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Distributed November 18, 2003
Contact Mark Nickel

About 650 Words

Lewis P. Lipsitt
What is killing our kids?

It is no longer disease that poses the biggest threat to young lives, but behavioral misadventures of poorly understood origins. We need an effort on the scale of a Manhattan Project to create a solution that would end the behavior that is killing our children. That we are so limited in our knowledge at this stage in human history about the origins and nature of human behavior is unacceptable.

Today, more Americans through the age of 35 die of behavioral misadventures than of all diseases combined. This simple statement is supported over and over again by epidemiological data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accidents, suicide, homicide, smoking, dangerous drug use, excessive drinking and bullying are responsible for more deaths and debilities among young people than the aggregate of all diseases in our society today.

Modern medicine and public health advances such as sanitation control and mass immunization can take a lot of credit for this. Having gotten the infectious diseases under control, we now face the natural next step in public health advances: the problem of death and debility from psychological causes as the basis of much human misery. Early indications are that the application of the behavioral and human developmental sciences has been successful in reducing smoking, controlling alcohol consumption and drug use in vulnerable individuals, and helping young persons growing up under adverse conditions to turn their lives around and avoid what seemed like inevitable negative outcomes.

From birth, by which time the processes of genetics have had their way, we have the capacity to make choices about our behavior and to modify our behavior. The laws of behavior are always in effect, just as the laws of physics and chemistry. Our knowledge in all scientific domains, however, is almost always wanting. In the past we have been fortunate to have scientists like Pasteur and Salk, and we have depended on refinements in medical technology to reduce mortality from dread diseases. Scientific expertise builds our bridges, designs and flies our aircraft, and immunizes us against diseases. Our society needs to come to the realization that we now need more expertise in behavior science – and the application of what we do know – to address behavioral misadventures.

People behave, on occasion, in ways we don’t expect, but behavior is a natural phenomenon. Killing other people is no more a random act than selecting a spouse, majoring in journalism, or writing a will. If the electrical circuits in our home did not operate according to the laws of physics, we would be constantly in grave danger from fire and electrocution. If Newton’s laws of gravity were not incontrovertibly valid, we would have even more disasters than we do from the collapse of buildings and bridges. Indeed, the crashes that do occur, of planes and bridges, are often due to the behavioral failure of scientists and engineers to anticipate adverse natural conditions.

That we are so limited in our knowledge at this stage in human history about the origins and nature of human behavior is unacceptable. We must fire up the engines that will create a science of human behavior – including behavioral misadventure – as powerful as physics and chemistry and biology combined. The cause is urgent. Some argue that it is impossible to know well behavior and its origins. Others believe it is possible we will come to know human behavior too well, leading inexorably to major intrusions on privacy. But remember this: The products of the science of physics such as nuclear fission are major intrusions on our privacy, too, and it is human behavior on an international scale that controls whether catastrophic nuclear fission will occur or whether our lives will be free of such jeopardy.

We need a Manhattan Project, perhaps several, like that which brought scientists together during World War II to create a solution to end the war – this time to create a solution to end the behavior that is killing our children. Behavioral Manhattan Projects are possible. To understand and prevent conditions that place humans in harm’s way, we must discard old impressions that behavior is random, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. We are not mere victims of circumstance; humans are in a constant state of reciprocating interaction with environmental conditions, including interpersonal relationships. And, like diseases, human behavior under the worst of circumstances kills.

Lewis P. Lipsitt is professor emeritus of psychology, medical science and human development at Brown University and founding editor of the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter. In July 2004, at meetings of the American Psychological Association, he will receive the Hilgard Award for lifetime contributions to the study of human behavior and development.

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