Adult infantilization may be a byproduct of social evolution, but it could lead to demise of humans

Nowadays adults collect My Little Pony dolls and play with Legos. They read Harry Potter and comic books. They go on sleepovers at museums and down Gummi Bear vitamins.

It’s called adult infantilization, adults maintaining hobbies and interests that are created specifically for children and which are relatively uncomplicated and unsophisticated compared to adult experiences.

I’ve written about the negative impact of infantilization a number of times, including most recently on June 30, 2016, October 27, 2014 and May 10, 2014. My concern with infantilization is that I believe it leaves adults not just acting like children, but thinking like them.

Bad for society, but good for advertisers. Advertisers want adults to behave like children because it makes them better consumers. Children are more self-centered and find it harder to think long-term, so they are more likely to make an impulse purchase for themselves. Children have less sophisticated thought processes and are therefore easier to convince to buy or believe something. Children have not had rigorous training in economics, the scientific method and logic and tend to engage in magical thinking. Children tend to believe anything an authority figures says.

We can see the trend of increased adult infantilization in the pandemic of popular movies focused on adults who behave like children over the past 20 years. A partial list: The “Harold & Kumar” movies,  “Old School,”  “Big,”  “Grandma’s Boy,”  the “Ted” flicks,  “The Wedding Crashers,”  “Billy Madison,”  ”Step Brothers,”  “You, Me and Dupree,”  “Dodgeball,”  “The 40-year-old Virgin,”  “Knocked Up,”  all three “Hangovers,”  the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,”  “Hall Pass”  and “Identity Thief.”

It’s easy to see why someone selling products and services—especially unneeded junk—might want to deal with children and not adults, or to be more precise, to deal with adults with the thought processes of children. But children make poor citizens and worse voters, as they are more easily swayed by fallacious thinking and more likely to see things in terms of good and bad, us and them, thereby missing nuances that are particularly important in a pluralistic society.

In reading Beyond Words by science popularizer Carl Safina, I’ve discovered that infantilization may be a byproduct of the evolution that humans have gone through since forming sedentary societies. In discussing the domestication of wolves into dogs and a decades-long experiment to domesticate foxes by letting only the less aggressive ones breed, Safina lists a set of physical traits that seem always to be tied to friendliness or a lack of aggression, the traits that humans prefer in dogs: droopy ears, splotchy or mottled coats, wagging tails, shorter legs, shorter faces with smaller teeth. As it turns out, all these physical characteristics are present in the young of the species, who then grow out of them.  As for behavior, to quote Safina, “As adults, the friendly foxes continue to behave like juvenile wolves, acting submissively, whining and giving higher pitched barks.” He and the research he references postulate that “genes resulting in invisible brain changes for friendly behavior also result in highly visible changes in how foxes look.” Safina points out that these changes are virtually the same ones that occurred in wolves as they became dogs. Safina concludes that researchers and farmers who have thought they were selecting for nonaggressive personalities were also selecting for juvenile versions of adults, “perpetual pups” as he writes.

Later in Beyond Words, Safina points out that the extremely social and peaceful bonobos have many physical traits that the highly aggressive and anti-social chimpanzee have as children but lose as adults, including skull shape, flatness of face, smaller teeth and the existence of the labia majora in females. Surprise, surprise, humans share these bonobo traits that adult chimpanzees lose.

Anthropologist Chris Boehm has postulated that over time, groups of humans may have eliminated many of those most prone to aggressive acts, such as rape, murder, cheat and other anti-social behavior because imprisonment, execution, death in war and banishment all impede procreation. What we’re talking about is not any millennium-long program of eugenics, but the adaptive superiority of civilized behavior once humans formed large groups. While blackguards still exist, the theory goes that there are fewer of them because of conscious selections by human beings.

Could it be that the more domesticated humans that populate advanced societies are also more prone to keeping their juvenile predilections? That the less aggressive a population is, the more likely that many of its members will not only maintain the traits of adolescence or childhood, but the mindset as well?

It’s depressing to think that we may be hardwired as a social species to have an overall decline in our ability to think clearly, which is what a wholesale reversion to juvenile thought process would entail. It could lead to more of the short-sighted selfishness that has led to policies that are boiling the oceans, overstuffing the atmosphere and water with carbon dioxide, destroying massive numbers of species and threatening the continued existence of humanity.

Let’s face it; everything we know about the natural history of the world and the physics behind its playing out over time is that the goal of evolution is the destruction of species. According to current evolutionary science, virtually all species that have existed have gone extinct. As levels of carbon monoxide and oxygen have varied through the ages so have the conditions of life, favoring some creatures for a while and then others. Moments of extreme change have produced five mass extinctions and it looks as if we are in the middle of a sixth one, caused primarily by humans. Thus, human self-domestication, which carries so many advantages for humans in society, may also have disadvantages which over time could lead to our demise.

The answer, however, is not to become more aggressive as a species again. Our future depends on greater cooperation, not less, on more peaceful resolution of conflicts, not on warfare.

What we need is an education system that trains children to be free-thinking adults and not good consumers. One example: when I was growing up, there was no such thing as young adult fiction, which is now the hottest fiction category. Children went right from the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew to adult fiction, which could sometimes be sloppy romantic novels, but could also be works of great literature such as most of Mark Twain, some Steinbeck, Gulliver’s Travels, Catcher in the Rye, the books of Sinclair Lewis, A Tale of Two Cities. The list of books with adult complications and psychologies that are appropriate for teenagers goes on and on. Young adult fiction such as the Harry Potter series should not be taught in schools, nor qualify as reading assignments. We should analyze all high school curricula for signs of unconscious infantilization, e.g., talking down and simplifying subjects as if teens were still children or using methodologies meant for elementary school students with high school students. We should also flush the system of the accretion of consumerism that has built up through the years, such as classroom material sponsored by corporations that sell to the public. I also believe that there are certain inherently infantilizing experiences which we should limit (not prohibit) to all children, such as video games, comic books and branded toys. A stuffed dog will help a child mature more than a stuffed animal from a movie. A child makes up her-his own fantasies about a generic Ruff or Ralph. A branded toy has already created the narrative for the child. The branded toy also teaches children to accept the authority of a brand as a value in and of itself instead of evaluating things on their own merit.

I’m also wondering if helicopter parenting is also leading to infantilization. Adults have gotten their fingers into a lot of children’s activities. We should give children of all ages enough free time to play in unorganized settings, free of adult supervision. When all activities are constantly monitored and organized by adults, children are more likely to stay in their role as children. When a child is used to parents’ too active involvement in meeting challenges such as negotiating high school and applying to college, the child may continue to think like a child.

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