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.

  • innerscorecard

    I love mental models. I was thinking about the related concept of internal scripts/directives. I think it’s the explicit acknowledgment of the fact that one’s behavior is guided by mental models that is so empowering. You’re going to be guided by some type of scripts no matter what. Why not at least choose the ones that will help you? (That’s why reading biographies is also so important. If you don’t choose the people you emulate, you just emulate who is most obvious. Better to pick a model that you choose in people as well.) I’ve recently distilled the core of my own ideal approach (not what I do in practice, which is flawed, but what I strive to do) to these five:

    1. Inner Scorecard – Do things for your own internally set standard, rather than for others’ approval. (Obviously, I think this is by far the most important.)

    2. Daily Practice – You yourself are responsible for maintaining your own mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health each day.

    3. The Enemy Is Us – Bias and subconscious mental frameworks are powerful and dangerous. Be aware of your biases, or at the very least take steps to randomize the errors.

    4. Low Information Diet – Just as more food isn’t necessarily better, and can be harmful, more information isn’t better, and can be harmful. And just as you must selectively consume food, you should selectively consume information.

    5. Hedonic Treadmill – Happiness and well-being are relative. Focus on being happy internally rather than thinking happiness is just the next promotion or purchase away.

    I didn’t create any of the above concepts, but I think my combination of them and the various sources that they arose from is interesting.

    • Odai

      The Low Information Diet is interesting to me. I currently have 21 browser tabs open, and all of them are things I’m planning to read or watch at some point.

      A few days ago my home internet was down. I have to admit, I got a lot more stuff done that day, because I wasn’t reading so much. As hard as it is to admit to myself, I’m clearly using “research” as a substitute for taking action, while deluding myself into believing that they’re the same thing. I’ll have to work on that.

  • innerscorecard

    Somehow, I want some Count Chocula now too.

    (By the way, one of the most interesting things about living in a foreign culture is that you have some level of base immunity to advertisements. No matter what, I won’t ever have a craving to eat preserved duck necks. So to me the strings that these commercials pull on is far more obvious because I can’t be affected.)

    • Oh man, I never even thought about that … that’s incredible! I wonder if that explains the ability of certain immigrant groups to save a lot more money in the U.S. since they have a degree of protection against the constant barrage of psychological prompts urging them to spend. I’m going to be thinking about this for weeks, now …

      • Tyler Phillips

        I’ve been wondering about something similar for kids who are now growing up without a TV in the house. I know some households now who only have Netflix, and that’s all their kids watch if they’re watching TV. No more ads, which if you’ve read Behind the Arches, can really affect young minds.

        Could we see changes in brand loyalty over the next 10-20 years because of this? Will people consume less in general if they aren’t being exposed to as much advertising?

        • koen

          I may be an example.
          I have not been exposed to television advertisements during my youth, as my parents did not have cable. When I moved out, I subscribed to a cable service as I wanted to know what I missed. It turned out, not much, as I canceled that service after two years. After I moved a couple of more times, I ditched my television as well as I was only watching downloaded/rented/streaming series or movies once every 3 months.

          So, how does this affect my brand loyalty? I am not loyal to brands at all (and so are my siblings). I buy products that have the best cost/quality-ratio for what I want to achieve. This includes generic brands on the lower shelves. I did not inherited this behavior from my parents, as they usually buy specific brands.

          Of course, you can not generalize my behavior to the overall population.

      • Alexis C

        Well, it’s not being an immigrant, it’s the advertizing coming from a different culture, slightly different. In the US marketers are definitely now targeting the hispanic graphic and part of that is hiring people who know how to manipulate the cultural strings that will work on them. Smaller groups might not be worth the cost of customizing ads.
        Yes, though, very interesting idea that that could partly be behind the high savings rates of some groups.

  • Jake Thomas

    Hmm… I guess this mental model would also apply for the opposite? For example, I learned fairly quickly as a child that whatever actions my parents took in life I should do the opposite in order to succeed. To this day many of my decisions factor in “WWMDD” (What would mom and dad do?). I guess the question I’m trying to ask is, am I actually falling into this model by thinking this way?

    • AC

      My parents made some great decisions and some bad decisions, both in raising a family and in life. Same with my friends and co-workers. My mental model is to examine other peoples’ decisions and resulting outcomes in addition to learning from my own success and mistakes.

      This makes for a pretty fast learning curve. Almost every evening my wife and I talk about what we learned that day from other people’s decisions/actions and how we can apply it to our own lives.

      • Jake Thomas

        Yes, I do the same thing. Although additionally I like to piece character traits of people I meet that I like into my own life as well. I believe the decisions are important but your character is paramount.

  • Arceris

    You talk quite a bit about mental models, and I am intrigued. Is there an introductory work I should examine to gain a bit of background? I’ve run a few searches on here, but didn’t see any post that seemed to cover the basics and how to become acquainted with the overall framework.

    • Jon

      An excellent introduction to mental models is the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack, by Charlie Munger.

      • Arceris

        Perfect, I’ve been meaning to pick that up.

  • Alexis C

    A really interesting book about this sort of thing is Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau. She and her graduate students embedded themselves in families of different classes and took detailed notes on types and frequencies of behaviors. E.g., how often the parents spoke directly to the children, how often they asked questions, how they spoke about authority figures, whether there was physical discipline, how the house was kept. It tried to be fair too. While middle class children were obviously learning skills to do better in an institutional setting, lower-class children had stronger family ties and more autonomy. Things like that.

    • I just bought a copy on Kindle. Thanks for the suggestion, I can already tell this is going to be a great read!

  • peterpatch79

    An interesting manifestation of this mental model is how people raised in different classes interact with authority figures. I was raised in a lower middle class family and taught to treat authorities like they were almost always right. My parents were so indoctrinated into what I would call a factory worker mentality that it was extremely difficult to get them to side with me over an authority (teacher, police, scout leader,other parent etc.) regardless of the facts. On the rare occasion where I could win them over they just didn’t have the confidence to believe they could do anything to get justice. Case in point I had a welding bar fall on my head while reaching up to a shelf for some sand paper in grade 8. I had 27 stitches, but was otherwise ok. The teacher said it was all a result of my “horsing around” and didn’t mention that stacking dozens of extremely heavy steel tubes on a 7 foot shelf and not fastening them down to anything could have caused a problem. My parents didn’t sue, complain, inquire further or do anything other then advise me that I had learned my lesson. I thought this was normal until I told the story to a university educated upper middle class parent and was advised that they would have tried to have the people responsible for the improperly stored materials disciplined to the maximum possible degree. When I asked my parents recently (no high school, lower middle class upbringing) why they didn’t do anything they just said they thought they could have sued but just didn’t do anything because they didn’t know what to do, lawyers are expensive etc. I understand how the Catholic priests got away with so much debauchery, they were extreme authorities and even if they wronged you it was almost impossible to do anything about it. There is a lollapalooza effect here, the authority model mixed with the intergenerational transmission model. People are naturally biased to submit to authority but when it’s also transmitted through the generations it is seems to be amplified massively. It must have been useful at some point to be that subservient, like you would lose your job and face terrible poverty if you even slightly disobeyed an authority figure. I still get extremely anxious, almost panic attack level, when having to deal with certain authorities. Thoughts run through my head that if I screw up they’ll take everything I have worked hard for in my life away, it’s totally irrational all-or-nothing thinking. The best way for me to get over it is actually through exposure, the more I am exposed to the fear the more I see it for the irrational thing it is.

    • Reading this made me make a connection with an issue over money and authority I had with a family member in the past.

      A family member was sold an investment: A Market-Linked GIC. Red flags immediately went up when she told me about this investment. The premise sold to her was that she could enjoy the safety of a GIC (CD for you Americans) with the potential returns of stocks. Baloney. I read the fine print, and it stated that there was a potential to earn a maximum of 20% total return over 5 years. This implied a cap of 4% cagr over 5 years that you may or may not get.

      Long story short, I told her this was insane because she could lock into a guaranteed 3% vanilla GIC for 5 years. I showed her the math. I broke it down for her on how this market-linked GIC worked. I drew her a bell curve of the most likely returns she would experience (it was not 4% cagr). All to no avail.

      It was the mental model associated with authority like you mentioned! This family member had grown up in Korea, a country notorious for blind adherence to authority. Added with low educational attainment and little interest in knowledge and critical thinking, I can totally see now in retrospect the lollapalooza effect of several mental model biases that occurred in this situation, especially the adherence to authority.

  • Abe

    Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies

    Christopher J. Ferguson,

    ^ That study is worth reading.

    I cringe everytime I hear spanking being discussed. The truth of the matter is that what is being study is only a subsection of the whole. How spanking or physical punishment is utilized in one’s home is not necessarily how it is used in another. It varies across cultures, socioeconomic status, and from family to family. But, are the body of ‘experts’ that are supposed to be non-bias in their thinking, discussing the nuances? Of course not! It’s so much easier to villify a practice than it is to discuss it.

    You can see this same example in discussing barbell squats. Educated individuals from all fields – medicine, kinesiology, and physical therapy – promulgate how squatting at parallel or below is “bad for your knees.” Is this true? If you look at the credentials of the critics, it’s easy to agree with them. Surely, individuals that have spent 10+ years in academia should be able to answer such a simple question. But, the truth is it’s far from simple. How do you define a squat? How is it performed? Who is performing it? Who is observing that form is being consistently upheld? How and who remedies poor form? What other activity is being performed by the individual who is also performing squats? How many hours of sleep are they getting per night? What nutrition plan is in place during these squats? Questions aside, you can see an entire subset of people who have and continue to perform this movement on a daily basis – olympic weightlifters. What’s their injury profile look like?

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1322916/ (Take note of this gem at the end of the article: “These injury pattems and rates are similar to those reported for other sports and activities.”)
    The purpose of that whole tangent was to illustrate a simple point: Nothing is simple! Creating a false dichotomy where spanking is either “bad” or “good” is not only academically dishonest, it’s intellectually lazy.

    …Side note: I really enjoy reading these Mental Models. Thanks for taking the time to post them! They’re proving highly enlightening and I’m adding them to my daily schedule.

    • I think it’s wise to try and look out for those very problems you are describing any time you talk about a topic. For me, it helps to think of it along the lines of, “degrees of reasonable probability” to account for the variables you describe. If the evidence shows the hypothesis is more likely true than not, that has to count for at least something even if can’t be measured with the degree of precision of, say, an engineer calculating the fault tolerance for a bridge.

      The good news is that some more recent scientific studies try very hard to account for these problems to the degree they can. For example, Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment looks at a sub-group of spanking parents called “harsh corporal punishment”, and defines the terms very specifically to avoid the problem you mention of different parents treating spanking differently: At least 1 spanking per month for 3 years during childhood, frequently with an object such as a belt or a paddle. I think that’s generally a great thing – you know exactly what the cut-off level is for the group in question; e.g., someone who spanked twice a year wouldn’t necessarily experience the same outcomes.

      Children subjected to such policies had significantly reduced gray matter and IQ performance. While the authors conclude that it is theoretically possible the reduced gray matter and IQ performance is the cause, not the symptom, of the spanking (i.e., the kid is a disrespectful idiot and he is beat because of it, not the other way around), that theory doesn’t jive with other facts that are, at this point, reasonably well-established, such as the propensity for those who grow up in harsh corporal punishment homes going on to have more violent than average families of their own as they learn to by-pass the brain and, instead, get physical in response to being overwhelmed or stressed.

      Given all of this, here is how I think of it when I build the decision tree in my head (decision trees are probably one of the best ways to implement mental models in the world; they changed my life despite appearing simple on the surface because they force you to confront different sub-decisions along the way):

      1. There is significant evidence that spanking might come with severe downsides in terms of later behavior, IQ, propensity to violence, and emotional development.
      2. Many of these might have other explanations and could, theoretically, be explained away as the science is not fully settled, yet so I can’t say for certainty that is the case.
      3. Mindful that correlation is not causation, it still must be noted that overwhelmingly, successful families (top of their field, wealth, income, education) do not utilize spanking for behavior modification while, overwhelmingly, non-successful families (below the poverty line, lack of education, lower IQ scores), do. Like smoking or obesity, it is a behavior pattern that manifests itself almost entirely in the bottom half of society.
      4. In almost all cases, “Is there a more effective tool to achieve what I want without spanking?” can be answered with, “Yes”. Spanking is sort of the end of the intellectual line; an admission that the brain is out of ideas and can’t come up with any alternatives.

      As an investor by trade, I think the risk-adjustment here is fairly straightforward: Am I willing to risk permanent development harm to a child simply to achieve what I want right now, at this moment? If so, what percentage would I demand before I’d conclude it’s a good bet? Is 10% high enough? If there’s a 1 in 10 chance I’m wrong, is hitting the kid, even lightly, worth the potential downside? What about 5%? How about 20%?

      That isn’t a hard decision for me because by my nature, I’m a longer-term thinker (which is sometimes good, sometimes bad). For the same reason I buy shares of stock I still want to own in 25 years, I wouldn’t be inclined to do something that could cause negative dividends for the people I love most simply because it might buy me a little relief today. It’s a bad investment. The risk profile isn’t attractive.

      Finally, I check for another mental model, to make sure it isn’t exerting influence. There is an ingrained, genetic tendency in humans to automatically accept that which was indoctrinated into us in childhood no matter how absurd or illogical it is. When it is questioned, we immediately take it as an attack on a sub-conscious level, and begin the internal debate from the base assumption that our preconceived idea is correct. That gives it an unfair advantage. To overcome this, there are several tools you can use.

      One of them is to use a framing trick to force you to realize whether you are relying on this automated defense mechanism. That’s a personal favorite of mine because, for whatever reason, it works for me.

      Another is to ask yourself, “If I had never been exposed to this practice, would I think it is so demonstrably superior to the alternatives, with such little downside, that I’d immediately adapt it?” In the free market of ideas, spanking is one of those practices that dies out as your family tree climbs higher up the social and income ladder because you are exposed to all of these successful families with great, respectful kids who were never spanked a day in their lives. It gets replaced with more effective tools.

      A real world example: My nephew is every bit as rambunctious as you’d expect from a pre-school aged boy. He gets excited, runs all over the place, yells, gets rough. Lately, he had been getting up from the table and walking around with food because he’d get distracted and suddenly want to go do something else. Two or three generations ago, in my family, he would have been spanked often and hard. Instead, they implemented a “click-whirl” rule, as Robert Cialdini would call it, that manipulates all sorts of mental models, including “reason respecting tendency”. They explained that from now on, everyone had to ask for permission to be excused from the table before leaving because it was the proper way to behave. Almost instantly, this seemingly arbitrary rule broke the habit. He would start to get up, ask, “May I be excused?” and they’d say, “Not until you eat your green beans”. There was no yelling. There was no screaming. There was no hitting. They just manipulated the social engagement to get him to comply with what they wanted and now, not only did they achieve it, but he’ll be a far better dinner guest later in life when things like courtesy matter, whether he’s meeting with a client or going on a date. It’s an advantage. Small things like that add up over time.

      I know a lot of parents who would just spank the kid, even today, until he stopped getting up. It’s horribly inefficient in the same way we don’t use hammers to build houses anymore, everybody uses a nail gun as it is not the 1950’s. It’s outdated. It may have worked 5,000 years ago in the desert when there weren’t better models that could be adapted and getting your kid to comply immediately could mean the difference between getting bitten by a poisonous snake or something but that’s not the world in which we find ourselves.

      For me, I concluded there was no possible justification for spanking given all of this evidence and the alternatives, other than as ego defense for my own upbringing. I wouldn’t have invented it myself. It doesn’t result in the best long-term outcome. It may have significant downsides. There’s just not enough dividend payout for me to find it attractive. That’s why I reject it.

      • Abe

        I can’t believe I never replied to this post. I actually did a double-take because I recall reading this post, but I can’t find a reply. Suffice to say that I agree with your logic. While I can’t attest to having read the research you mention, I can agree that the potential harm (possibly lowered IQ, propensity to violence, and emotional development) far outweighs the potential benefit of immediate change in behavior.

        Unfortunately, my time is currently being monopolized by a career change, a possible promising business venture, and reflection/reorganization of my daily habits. As such, I can’t see myself devoting any of my spare time to researching this topic further. However, rest assured that your thoughts have resonated with me, and I will be sure to reflect upon the practice before I ever expose any of my future children to it.

        Truly, I thank you. I continually learn from your posts, comments, and reflections. May you be blessed!

    • P.S. Mental models really are life-changing. I love them. I keep a spreadsheet and update it whenever I come across one out in the wild. When I took them up in my own life, I looked around and thought, “There are so many better ways I could be behaving, and so much more efficiency I could harness …” It radically overhauled how I go about my business, how I do my work, how I plan our strategies. They’re just fantastic. I’m hoping to publish a few more in the next month or two as I have several new ones in draft form almost ready to go live on the blog.

      • Abe

        I look forward to the new posts!

        With regards to spanking, I can appreciate your line of thinking that utilizes
        “degrees of reasonable probability” in order to come to a conclusion. And, I love the creativity your family employed in coming up with a solution to your nephew’s mealtime extracurricular activities =P.

        Truth is, I personally find few reasons and occasions for spanking, but intellectually I abhor slandering OR praising a practice unless we (as a country/society) have examined it without bias.

        Another side note:
        I can’t help but think that you likely have no idea about how profound the
        impact of your blog is. Speaking only for myself, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through the entirety of your site these past few months. Changes that have occurred:

        1) Complete overhaul of my investment guidelines (Literally a complete 180 from my previous philosophy when it came to both WHAT to invest in and WHY)

        2) Renewed interest in developing excel sheets for the purpose of evaluating investments

        3) Deep study of stocks, royalty trusts, trusts (general), master limited
        partnerships

        4) Developing a long lists of books/authors to continue my education
        (Jeremy J. Siegel; Christopher H. Browne; Mary Buffett; Martin M. Shenkman ;Alice Schroeder; Peter Lynch ;Benjamin Graham; Annette Thau; and a variety of Textbooks on Economics (Macro/Micro) and Finance)

        5) Renewed interests in examining my actions and the reasons behind them (Mental Models)

        6) Encouraging my siblings to start saving for the future now (I come from a large family (think 5+ siblings)

        7) Reminding me that it’s ok to enjoy the luxuries in life, and the responsible methods that exist to enjoy them. (e.g. Spending 30k on a car is NOT acceptable when your annual income is 70k. But, taking a 10k vacation when your passive income is 300k a year is more than acceptable since it’s only a fraction of one’s cash flow.)

        8) Reexamining how I see
        purchases. (e.g. Am I willing to sacrifice future wealth for the utility of
        enjoying a purchase today? And, how much am I sacrificing?)

        9) In order to prevent
        this list from going on and on, I would summarize the biggest lesson as:
        “Know your WHY, Know your REASONS for whatever you do.” That lesson
        applies to one’s personal life just as much as one’s investments.

        You have impacted not only me, but my friends & family as well. So, with all sincerity and heart felt thanks, THANK YOU!

  • Regarding the Adrian Peterson case: I grew up in South Korea where hitting your child was a societal norm. I received my fair share growing up as a child. I can’t blame my parent’s as – in your ham example – it was a behaviour learned generation after generation that was reinforced through all sorts of mental models.

    I was fairly indifferent to mild forms of spanking as a disciplinary tool for parents – I thought to myself “I suffered worse and turned out all right, so what harm could a little spanking do?” I thought this way all the way along until my wife (in the early stages of our courtship) asked me to consider the disproportionate power dynamics between an adult and a child: the power resides absolutely with the adult and the child cannot defend themselves.

    She continued to dismantle and destroy my indifference by asking me what kind of failure of a parent one must be to have to resort to physically harming your child to discipline them. Not only is one grossly exploiting the power differential between adult and child, it also reflects very poorly on one’s own character and parenting skills.

    She asked me if I would ever hit her. I said I would never, ever, ever. It makes me sick thinking of it, even hypothetically. Then she asked me why it would be ok to hit a child.

    I was cured of my indifference from that day forward.