Success in Life? It’s All About Micro-Culture

There’s a longstanding nature-versus-nurture debate among social psychologists. Wrestling with it doesn’t get you very far, because it’s not a real question. Nature matters. Nurture matters. But what matters most is micro-culture.

(Micro-culture is a term that doesn’t yet exist. I’m making it up to denote the close circle of people that surround and influence you during your formative years.)

What you accomplish in life – in terms of every aspect of success, from mental health to longevity to self-satisfaction to your career – is due much more to micro-culture than to any other single factor. So why haven’t researchers figured that out?

To wit: A recent University of Minnesota study has academics scratching their heads.

Led by epidemiologist Theresa Osypuk, the study followed the lives of youngsters born into poverty in the 1990s. Some of them were given vouchers that allowed them to move out of public housing and into better neighborhoods. And what happened to the kids who made the move? The researchers found that the girls were far less likely to drink heavily than the girls left in the housing projects. But the boys binged more.

As the WSJ put it, “The findings challenged the assumption that behavioral risks increase with economic hardships and that poverty affects women and men the same way.”

How could that be?

The problem is (IMHO) that the profs at the University of Minnesota made the common mistake of assuming that the larger culture of the community matters. Had they understood the reality of micro-cultural influence, they would not have conducted the study the same way.

The study, dubbed “Moving to Opportunity,” included 5,000 low-income families in five cities: New York , Chicago, LA, Boston, and Baltimore. Most of them were single-parent families. Nearly all, not surprisingly, mother-led.

There were actually three test groups: those that were given vouchers to move into nicer neighborhoods, those that got vouchers that tripled their income, and the control group (those that stayed where they were).

Not only did the boys who moved out of the projects fail to drink less, they drank more. And they suffered from depression. And their grades went down. Most interestingly, none of the kids who made the move, boys or girls, did better in terms of getting jobs later on.

The researchers don’t seem to know what to make of this. They have explained it in terms of the fragile psychology of growing up male.

But the problem is that the test groups were not correct to begin with. My theory: The boys did worse because the affluent micro-culture they moved into was harder on them because their new peers (boys) were harder on them. Also, the micro-culture of their families – with a mother but not a father to guide them – had a big effect.

The differences between the boys and girls had to do with how they behaved socially. And since the new micro-culture of the boys was more challenging, it makes perfect sense that they would get worse.

The more important result hardly noted at all in the “official” analysis, is that neither group did any better in terms of upward social mobility. That’s because they all carried the micro-culture of their families with them. And familial micro-cultures matter enormously when it comes to educational and career success.

I’ll talk about this more in a future essay.