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Three Seductive Ideas Paperback – May 7, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0674001978 ISBN-10: 0674001974 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews


The downside to the exciting reports of new discoveries in cognitive science and neuroscience is that we are left almost no chance to think carefully about what it all means. Jerome Kagan's Three Seductive Ideas is thus a refreshing pause as well as a practical contribution to our scientific sanity. If you enjoy reflecting on science--how it is made, how it is presented, what it solves--and if you really like philosophy in the true and best sense of the word, you should read this delightful book. (Antonio R. Damasio, University of Iowa)

Anyone interested in child development should take the opportunity of clarifying what they believe about three fundamental issues by using this book as a stimulus for reflection and discussion. (Bob Burden DECP Debate 2002-10-01)

This is an intriguing book, thoroughly worked out. (Cathy Urwin Times Literary Supplement)

Jerome Kagan shows how, by acceding to the seduction of big ideas, we are actually reducing what we know and, worse, causing real damage...While the book on one level is an elegant exercise in skepticism, what it leaves in its wake is just the opposite of an intellectual quandary or ruins. I guess it's because he leaves us feeling not how little we can now fully understand, but rather how much is already known to us and ready for our informed interpretation. Rarely have I experienced a call for intellectual humility as such an upper. (Jeffrey Kittay Boston Sunday Globe)

Three Seductive Ideas isn't merely a book about how all people think; it's about how psychologists think about what they do. Kagan argues that the consequences of their ill-considered and misplaced enthusiasms--in favour of infant determinism, the pleasure principle and the stability of emotions and intelligence (the three seductive ideas)--trivialize their discipline and retard the progress of knowledge. His erudite text, quietly assured whenever possible and quietly skeptical when necessary, lacks both vanity and false modesty. Kagan is always polite, even when deflating hyperbole, redirecting ill-considered ascription or fleshing out abstraction...Kagan has provided nothing less than a thorough critique of psychological discourse and method. His colleagues will ignore it at their peril; lay readers will gain from it both wisdom and delight. (Ted Whittaker Globe and Mail)

The expression "seductive ideas" is Jerome Kagan's euphemism for popular fallacies in the behavioral sciences, and he overturns far more than three of them in this brilliant and provocative book. Kagan, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is a near-legendary figure in the field of child development. It is accurate, but superficial, to describe Three Seductive Ideas as a critique of some baneful errors committed by social scientists, which are unmasked by one of psychology's most erudite and rigorous experimentalists: Accurate because Kagan's treatise is a contravention written by a master of the trade. Superficial because the book deserves to be read more deeply. Kagan offers a candid defense of the moral and spiritual nature of human beings, written in opposition to several powerful intellectual currents, including evolutionary psychology, computational neuroscience, and cognitive ethology. (Richard A. Shweder Science)

In this seductively entitled book, an eminent founder of developmental psychology takes devastating issue with three powerful assumptions that have shaped our understanding of what we are. Using a wealth of illustrative material, he tears them each apart...The book is worth reading just for the enormous array of examples from psychological research, cultural history and philosophy which he pulls out to make his case. (Janet Waller Therapist)

A child's development is determined in the first two years of life. The basic goal of humans, like all primates, is to pursue pleasure. Abstract processes, such as intelligence or fear, are measurable entities, of which one might have a lot or a little. According to Kagan, a founder of developmental psychology, all three of these popular ideas are wrong. (Harvard Magazine)

The clarity and the sheer sanity of the ideas and insights the author posits in refuting these widely held notions will make readers--and with any luck Kagan's colleagues--rethink some of their most cherished beliefs about why people behave the way they do...[Kagan's] are not popular ideas, clearly, but Kagan is too magisterial a scholar and thinker to let criticism get in his way. He is convinced and makes a tightly reasoned case for the fact that the social and behavioral sciences have not enjoyed the significant advances that have marked the last 20 years in biology, chemistry, and astrophysics, and so are not working as well as they should. One of the major reasons for their "halting progress," he argues, is based in the "reluctance to question the trio of ragged ideas" that is the subject of this enticing and resonant book. (Robert Leiter Jewish Exponent)

[This is a] wonderful book...a serious indictment of psychology as a legitimate and useful science, implying as it does that it might be more akin to folklore than physics. But it is part of Mr. Kagan's artfulness in this book to show us both that psychology as folklore has its own (psychological) logic and that psychology as a science could be dramatically improved...This remarkable book attempts, and largely succeeds, in revisions of psychology as generally conceived...And it does this not by proclaiming an amazing new theory for our conspicuous consumption; but by examining, simply, and with patience and wit (and occasionally startling "facts"), the familiar theories we all take for granted...This book has been written with all the passion and eloquence of a moral motive. And that motive is to prevent us being duped by psychology into an unruly pessimism or a callous optimism. I can't imagine anyone being unchanged by reading this book. (Adam Phillips Washington Times)

In the field of psychology, Jerome Kagan stands out as a distinguished and eloquent champion of conceptual pluralism. His newest book, Three Seductive Ideas, provides an insightful unmasking of some of the most influential psychological myths and misconceptions by which we live. Kagan's compelling conclusions constitute an indispensable road map for all who seek to understand the story of human development. (Frank J. Sulloway, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Jerome Kagan's gem of a book exposes the oversimplification of psychological theory that permeates professional and popular writing. Its romp through neurophysiology, philosophy, physics, history, anthropology, and literature turns up nuggets to enrich discussion of the psychological questions everyone cares most about--intelligence, attachment, memory, morality. Provocative reading for anyone, and an inspiration for the next generation of psychologists. (Alison Clarke-Stewart, University of California--Irvine)

When confronted by a complex phenomenon like a human being, it is not too surprising that those of us charged with investigating behavior might seek occasional refuge in enticing ideas that seem to make our research go more smoothly and our intuitions satisfyingly correct. Kagan, a world-rank developmental psychologist, incisively debunks some of popular (and even) professional psychology's most treasured fallacies and leaves us not bereft, but the wiser for it. (Edward Zigler, Yale University)

Academic social scientists and non-academics alike tend to assume that human behavior can be explained by personality and intelligence, that early experience shapes our lifelong character, and that most people are motivated more by pleasure-seeking than by morality. Kagan challenges these comfortable ideas about human nature, in a book that is entertaining, scholarly, and disquieting to the status quo. For this reason--and because it's a delight to read!--this book should be on everyone's reading list. (Sandra Scarr, University of Virginia)

It takes a mature scientist to recognize the truly basic problems in his science, and to offer inspiring solutions. Jerome Kagan's accomplishment of these difficult tasks is masterful. Controversial as his arguments will be, they are indisputably on target. Three Seductive Ideas brings a fresh vision not just to psychology but to all the social sciences. (Robert Cairns, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Three Seductive Ideas has all the sweep and grandeur of a symphony. Kagan, being the grand conductor he is, brings together ideas from philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, to provide this reader with an important and persuasive critique. (Nathan Fox, University of Maryland at College Park)

Neuroscientific and psychological research findings have too often been hyped into a social-developmental theory of everything. In this passionately argued book, Jerry Kagan demolishes inflated claims for the irreversible effects of very early experience, or the inability of people to change. Three Seductive Ideas addresses fundamental questions for anyone interested in child development, or in psychology's claim to be a science. It could not be more timely. (John T. Bruer, President, James S. McDonnell Foundation)

This wry, wise, and provocative book reminds us that all too often, social science is influenced by prevailing philosophical and political values. Kagan's insightful deconstruction of three popular psychological premises is fascinating, sobering, and persuasive. (Anne Fernald, Stanford University)

Kagan devotes the majority of this book to three ubiquitous ideas, each in its own seductively titled chapter: 'A Passion for Abstraction,' 'The Allure of Infant Determinism,' and 'The Pleasure Principle.' Using evidence from hundreds of empirical studies, Kagan not only refutes each belief, but also explains why so many developmentalists are prone to hold them… The three ideas presented in this book may be seductive, but Kagan's thorough critique of them is more persuasive still. This book is highly recommended to researchers, teachers, and parents alike. It is a service to the field of developmental psychology and to the children Kagan has studied throughout his distinguished career. (Harvard Educational Review)


The downside to the exciting reports of new discoveries in cognitive science and neuroscience is that we are left almost no chance to think carefully about what it all means. Jerome Kagan's Three Seductive Ideas is thus a refreshing pause as well as a practical contribution to our scientific sanity. If you enjoy reflecting on science--how it is made, how it is presented, what it solves--and if you really like philosophy in the true and best sense of the word, you should read this delightful book. (Antonio R. Damasio, University of Iowa) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (April 7, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674001974
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674001978
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,183,744 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on June 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
After a hundred years of trying to understand human behavior in scientific terms through very different fields, we are left with a confusing array of largely unconnected theories. Science is about finding unifying principles among diverse but compatible ideas, but our temptation is to settle too quickly for the next simple theory that comes along and sounds plausible and compelling.
Kagan starts with the perspective that physical sciences have been around for three hundred years, but psychological science as such for only a century, placing psychological science at the historical place where physical sciences were in the 17th century. While the analogy is questionable, the point that psychological science is, for all its vitality and productivity, truly in its infancy, is made powerfully between the lines throughout this book.
Kagan informs this situation elegantly by not only pointing out our need for telling simplifying stories but also showing how some of the grandest simplifying stories, which theorists often take for granted: (1) the notion of essential individual traits, (2) the early influences on the formation of the mind, and (3) the asssumed root of motivation in pleasure seeking, underlie roadblocks in our understanding of ourselves.
The book points out that we apply ideas like intelligence, fear, and consciousness to a wide variety of different agents, situations, and classes of evidence, prematurely assuming that we have found essential qualities in these things. That many of these abstractions are not so broadly applicable in the same way is demonstrated by a select set of experimental and clinical observations that make the point clearly.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Bob Fancher on March 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Those of us who have written critiques of the poor scientific base underlying claims about the human mind often find ourselves dismissed, in one way or another--the most patronizing being that we are clinicians who do not understand science or really know the state of the art. Jerome Kagan of Harvard has spent his life as one of the foremost scientists in psychology. Unlike most academic psychologists, he has actually made discoveries that stand up well to critical inquiry. Thus, this searing critique of the poor quality of thought that passes for science in our beliefs about the mind cannot be dismissed so easily. Kagan is not only right: He has the credentials to force anyone with an iota of intellectual conscience to question claims of "experts" about the mind. More important, his arguments show that in this fledgling field, the science of the mind, the chaff far outweighs the wheat--even among the most cherished beliefs and most prestigious research. Clearly written, this book is for anyone who wants to know the truth about the state of the art in our efforts to understand the mind.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Wes Beach on February 15, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I have worked as an educator for 38 years. At present I run an alternative high school that exists to support teenagers who believe they can spend their time more productively by doing something other than going to high school. One of many destructive things they have encountered in school is an extremely narrow view of what constitutes intelligence, and many of them internalize the view that they're not very smart because they do not excel at doing school things.
One student who had done very poorly in high school and had not graduated went on to an aeronautics school where he earned nothing but the highest marks. He expresses much of his intelligence through his hands (in this regard, Frank Wilson's "The Hand" is most instructive). Another student, a talented musician, skipped most of high school, went to a community college, and is now studying in a music school in New York. She left high school because she found it boring, frustrating, and uninspiring, and felt that it held her back; it was not a place where she could nurture her musical intelligence.
I have in my basic literature a section on intelligence. When I was a few pages into the chapter section on intelligence in "Three Seductive Ideas," I knew I had to rewrite that section and make it even broader.
This is one of the very few books that prompted me immediately to consolidate several ideas, change some others, and act on these new perceptions at once. It is one of the most stimulating books I've ever read.
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34 of 43 people found the following review helpful By James Daniels on November 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
In Three Seductive Ideas, Jerome Kagan attacks the conventional wisdom of modern psychology. Asserting that psychology is only 100 years old, he goes on to compare many leading ideas in the field to the ideas in physics just 100 years after Gallileo. For Kagan, modern psychology is far too primitive.
Kagain in particular attacks three central notions: 1) that the human mind or personality has certain permanent features, essential characteristics like intelligence that do no vary over time or across situations, 2) that the human mind is permanently altered by experiences within the first three years of life, as though each hug or toy produced irrevocable synaptic changes, and 3) that the human mind is primarily driven in the seeking of pleasure, independent of social acceptance or moral righteousness.
Kagan's central point, that psychology is young and ought to be received only skeptically in making prescriptions for our day to day lives is well taken. However, the book has three major weaknesses that prevent my recommending it to others.
1) At each point in the book, Kagan replaces the "seductive" ideas with his own assertions. He says, for example, that intelligence is more properly divided among numerous tasks and talents than one general measure such as IQ. Although he takes time to attack the notion of IQ, his substitution is given short shrift. He does this throughout the book, attacking one idea only to replace it with another, equally young or new idea. Presumably in the next 100 years, Kagan hopes to see his ideas accepted and tested. However, we should remain as skeptical of Kagan as he urges us to be of the ideas he attacks.
2) I found Kagan's evidence lacking. In particular, he cites the now discredited peppered moth studies in his allusions to evolutionary theory.
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