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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Urban Legend About the Russian Orphans

I thought I would have a peaceful breakfast this snowy morning, January 9, 2011, with the Times Sunday Styles section. What could be in there to bother me, except maybe pictures of people in high-fashion camouflage clothing, an oxymoron to my mind?

But there was something bothersome, and it was on the first page. One Nicole Hardy had written a piece called “Single, Female, Mormon, Alone”, and although what she had to say was interesting, insightful, and well-written, and I wish her all the best, it took only a few paragraphs before my myth alarm went off loudly. Ms. Hardy wanted to find a good metaphor to convey how isolated she felt as a celibate adult, and how she felt she hadn’t been able to really grow up as an “old” virgin, so here’s what she compared herself to: “like the Russian orphans I’d read about whose lack of physical contact altered their neurobiology and prevented them from forming emotional bonds.”

It would seem that everybody now knows these things: Russian orphans can’t form emotional bonds . It’s because they didn’t get much physical contact when they were babies. That changed their neurobiology. They’re not like you and me or other human beings any more.

As is the case with other urban legends, the only trouble with this one is that it isn’t true. None of the parts we can unpack from Ms. Hardy’s statement is a demonstrable fact. I’ve discussed recent research on these issues at Michael Rutter and other researchers of the English and Romanian Adoptees study have been following over 300 children adopted from Romanian orphanages in the early 1990s. These orphanages had appalling conditions, probably for many of these children the worst that could be experienced and still have the child survive; they were certainly worse than present Russian orphanages, so if there are many bad outcomes from poor early care, we would expect those outcomes from the Romanian adoptees.

Here are some points from Rutter’s research that are relevant to the urban legend Ms. Hardy chooses as her metaphor:

1. “Orphans from Eastern Europe can’t form emotional bonds”
In fact, in the Rutter research, most of the children had normal relationships with their adoptive families. Those who seemed unusual in their relationships (and there were more in the adopted group than in a non-adopted comparison group) were overly friendly and more likely than is usual to approach strangers or wander away. The developmental scientist Megan Gunnar, commenting on this in the Society for research in Child Development monograph “Deprivation-Specific Psychological Patterns: Effects of Institutional Deprivation” (Rutter et al, 2010), pointed out: “we should not be focused on garden variety attachment problems but ones that fit within the ‘disinhibited’ framework [excessive friendliness—JM]. There are still plenty of questions about whether [disinhibited attachment] is primarily a disorder of the attachment relationship… Though some [disinhibited attachment] behaviors do deal with failure to check back with the parent in anxiety-provoking situations, most deal with disinhibited behavior or lack of social reserve with strangers… it is not just that these children are really overly friendly with strangers; rather, they seem to have problems with social boundaries” (p. 243). Gunnar’s comments suggest that a failure to form emotional bonds is not the issue.

2. “The reason they have problems is a lack of physical contact.”

Although it is undoubtedly true that few, if any, of the Romanian group were cuddled or kissed the way we expect family babies to be, there is no reason to choose that deprivation as the cause of any problems that may occur. They were also both underfed and malnourished in terms of receiving appropriate nutriments. Some were confined to their cribs almost indefinitely, and were cleaned by being squirted with garden hoses. To choose a lack of physical contact as the major problem out of this menu of deprivations is arbitrary and misleading.

3. “Their experiences changed their neurobiology”.

While this is an important issue, too little evidence presently exists about brain-behavior connections to be able to make this statement. For discussion, see

Poor Ms. Hardy. She was just looking for a good metaphor to use in communicating some of the peculiarities of her life, and she stumbled into a major controversy. I can’t really blame her for picking up this urban legend--- that’s almost what urban legends are, things people pick up unquestioningly-- but I would have liked it if she hadn’t added this one more brick to the wall that keeps people from seeing through a legend that has caused a lot of trouble to a lot of children and their adoptive parents.

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