The Lewis Terman Study at Stanford University

Description of the Study and Data Collection

During the waning of the eugenics movement and its hereditarian interests, psychologist Lewis Terman launched a study in 1921-1922 to investigate the maintenance of early intellectual superiority over a 10-year period. This objective was soon extended into the adult years for the purpose of determining the life paths of these gifted Californians. Terman believed that, by identifying the most gifted at a young age, society could ensure the flow of talent to leadership positions.

Aided by his assistants, Terman selected, from large and medium-sized urban areas of California, 857 boys and 671 girls ages 3 to 19 years who had IQs above 135. So far, 13 waves of data collection have been carried out beginning in 1921-1922 with interviews of parents and the study children and an array of tests and inventories.

The first 1922 and 1928 data collections focused on family life and school experience, and included interviews and questionnaires involving mothers of children in the study. Fathers were not thought to be important in child rearing, at least compared with mothers, so they were not included among the respondents. The 1936 and 1940 follow-ups occurred at a time of educational achievement and the start of adult careers for many, whether marriage, family, or work. At the next follow-up, questions were asked about the war and various service roles. The postwar years through 1960 were times of marriage and family development, career beginnings, and accomplishment. Each topic was investigated by mail (1950, 1955, 1960). Various life changes within the Terman sample and new leadership from Robert Sears, Lee Cronbach, Pauline Sears, and Albert Hastorf brought fresh attention to issues of aging, work life and retirement, family, and life evaluation across follow-ups for 1972, 1977, 1982, 1986, and 1991-1992.

Data collection across multiple waves relies mainly on survey forms mailed to the study members. The slender base of financial support for the study and the large sample size favored this least expensive method. However, the files include a rich selection of other data, such as news clippings, interviews with parents, questionnaires from spouses, letters from study members, other record data, and birth and death certificates. The letters, in particular, add a great deal of richness beyond the often narrow structure of the survey forms.

Research Program

One of the interests of the Life Course Studies Program has been to examine the effect of military service on adult development and aging with the Terman men, and a paradigmatic theme in life course theory — that birth cohorts age in different ways. They do so because they encounter historical change at different life stages. From the very beginning of this research, Elder divided the Terman men into two birth cohorts — those born before 1911 and the men who were born from 1911 up to the 1920s. The timetable of the older cohort of men exposed them to ill-timed events and their adversities from young adulthood to late life. Their life course is marked by cumulative disadvantages, whereas the life course of the younger men is defined more by cumulative advantages.

Consider the following sequence and comparison. The older men entered the 1930s and the economic collapse during the usual time of career placement and advancement, but expectable career options were not available because of the Great Depression. Consequently, they tended to prolong their education — a Master’s degree, a Ph.D., a Law degree, multiple degrees. They ended up with more education than the younger cohort but not with a higher occupational status. The younger men were mobilized into the Second World War during their college or advanced education. Their exposure to managerial roles in the war (as officer, etc.) increased their postwar mobility. But managerial experience made no difference in the worklives of the older men; they were too old during the war to take advantage of service opportunities in management during the postwar years.

The greater education of the older men did not reflect their goals or motivation. and the latter did not accurately predict their occupational achievement in later life. By contrast, early motivation, education, and worklife attainment were more highly correlated in the lives of the younger men. This coherence is due in part to the timing of World War II in their lives — they were mobilized for duty in their 20s, whereas the older men were more often recruited out of their 30s, a time of family formation and career advancement. As a result, wartime service proved to be more disruptive and disorganizing for the older men — their marriages were more likely to break up after the war (among those who married before the war) and they experienced more worklife disruption and income loss. A significant number of older veterans never recovered the income that was foregone when they entered the service. The older veterans also experienced a significantly higher risk of early physical decline and death, when compared to veterans from the younger cohort. Such decline accounts in part for the earlier and more abrupt retirement of the older cohort.

This compressed report does not do justice to the rich detail we have accumulated on the life patterns and aging of the two cohorts. For example, we were able to assess the effects of both military service and homefront mobilization (for war industries) on life course discontinuities by cohort and their postwar expression. In a competing risk model, we show that prewar occupation sorted men into different wartime roles, and that it was more influential than family or health status.

Selected Citations

Pavalko, Eliza K., and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1990. “World War II and Divorce: A Life Course Perspective.” American Journal of Sociology 95(5):1213-1234.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Cynthia Gimbel, and Rachel Ivie. 1991. “Turning Points in Life: The Case of Military Service and War.” Military Psychology 3(4): 215-231.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Eliza K. Pavalko, and Thomas J. Hastings. 1991. “Talent, History, and the Fulfillment of Promise.” Psychiatry 54(August): 251-267.

Clipp, Elizabeth Colerick, Eliza K. Pavalko, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1992. “Trajectories of Health: In Concept and Empirical Pattern.” Behavior, Health, and Aging 2(3): 159-179.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Eliza K. Pavalko. 1993. “Work Careers in Men’s Later Years: Transitions, Trajectories, and Historical Change.” Journal of Gerontology 48(4): S180-191.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Eliza K. Pavalko, and Elizabeth C. Clipp. 1993. Working with Archival Data: Studying Lives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Pavalko, Eliza K., and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 1993. “Women Behind the Men: Variations in Wives’ Support of Husbands’ Careers.” Gender and Society 7(4): 548-567.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Elizabeth Colerick Clipp. 1994. “Introduction to the Special Section on Military Experience in Adult Development and Aging.” Psychology and Aging 9(1): 3-4.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Michael J. Shanahan, and Elizabeth Colerick Clipp. 1994. “When War Comes to Men’s Lives: Life-Course Patterns in Family, Work, and Health.” Psychology and Aging 9(1): 5-16.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., Michael J. Shanahan, and Elizabeth Colerick Clipp. 1997. “Linking Combat and Physical Health: The Legacy of World War II in Men’s Lives.” American Journal of Psychiatry 154(3): 330-336.

Shanahan, Michael J., Glen H. Elder, Jr., and Richard A. Miech. 1997. “History and Agency in Men’s Lives: Pathways to Achievement in Cohort Perspective.” Sociology of Education 70(1): 54-67.

Clipp, Elizabeth C., Glen H. Elder, Jr., Linda K. George, and Carl F. Pieper. 1998. “Trajectories of Health in Aging Populations.” Pp. 177-198 in Rural Health and Aging Research: Theory, Methods and Practical Applications, edited by Wilbert M. Gesler, Donna J. Rabiner, and Gordon DeFriese. (Society and Aging Series, Jon Hendricks, Editor). Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Christopher Chan. 1999. “War’s Legacy in Men’s Lives.” Pp. 209-227 in A Nation Divided: Diversity, Inequality, and Community in American Society, edited by Phyllis Moen, Donna Dempster-McClain, and Henry A. Walker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2002. “Successful Adaptation in the Later Years: A Life Course Approach to Aging.” Social Psychology Quarterly 65(4): 309-328.

Elder, Glen H., Jr., and Robert Crosnoe. 2002. “The Influence of Early Behavior Patterns on Later Life.” Pp. 157-176 in Paths to Successful Development: Personality in the Life Course, edited by Lea Pulkkinen and Avshalom Caspi. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shanahan, Michael J., and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2002. “History, Agency, and the Life Course.” Pp. 145-185 in Agency, Motivation, and the Life Course, edited by Lisa J. Crockett (Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, Volume 48). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Johnson, Monica Kirkpatrick, Kristie Long Foley, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2004. “Women’s Community Service 1940-1960: Insights from a Cohort of Gifted American Women.” The Sociological Quarterly 45(1): 45-66.

Crosnoe, Robert, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. 2004. “From Childhood to the Later Years: Pathways of Human Development.” Research on Aging 26(6): 623-654.