The Magazine

Their Right Stuff

The evolution of the Harvard guinea pigs.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the 1930s, a group of psychologists and physical anthropologists at Harvard chose 268 students whose medical, amatory, and career experiences they wished to document over the remaining decades of their lives. Department-store mogul W. T. Grant, who bankrolled the study, was curious about what made a good commanding officer or retail manager—more generally, a good leader of men. The Grant study is now ending, as its youngest subjects pass 90. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who has directed the study since the 1960s and published periodic updates on its findings, offers a final report in Triumphs of Experience. Turns out the main thing the study has discovered is the corruption of the various worldviews in the name of which it was conducted.

The Harvard Swim Team

The Harvard Swim Team


Even at the height of the egalitarian New Deal, professors were certain that the place to find leadership material was in the high-achieving segment of the upper classes. Since this was to be a study of optimal, not average, development, it was screened even further. Future Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee ’42, scion of the Crowninshield family of Massachusetts, was among those whose features piqued the interest of investigators. Neither Leonard Bernstein ’39 nor Norman Mailer ’43 made the cut. 

Not to beat around the bush, the Grant study was a study in eugenics, as that term was understood in the 1930s. This was just a decade after Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in Buck v. Bell, upholding Virginia’s sterilization policy on the grounds that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” One of the study’s early leaders, the anthropologist Earnest Hooton, hoped it would lead to “effective control of individual quality through genetics, or breeding.” 

A mesomorphic (muscular) body type was a sign of the right stuff; blubbery endomorphs and gangly ectomorphs were less promising. But Sigmund Freud had made inroads into American academia, too. So the Grant study was, from the outset, an uneasy mix of phrenology, somatotyping, race theory, and psycho-analysis. Not only did the young men have their skulls, pulses, and scrota measured; they also took Rorschach tests and filled out questionnaires about how they’d been toilet trained and how often they masturbated. 

The study was barely a decade old when the revelations of World War II and the nascent civil rights movement brought its original eugenic slant into disrepute. But there had to be some use for those hundreds of blue-blood men on the hook to be studied intimately for a lifetime, and a use was found. In 1954, the tobacco industry gave the study money to look for “the positive reasons” that people smoke. For a decade after 1972, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sponsored its research, and Vaillant published his book The Natural History of Alcoholism in 1983. At big research universities, intellectual curiosity waits on grant money, and not vice versa.

Through every change of focus, the study continued to take its bearings and biases from psychiatry. In the second half of the 20th century, Harvard’s psychology department was under the sway of Erik Erikson, a protégé of Freud’s daughter Anna. Erikson’s vision focused on relationships and life “tasks,” such as intimacy, “generativity,” career consolidation, and “guardianship.” Back then, this seemed an open-minded alternative to the penile dogmatism of Freud; today it sounds only marginally less nuts. When Vaillant writes about coding subjects “for the highest Eriksonian psychosocial task they had mastered,” readers will be reminded less of social science than of those glossy-magazine features about Scientology that appear any time Tom Cruise acts up. 

As with orthodox Freudianism, there is a hedonistic bias to the ideal of maturity that the study proclaims. To blossom is to shed “rigid” attitudes. There is nothing more contemptible than an “inhibition.” Perhaps you think that, in a free society, in-hibitions are good since they spare us from having to submit to others’ pro-hibitions. But if that is how you think, you will find this book’s system of values un-intelligible. Vaillant sees evidence of one Episcopal minister’s maturation in the way “he had put aside absolute convictions about faith, morality, and authority in favor of a new appreciation of their relativity and mutability.” If this book has a hero, it is a meathead named Boatwright, who says, “I don’t give a damn if I’m remembered for anything. I’ve enjoyed my life and had a hell of a good time.”