Robert B. Cairns, Founding Director

Bob and BeverlyCairnsRobert Bennett Cairns was the founding director of the Center for Developmental Science, and served in this position from 1993 until his death in 1999. Dr. Cairns was an exceptional scientist and truly visionary leader. The Center owes its existence to Dr. Cairns’ encyclopedic command of literatures in a broad array of fields, to his creative and iconoclastic approach to research, to his ability to inspire others to take bold steps in their work and to his endless drive and determination.

Bob Cairns’ life was devoted to the study of behavioral development. A Los Angeles native, Bob received his Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University in 1960. After graduate school, he taught for a few years at the University of Pennsylvania and for a more extensive period of time at Indiana University. Bob joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973. He was internationally recognized for his work on social development across the lifespan, for his longitudinal analyses of alternative developmental pathways, and for his pioneering efforts to build an interdisciplinary developmental science. Bob’s landmark contributions to the field were based on a unique synthesis that involved the integration of ideas from biology, sociology, anthropology, and psychiatry into a mix that began with developmental psychology. The power of this synthesis fueled Bob’s research programs for decades, but also had a profound impact on the thinking of his students and colleagues. Indeed, because of his contagious enthusiasm for a rigorous developmental synthesis, Bob was able to bring together researchers from many disciplines — people who had a common interest in issues of development, but who nonetheless had never really talked to each other. The result of this integrative effort was the birth of a new intellectual endeavor, a truly developmental science, one that is grounded in interdisciplinary basic research but also has major implications for problems of society. Evidence of the health of this enterprise is seen in the continuing vitality of the Center for Developmental Science. The Center has grown to involve the active participation of more than 80 researchers who are drawn from 19 different academic units (i.e., departments and schools) at six cooperating universities.

Glimpses of Bob’s developmental synthesis were apparent early in his career. As a graduate student, he carried out important studies of the social behavior (and misbehavior) of children and adolescents, and as a young faculty member, he published groundbreaking research on the development of social attachments in animals. This led to a stint as a visiting scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where Bob gained expertise in behavior genetics and in the microanalysis of social interactions in animals. This experience had a profound impact on his own professional development, and from the late sixties until his death, Bob investigated social, biological, and genetic factors in the development of aggression by augmenting naturalistic longitudinal research in humans with parallel experimental investigations in behavior genetics with animals. Underlying these two strands of work was Bob’s commitment to the view that social interactions provide a link between the environmental context and internal states, and thus play a primary role in the continuity and change of the characteristics of the individual.

In 1981, Bob launched the Carolina Longitudinal Study (CLS) in collaboration with his wife Beverley. Now more than 20 years later, the CLS has recently concluded as a major longitudinal investigation of the social development and academic achievement of 695 youth who had originally been seen in the 4th and 7th grades and who are now young adults and parents. This project led to the Carolina Intergenerational Study (CIS), in which approximately 400 offspring of the children in the original CLS sample were studied. The result was something that was truly unique in the developmental literature, namely, an intergenerational study in which information based on the same measuring instruments is available on children and their parents across development. These studies and others launched by Bob have resulted in a rich understanding of factors associated with successful adaptation to school, as well as those that are linked to violence, teenage pregnancy, school failure, and dropout. This understanding, moreover, led to work on a major intervention program in rural Alabama that was designed to prevent the dropout of at-risk adolescents.

Four major integrative themes can be identified in Bob’s contributions to the understanding of development, each of which carries with it many implications for application and intervention. First, Bob felt that typical analytic procedures (be they experimental or statistical) often missed the mark when they were applied to matters of behavioral development. Searching for a single cause (e.g., genes, peer groups, family experiences) of a particular behavioral pattern (e.g., aggression) was naïve, in his view, because behavioral patterns stem from multiple causal factors, each operating at a different level of the system. Thus, it is important to attend to the impact of a set of factors (e.g., genetic, behavioral, cognitive, contextual) and to recognize that there are “correlated constraints” among these variables. Second, as a methodological consequence of these constraints, Bob argued for the importance of a holistic approach in which individuals and not variables become the focus of analysis. Moreover, by focusing on the nature of these linkages among variables, it is possible to use “disaggregation” techniques to identify subgroups of individuals who appear to be on different developmental trajectories. Third, as Bob saw it, behavioral continuity over time is affected dramatically by continuity in the social context. He felt that most current conceptualizations of social development focus too strongly on internal states, such as cognitions and emotions, without adequately considering the role of external forces in maintaining behavioral continuity. And finally, Bob believed that development is a highly dynamic process, with major shifts — for better or worse — occurring at any time. He reacted against the overgeneralization of critical period types of models and felt that there were multiple opportunities for influencing the developing system. Consistent with this view, Bob argued that the “first 3 years of life are critical for adjustment…but so are the second 3 years to school entry, and the next years of childhood, puberty, and adolescence.”

Over the years, Bob was rightly honored for his visionary approach to the study of development. For example, in 1996, a book that Bob and Beverley published on their work – Lifelines and Risks: Pathways of Youth in Our Time — received the Biennial Best Book award from the International Society for the Study of Aggression. In September of 1995, Bob was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Stockholm, and in August of 1999 he received the G. Stanley Hall award from the American Psychological Association. When he accepted this award, he spoke about miracles, ending with an expression of gratitude to is wife and collaborator, Beverley, saying, “… I’ve talked pretty loosely this morning about miracles, and I have one more. Beverley and I have worked together for a long time, and it may be a miracle of sorts—or realignment. There is no greater honor than to be recognized by our colleagues. For us, this is a joint award.”

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, both Bob and Beverley were held in extraordinarily high esteem by all who knew them on campus. Bob was respected greatly not only because of his intellectual accomplishments, passion, and leadership, but also because of his warm personality, his exemplary devotion to his colleagues and students, and, simply, because of his strong commitments to values that matter. Bob taught that science involves a dynamic interplay between theory, methodology, and empirical assessment. This means that a researcher must always turn back to the phenomenon under investigation and ask: “Do our designs, procedures, and findings truly capture what we are trying to study?” Bob was rarely satisfied but always invigorated when he asked this question of himself. He did science – developmental science – very well.

This remembrance was adapted from Ornstein, P. A., & Farmer, T. W. (2000). Robert B. Cairns (1933-1999):Obituary. APS Observer, 13, 10, 35.