29 years and counting...

UC Santa Cruz is chosen to carry on landmark study chronicling the lives of 100 individuals

Pictured in the Block Study archives are (l-r) developmental psychologists Avril Thorne, Per Gjerde, and David Harrington, surrounded by the voluminous amount of data collected since the study's inception in 1968. On the back cabinet is the "M&M machine," an ingenious tool used by researchers to measure children's impulsive behavior. After manipulating six candies through the mazelike contraption, the children were asked to decide if they wanted to eat the candy now or come back two days later for three times as many M&Ms.

Imagine having the most private details of your psychological makeup documented on a regular basis for nearly 30 years. That's the case for about 100 young adults who have participated with their families since the age of three in one of psychology's most highly regarded longitudinal studies of human development.

Begun in 1968 at UC Berkeley by Jack and Jeanne Block, the "Block Study" has generated some of the richest data in the field of developmental psychology. After intense competition with other research universities, Jack Block, professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley, recently chose UCSC to carry on his life's work in part because of contributions made by Santa Cruz faculty, some of whom have ties to the project dating back more than 25 years.

"We can't call them kids anymore, because they're all in their 30s now," says UCSC associate professor of psychology Per Gjerde, who became involved with the study in 1978 and is directing it at UCSC. Colleagues David Harrington and Avril Thorne have also been involved with the project for a long time.

"If you're interested in how life unfolds--how we become who we are--you really have to follow people from early childhood into adulthood," says Gjerde. "This study is unparalleled and provides a rich research and training resource for our students." The project has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health every year for more than 25 years and has generated more than 100 research papers, some of which are classics in their fields.

The Blocks designed the project in part to explore two themes of personality: ego-control and ego-resiliency. Ego-control measures the degree to which an individual has the ability to delay gratification in service of future goals. Undercontrollers act spontaneously; overcontrollers are more likely to plan for the long term.

Ego-resiliency, in contrast, refers to the ability to moderate one's typical level of control to accommodate new circumstances. For example, a college student who parties all quarter but manages to buckle down and cram in preparation for finals is a "resilient undercontroller," showing the ability to change when push comes to shove.

Participants have been evaluated eight times over the years, and vast amounts of information have been gathered about each person. The latest assessment began this spring and is the first to be initiated under the auspices of UCSC. It is expected to take 12 months to complete.

One of the greatest values of in-depth longitudinal studies is that researchers can look back in time and search for antecedents of later life outcomes. In a now-classic study with the Blocks, Gjerde was able to go back and compare children from families that stayed together with children whose parents later divorced.

"Until then, studies had shown how tough divorce is on boys, in particular, who express a lot of anger and aggression," says Gjerde. "But our study showed that up to eight years before the divorce, boys in these families were antagonistic, difficult, and impulsive."

Suddenly, researchers had reason to consider the impact of raising a difficult child on divorce rates. "Raising a difficult child puts pressure on parents and may itself contribute to divorce," says Gjerde. "So it may not be divorce alone as much as the circumstances prior to divorce that affected these boys."

In a series of studies on the development of gender differences in depression, Gjerde found that young adults who described themselves as depressed had exhibited clear antecedents for the malady during their preschool years. In boys, the characteristics include a lot of anger and interpersonal antagonism. In girls, the early signs are not as strong, but the signals appear to include shyness, kindness, and relatively high intelligence, raising the possibility that smart adolescent girls may be at risk for sadness.

Associate Professor Thorne is tapping the Block data to extend her longitudinal research on personality and personal memories. "Most personal memories are not as plastic as people think," says Thorne. "Many long-term personal memories are told again and again, especially stories about trouble. The who, what, when, and how of these memories don't tend to change much across time, but the meanings of these events do tend to change over the life span, as does their prominence in the grand life story." Thorne is exploring how personality and intervening life events influence the selection and interpretation of personal memories. She is eager to reassess Block participants at age 30 to see if their childhood memories have taken on new meanings. "The way people interpret past events has direct bearing on current and future development," says Thorne. "Past events cannot be changed, but their meanings can."

Associate Professor Harrington is using the Block data to study the development of creativity from early childhood to adulthood.

This assessment is being conducted by mail, in part because doing assessments has become something of a "logistical nightmare," says Gjerde. For the last one, when the participants were 23, researchers flew in participants from Spain, Japan, the East Coast--even a warship stationed near Libya. But Gjerde hopes to conduct in-person assessments again within five years.

"We must see them in person again," says Gjerde, conveying a parent's affection. "They have taught us so much about the richness of human experience and the complexity of human development. We can't stop now."--Jennifer McNulty

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