, giving them yet one more advantage on top of the cornucopia of privilege you’ve already bestowed upon them.

Exceptions always exist in both camps, of course, but spanking, just like the brand of laundry detergent you use, how many divorces you’ve had, or how many bottles of sugary drinks you consume a day, is one of those things that gives away a lot of clues as to your socio-demographic status, class, and upbringing.  If Adrian Peterson were the son of a successful attorney and physician, and had he earned a degree in actuarial science at the top of his class, this case likely wouldn’t have happened.

Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas Austin Believes the Intergenerational Model Might Explain Differences In Spanking Practices Among Certain American Households

One of the leading researchers in this field is Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas Austin, who has spent the past 15 years studying the effects of corporal punishment.  She recently did an interview in which she explained some of her work.  Examining generations of data and studies, Gershoff says there is no question as to the conclusion: “spanking does not improve behavior, leads to aggression and other behavior problems like stealing and lying, makes it more likely children will have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and could lead to learning problems at school.”

Her scholastic body of work examines spanking practices by different variables that otherwise shouldn’t exist, such as race.  For example, black families living in the Southern United States are far more likely to spank, whip, or swat their children than a hispanic family living in Maine.  She has stated that the intergenerational transmission model might be the most reasonable explanation for this discrepancy.

Basically, under the intergenerational transmission model, the disproportionately large percentage of households who spank among Southern black Americans was an adaptive practice that developed to prepare children for the physical abuse of slavery, saving them from even worse pain were they to mess up and get beaten by the slave driver or plantation owner.  Long after the culture changed, the behavior didn’t, still being passed down from parent to child so that it persists despite the conditions that led to its optimality having faded.  If true, it’s not much different than cutting off the two ends of the ham in the Zig Ziglar story; behavior repeated, by observation, from parent to child along generational lines.  The downsides of the practice simply never entered into the opportunity cost trade-off calculation an 18th or 19th century slave would have subconsciously made since self-actualization, individuality, and mental well-being were not possibilities, let alone high on the priority list.

Interestingly, when the American Psychological Association Journal of Family Psychology did a small study through researchers at Southern Methodist University to understand how spanking is used today, they found that an overwhelming percentage of cases, a child was hit for social infractions not behavioral problems; e.g., the child was sucking on his or her fingers versus walking out of the front door with no adult or playing with the stove.  That means that, if it holds and could be replicated in a larger study, parents who think they use spanking for punishment really hit their child for other reasons as an almost reflexive response to not doing what they are told.

How to Use the Intergenerational Transmission Mental Model to Your Own Advantage

If you want to harness the power of this mental model, you can start by going through your personal life and business, asking:

  • Why do we do this?
  • What are we attempting to accomplish by doing this?
  • Is it working?
  • Is it the best, most efficient, least damaging method to achieve our objective?
  • Can I prove it with irrefutable evidence?

It can be extremely difficult to change, and replace with superior practices, the things you learned through intergenerational transmission, but it will become second nature if you are diligent.  The moment you sense an automated, non-intellectual response arising that makes you want to defend or attack something simply because that is what you had always been taught, stop yourself.  Go through the check list.  Actively choose the better behavior instead of mindlessly click-whirrling a response, running the same script that was installed during your youth.

Once you’ve made it a point to train yourself to always look for this mental model, you will notice it everywhere.  Spanking is only one small manifestation of intergenerational transmission – though it is demonstrably inferior to the alternatives and the children of the successful aren’t being spanked, people who grew up in the lower classes with it as a matter of course believe in it, on a deeply held, core level, repeating that practice generation after generation – but it shows up in almost every discipline from economics to sociology; from allocation decisions about which tub of ice cream to buy or gender role expectations in marriage.  It’s one of the big software programs running in the brain of almost every person that gives certain corporations competitive moats (it’s not an accident that kids who grow up eating Count Chocula go on to have their own kids eat Count Chocula) and causes certain even sub-optimal cultural behaviors to constantly repeat themselves to the detriment of all involved.

You might also want to study the executive methods of legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch when it came to the operating businesses themselves.  He required subsidiaries to justify the way they did things, which had the effect of constantly destroying non-ideal intergenerational transmission practices handed down over time in the corporate culture.  Toyota is another extremely illuminating case study, developing and refining systems that are based entirely on results rather than past practices.

… I want some Count Chocula now.