Susannah Breslin is a freelance journalist and a Forbes.com senior contributor. From 2018 to 2019, she was the Lawrence Grauman Jr. Post-graduate Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. Her reporting and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Harper’s Bazaar, The Daily Beast, Salon, Newsweek, The Guardian, and Variety, among other media outlets.
Below, Susannah shares 5 key insights from her new book, Data Baby: My Life in a Psychological Experiment. Listen to the audio version—read by Susannah herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Science is just stories.
Not long after I was born, my parents submitted an application for my enrollment to the Harold E. Jones Child Study Center, an exclusive laboratory preschool run by UC Berkeley where my father was an English professor. At the preschool, faculty, researchers, and students in early childhood development got young human subjects to study and professors and staff got convenient, affordable, and quality childcare. When I arrived for my first day of school, I became one of 128 kids who were subjects in the Block Study, the brainchild of married UC Berkeley personality researchers Jack and Jeanne Block. My cohort and I were studied at the preschool and assessed at nine key developmental stages over the next three decades.
Over the years, the data of our lives would inform over 100 books and scientific papers. When we were in our early thirties, the study ended and our assessments stopped. A decade later, I was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. As I underwent treatment, I started thinking about my early experiences in the Block Study. How had being studied shaped my identity and life choices? Who had the Blocks predicted I’d grow up to be?
I’d been a journalist for nearly two decades. Maybe the study could be my next investigation. But I wasn’t sure I was the right person to tell the story of the study. On a research trip to California, I met with George Vaillant, a retired Harvard psychiatrist and godfather of longitudinal studies. I shared my concerns with him. Unlike my principal investigators, or my English professor parents, I didn’t have a PhD. I wasn’t a scientist or a psychologist. Who was I to write about the study? “Science is just stories,” he told me. I understood what he was saying. We think science is about data and numbers but science is an art form: the art of understanding the world and ourselves through stories.
2. The observer effect is real.
At some point in your life you might have heard the term: the observer effect. It’s the phenomenon by which the act of observing something changes that which is being observed. When I was a child, I didn’t know that I was being studied. In fact, the Child Study Center had been made for spying on children. In the T-shaped building a hidden observation gallery was tucked between the mirror twin classrooms and play yards. In the rectangular building, testing rooms were equipped with one-way mirrors and eavesdropping devices. When we got older, we were studied at Tolman Hall, a Brutalist building on the north side of campus where we were assessed in experiment rooms while researchers looked on through one-way mirrors.
“Being in the study made me feel special, like I had a greater purpose, as if I was playing a role in a bigger story.”
At a certain point, I learned that I was in an important study, but I can no longer remember the details of how I came to find out that information. To me it seemed normal to grow up under a microscope. After all, it was all I’d ever known. But as I investigated the story behind the study, and returned to the places where I had been studied, I came to see that being studied had played a role in shaping the person I’d become. In some ways, I’d become a journalist because of the study. My reporting was doing what my examiners had taught me to do: closely study one’s subject, use empathy to understand the other, construct a life’s narrative.
The Blocks may have believed that they weren’t changing our lives by simply observing us. The truth was more complicated than that. Being in the study made me feel special, like I had a greater purpose, as if I was playing a role in a bigger story. It inspired me, saved me, pushed me to do better and go farther.
3. You can’t move forward without facing your past.
One question that arose in my mind as I researched was: Why had the Block Study played such an important role in my development? To find out, I moved back to Berkeley, where everything had started. Tolman Hall was about to be demolished, but I was able to get inside the empty building, wandering its halls and peering into rooms in which I’d been assessed as a kid. I dug through files, tracked down decades-old documents, stood in the very same observation gallery at the preschool from which researchers had studied me all those years ago. As an adult, I’d forged a career as a tough-as-nails journalist, but that was a mask to cover up my past.
When I was a kid, my parents were busy with their careers. My mother was distant, aloof, and cold. My older sister was mostly out of the house doing other things. I had spent a lot of time alone in my room, making up stories, reading books, and playing with my stuffed animals. But in my mind, the Block Study was always there, watching over me, observing me.
In the absence of a warm, connected mother, a psychological experiment was my babysitter. It was painful to me to see how that dynamic had played out, and I couldn’t do it without facing the long buried pain of my depressed and somewhat sad, lonely childhood. It was unpleasant, but it was real. I couldn’t escape my past, no matter how painful it was, because I had carried it with me all along.
4. You are the author of the story of your life.
Growing up, I thought the Block Study knew me better than I knew myself. Why wouldn’t I? I was the subject. They were the experts. I was the child. They were the adults. For years, I struggled with main character energy in my private life. In relationships, I tended to shift into the accommodating, supporting role. I let the other person be the main character.
“I had been that girl myself, and I didn’t want to be that woman—the one who turns herself into whatever makes other people happy.”
During my research, I read a scientific paper that was based on our data. It concluded that smart, confident girls begin to doubt themselves when they reach puberty. That’s when they realize they’re not the kind of girls society expects them to be: passive, accommodating. In the wake of that realization, they become depressed. I had been that girl myself, and I didn’t want to be that woman—the one who turns herself into whatever makes other people happy.
In the course of writing my book, my marriage fell apart. I moved from where I’d been living in Florida to California. I left my supporting character energy behind and leaned into my main character energy. As long as I kept giving my story—my power—to someone else, I’d never be happy. As I set about reclaiming my story—my power—I became someone new: the real me.
5. Kids are the canaries in the coalmine.
I think about my own experiences as a human lab rat when I think about kids whose babysitters are digital devices, kids whose data is collected by billionaires who aren’t interested in enlightening humanity but increasing their profit margins, kids who are coming of age under the watchful eye of surveillance capitalism. Online, these kids’ choices are made for them by an algorithm, their decisions guided by marketing campaigns, their self worth measured in likes.
Who will a generation of kids raised by computers grow up to be? The tech moguls who run the companies that make these products are interested in harvesting this fresh new crop of data babies. They want to extract money from them, monetize their content, and mold them into whoever they want them to be. Parents seem disconnected from this problematic reality.
In our brave new high tech world, it’s easier to not think about the consequences of surveillance on a child growing up in hyper-connected always-online world. I was a lucky. My researchers were benevolent. Today’s data collectors are capitalists looking to make a buck off the human condition by any means necessary. Privacy is a thing of the past. Who will the generation of kids who were raised online grow up to be? That remains to be seen. Today we’re all data babies in a global psychological experiment.
To listen to the audio version read by author Susannah Breslin, download the Next Big Idea App today: