Is Parenthood Related To More Socially Conservative Attitudes?

Becoming a parent is, for many people, among the most important events in a person’s lifetime. From an evolutionary perspective, becoming a parent means that it is not only your own well-being that matters for the survival of your genes, as there is now a small person who shares much of your genetic make-up. Not only that, but there may be multiple small people with — in total — more copies of your genes than you own yourself, and these small people may have longer natural lives ahead of them than you do (in which they themselves can go forth and multiply).

Thus, from an evolutionary viewpoint, parenthood should change the cost-benefit ratios of different behaviors, in line with the fact that it may now be beneficial to the survival of your genes for you to dedicate some of your time and resources to keep your child(ren) alive, healthy, and successful, and to dedicate fewer of your resources to finding a person to mate with (you already did, at least once!). Consequently, one would expect parenthood to result in some changes in both attitudes and actions.

At the most basic level, parents see an increase in caregiving behaviors (nursing, feeding, cleaning/grooming, etc.), and experience more tenderness towards their own child. Perhaps less obviously, parents become more vigilant towards threats and perceive threats from strangers to be greater (especially when their child is present). Both men and women experience reductions in testosterone after the birth of a child, accompanied by a decreased interest in short-term mating opportunities.

Many conservative beliefs and many moral norms seem to serve the purpose of protecting from perceived threats or restricting promiscuous or non-normative sexual behavior. For example, socially conservative individuals tend to be more in favor of traditional marriage and less in favor of people having abortions (these policies seem to support longer-term, heterosexual, mating strategies). Conservatives also tend to support more investment in the military, harsher punishments for crimes, and more exclusive attitudes towards out-groups whom they perceive to be a danger (these attitudes can be thought of as intending to serve a protective function).

Thus, based on the idea that parenthood should make people more protective and less inclined to short-term mating strategies, and since socially conservative attitudes seem to support long-term heterosexual partnerships and more ostensibly protective policies, we (myself and advisor/co-author, Damian Murray) predicted that parents would be more socially conservative than non-parents and more morally vigilant (i.e. they would judge moral violations more harshly).

After surveying over 1500 participants, we found that parents reported more conservative attitudes to issues that typically divide liberals and conservatives (e.g. military spending, traditional family values, abortion, etc.) and tended to judge moral violations more harshly, even when statistically controlling for relationship status, sex, age, income, and other demographic factors. In fact, in a later study, we even found the effect after controlling for the political party people had last voted for, suggesting that these differences went beyond simple political partisanship.

We were also interested in the motivational drives underlying parenthood and parental care. There are big differences between both parents and non-parents in terms of how much any individual likes children, feels tender towards them, feels annoyed by them, and so on. We thought that social conservatism might also be linked to these differences in parenting motivation, and we found a strong, positive relationship between parenting motivation and scores on both social conservatism and moral vigilance. This relationship was present overall, but also in both parents and non-parents when looked at separately. We have now replicated this finding in multiple studies and in different countries.

Another observation which inspired this set of studies was the fact that people tend to become more conservative as they get older (relative to the general population). Despite being a well-established and well-known phenomenon, we were not aware of any satisfying explanations for why this would happen. Older conservatives sometimes anecdotally ascribe this to becoming older and wiser, but there is certainly no clear empirical evidence for this. Within the social sciences, some have pointed to age-related changes in the fundamental personality trait “Openness to Experience” and to changes in cognitive style. Yet — aside from the fact that it is far from clear that these things actually cause the change in conservatism — these explanations beg the question somewhat: why would these changes happen in the first place?

Thus, we tested whether age differences in social conservatism and moral vigilance could be partly explained by parenthood and parenting motivation. We found evidence of statistical mediation for both parenthood itself and parenting motivation. This does not show changes in individuals across time, but it does imply that we only see some part of the age-related increases in social conservatism and moral vigilance in cases where those older people are parents or have higher parenting motivation. While this doesn’t directly demonstrate that age-related changes happen because of parenthood, it is strongly suggestive.

Ongoing research

In as-yet-unpublished work, we have found some evidence that making the idea of parental caregiving salient by having participants recall positive interactions with children could lead to small, temporary increases in social conservatism, consistent with the idea of a causal link between parenting motivation and political attitudes.

Future research

We hope that future research will examine this relationship in more detail. Probably of primary importance would be to test our hypothesis longitudinally — in other words, to look at changes in the same individuals over the course of several years.

These findings are described in the article entitled Conservative Parenting: Investigating the relationships between parenthood, moral judgment, and social conservatism, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual DifferencesThis work was conducted by Nicholas Kerry and Damian R. Murray from Tulane University.