Like gray hair and unexpected pain, becoming more conservative is often seen as a byproduct of aging. But now it looks like it may be rooted in a different cause: having children.
Researchers have found that people who don’t have children tend to be more socially liberal than parents, and that having children helps explain why people tend to become more right-wing with ‘age.
“There’s this idea that as you get older you become more conservative of experience and of being bitten by the real world,” said University research co-author Dr Nick Kelly. of Pennsylvania.
“But that doesn’t seem to be the case. If you look at people who aren’t parents, you just don’t see the age difference.
The study potentially offers a new view of declining birth rates seen in many countries. “I think it could help with liberalization in those countries,” Kelly said, adding that countries that ban abortion could see a push in the opposite direction.
Writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society BKelly and his colleagues report how, in an experiment, 376 university students in the United States were divided into two groups.
One group were shown pictures of household objects and asked to talk about how they could use one, while the other group were shown pictures of children and asked to think about possible names and positive interactions. The two groups then completed a survey on views on issues such as abortion and traditional marriage.
The team found that participants who imagined spending time with a child gave more socially conservative responses than those who thought about household objects, although this was only true for those who were highly engaged in the imagination exercise.
When the team surveyed 2,610 adults in 10 countries, from Lebanon to Japan, they found that those most motivated to care for children tended to be more socially conservative. Moreover, the parents were socially more conservative than those who had no children.
And while social conservatism increased with age, this relationship disappeared once parenthood was taken into account.
The team’s findings were backed up by an analysis of data from the World Values Survey, collected over a 40-year period and involving 426,444 participants in 88 countries, which further suggested that more parents had children, the more they tended to be socially conservative.
However, in a few countries, including India and Pakistan, parenthood was not linked to more conservative attitudes – a finding, according to Kelly, underscored that having children is only one factor. among others that can influence social values.
Professor Paul Higgs, of University College London, warned that the study reduced political orientation to a specific set of personal experiences, much like the trope of old age driving increasingly conservative values. Nor does it take into account the changing nature of later life or how social conservatism may be affected by changes in society or in social roles.
He also noted that while the welfare state in the UK helped people have children, it coincided with a more liberal and egalitarian society rather than the other way around.
Dr Diana Burlacu, from the University of Newcastle, welcomed the study but added that it was unclear whether parenthood made people more conservative or whether conservatives were more likely to choose to become parents.
She also noted that the study did not find that parents are more economically conservative. “We find that parents are changing their economic preferences and are more supportive of public spending,” she said of his own researchthough she noted that their support for services like daycare only lasted while they were using them.
Kelly said that while there was a wealth of research on parenthood and its effects on children, there was far less exploration of the impact of parenthood itself.
“I think research like this demonstrates that when your motivations, your goals, your priorities change, it influences your larger values,” he said.
“Understanding this point is important in realizing that maybe the people you disagree with aren’t just stupid and evil…These people may have been shaped by their circumstances in life and by their motivations and goals.