Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Explaining the Parenthood Paradox


februay 20010 point 24. aelf delusion dynamics. too many want to believe that kids are good.
14 March 2009 point 23. Loss aversion.
13 March 2009: point 22. Social pressure not to talk about the negatives of child bearing.
18 Sep. 2008: points 21 and 21. Positive illusions and morality
10 Sep. 2008: Point 19 last line - studies are noly US UK.
23 Aug. 2008 Additional point - section 19. International differences in childcare experience
15 Aug. 2008: Additional reason for bias - section 18. Additional paragraph at section 13 ("the idea...")
16 Jun 2008: Additional note at paragraph 1.
Paragraph 6 has been updated (adding 6.3). Paragraph 17 has been added.
I made a few additions in paragraph 14 about Daniel Gilbert's view.

Explaining the Parenthood Paradox
Do children bring us happy? do they make us suffer?

Affirmative yes for both! There is joy. There is a huge cost. Practically implying suffering. But some will "frame" this cost as a cost rather than suffering.
Practically: Altogether is it worth it?

In terms of measured happiness, all research suggest it is a bad deal - happiness wise. (see references below).

A good example is the studies looking on happiness over the course of life. The happiest periods are between marraige and first kid, and between "empty nest" to death of one of the partners.

why people do it?
pretending no exhaustive knowledge etc. here are my thoughts. Enjoy (and cry, comment and disagree)


1) can be irrational. people are irrational. it is less surprising than our intuition thinks.
Note: see that soap operas may have caused decrease in fertility. If this is true, how can one think about these decisions in a completely rational frame work...............

2) Its a mutual decision. And you need a partner.
When everyone wants kids, being the one who does not want kids will make you a black sheep in the dating market. Practically, one will have to pay a huge price in his chances (or quality) of relationships. Even if kids decrease happiness, relationships certainly increases it. Taken together, it may pay to marry and have kids, rather than stay single, or hang out with some ugly date.

This is not a perfect explanation, because norms may change to accomodate. But under conditions it can help understanding. If there is a slow change in norms, it may explain why the change takes many years to meterialize.

3) Time ago, having kids was much more worthy than now (in agricultural soceities, cost of rearing kids is much much lower, and the benefit from them is much higher. They can work etc. Took care for old parents much more than today)

Maybe a cultural remnant of ages ago. problem is that one may prefer having an explanation that currently rational.

4) Maybe we are wired to have children? like we have a tendency to eat which is to an extent independent of our conscious goals?

Marvin Harris ("Our Kind" p. 209 onward) dubbed it "the myth of procreative imperative", and has interesting anthropological evidence against it, showing that humans are not totally helpless to their nature.

Harris shows that the birth rate changes dramatically between soceities and in great part depends on how much parents "earn" from having children. The higher the cost and the lower the material benefits - the less children.

4.1) How far does it go?
The above inference of "no procreative imperative" is incorrect.
What we see is that people will forgo birth (or an infant's life) in some cases. These cases maybe extreme i.e. when having kids is very costly. But it does not mean that people will not pay a little to have kids.
In other words. There is an upper limit for the suffering humans accept for parenthood. We may still be wired to have children when the price is not extremely high.

PS. I have discussed the whole idea of inferring from extreme cases to the average in my post Extreme and special cases and causes.

5) The handicap principle in sexual selection (Amoz Zehavi). Assumes that a good way to advertise fitness is to spend resources on useless shows (hardest to fake. if you are poor you cannot spend on a SUV). Willing to spend endless resources on kids shows that you have over enough and can spend.

6) The physical default is to have kids. Two implications

6.1) Loss aversion / "endowment effect" / status qou bias. Much research in Decision making shows that people will assign much more value to whatever is the default, sometimes valuing it as double what they can "earn". If the potential kids are framed as an asset, giving up having kids as a lose, and the price of kids as "cost" rather than "lose", we may expect people accepting kids insofar that the cost is less than twice the positive they get.
I think I heard women talk that they are afraid of "losing the possibility to have kids".
While strictly rationally, when the call is close there is as much to lose form having as from not having children, not having clikcs as losing. Maybe even losing the option feels something?

6.2) Defaults have also a strong practical effect. I think it works beyond the pricing in 6.1 above. It is very easy to succumb to the status quo. When prospects are unclear, one will have to act positively to avoid pregnancy. There are also more effects of the default that one can think of.

6.3) An interesting statistic says that half the pregnancies in USA/UK are unplanned. Which adds much support the claim that many child are actually not decided about directly. I am not sure to how exact the figure is, but it seems to be near teh truth (even if 30% of childs are unplanned its enough).

An in teresting research plan would be to check the happiness of these with planned vs. unplanned kids. While common sense says that unplanned kids would provide less happiness, I would not be surprised to find otherwise, given the weakness of humans affective forecasting (see Gilbert 2005)

7) The decision of having vs. not having children is not symmetric. you can avoid having kids for decades, and then have one in five minutes.

In principle, the more variance in the decision process the higher the effect of this asymmetry.

Like when one's preference for children has a random variable in it, and he will start a pregnancy as soon as having kids feels OK.

Variance can also come from a host of other things. changing partners. changing belongingness states. changing financial and work conditions. and more.

8) Human females do not know when they ovulate. Why? a possible explanation is that if they would know they would have less children. So natural selection favors those who could not avoid getting pregnant ("the cultural animal" p. 114). This may hint that evolution was having tricks to make us have kids against our will.

9) men-women asymmetry. Men's sex drive for sex is stronger than women, making them the weaker side in the sexual exchange (see Sexual Economics: Sex as female Resource for social exchange). These who have a stronger desire will in a sense adhere to the other's conditions. Women desire for kids is stronger than men. This double asymmetry may lead to women having a stronger hand regarding pregnancy decisions.

10) There are experiments showing that people are deciding quite differently when "hot" (See
The Heat of the Moment: The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision Making). Across a list of decisions, being sexually aroused has a marked effect on decisions.
Simply, some pregnancy decisions are taken when horny.

11) The "paradox" assumes that happiness (or good vs. bad feelings etc.) is the central human goal.

This assumption is contestable.
(for example, section 44: Platonification & Commoditization of Happiness. paragraphs starting "I have been" and "but the worse". Robert Nozick on "experience machine". Dan Brock 1993 has a philosophical review about three definitions of "the good life".)

Maybe human goals are diverse (having distinct drives for many things) and contain contradictions. Maybe humans prefer "real life" to happiness. and more. Lots was said and should be said about this.

Ok. We are built to pursue various things. Maybe we "should" pursue happiness? that is an approach that one may accept of not.

Another approach to happiness is that it is the best single definition for "what is the goal of an average human". But a single definition of a complex question does not always exist. Being forced to have a single reply loses information and starts bei ng an approximation. But approximations may be more and more "loose" up to being impractical etc.

12) Love decision?

The decision making when pursuing love is fragile with strong brain mechanisms. People in love are sometimes in an "insane" state. In a sense, having children and raising them is a decision about love. I have no idea/analisys how this works and its relation to children decisions. Just hinting how the area of love is not always amenable to rationalistic analisys and decision making.

13) Baumeister's main reason (meaning) and others.

The great social scientist Roy Baumeister in his review references below, analyses the whole thing seriousely, and a good idea is just to get a copy and read. Some of his points:

Main theory: Meaning. Having a general purpose/meaning etc. in life is crucial, and people will go to great length to acheive this.

Having children provides a sense of "purpose" and meaning, as well as helping to organize one's life around something.

This idea of purpose is not just an illusion by the individual, it can be seen as a soceity wide effort to find a purpose of one's life after religion lost its appeal in recent centuries.

Positive vs. negative affect. If kids increase positive AND negative affect, some will prefer having them even if a summary of "happiness" (positive and negative feelings lumped together) is negative. maybe human value some positive affect even with a cost. Or prefereing to "be alive" i.e. more feelings etc. even when summation of overall positive minus negative is negative.
Effort justification. After people invest so much they have to justify etc.

Self-deception. A central way to get happier. This illusion regarding children works the same.

This is a very sketchy summary (I am lazy). Better reading the original.

14) Daniel Gilbert - Selection dynamics:

Great decision making researcher Daniel Gilbert says that soceities who do not believe that children make us happy, may be happier, but they will get out of business in a single generation.

If we are here, it is because our parents thought children bring happiness.

Assumes that the belief transmitting system is somewhat strong and follows evolutionary principles etc. I only know there are arguments about the whole validity of the "meme" concept.
Good for the long term only. If beleifs of this kind have short-term flexibility, it may be a problem.

It is in Gilbert's book Stumbling on happiness (a must read). p. 220-222.
See also Gilbert's article in the Time

more reason by Gilbert:
Affective forecasting errors: People are notorious in misjudging their future happiness. Childern maybe no exception.
After we invest in something we get convinced it is valuable. A general pehnomena and kids are no exception.
These moments of joy from children are such that make a strong memory on us, we forget the effort etc.
The reward is great but the price even higher. We remember the reward not the cost.

15) The rationality of accepting our irrationality. many times it is rational to be "irrational". A dieter that knows he is unable to hold a diet, will find it more rational to avoid dieting altogether. Because, dieting and stopping is even worse for health. (+ a waste of so much energy and pain).
Given his practical realistic irrationality he is rational to be irrational intentionally.

The same applies here as well. Given all (or some of) the thought above, one may find it rational to have kids, even if he do not like the deal. Given that we are doomed to do various things and our environment is fixed etc. etc. we may be better off not fighting all this and be better off than those trying to fight the circumstances.

(example: If I am doomed by natural desire to have kids some day, I would be smarter to plan it with best partner etc. etc.) This strange but very important and general point adds another reason why it is rational to have children at times.

16) There must be more reasons and facetes of reality I did not thought on.

17) The effect of the extremes. A central problem with much of scientific research is that it sums up a population and ignores individual differences. In happiness this has been shown in a fascinating paper about the effect of marriage on happiness (longitudinally. Lucas at all. 2003). It was shown that ten years after marriage almost all the effect is gone and people are as happy as before they marry. However, the long-term effect of marriage is not equal in all marriages. a significant group get significantly happier even after a decade, while there is a group who get sadder in the long-term (gonna marry? beaware).
If there is a strong variation in the happiness effect of children, we can expect that quite a few will actually get happier with children. Which adds to the confusion of public opinion about happiness from children.

17.1) If the happiness effect of children is variable but negative on average, we can understand much easier why so many think that children bring happiness. It is enough to let the happier speak and make the less happy shy (as is actually the case. It is unacceptable to say that you do not enjoy your kids). You only play by selecting those who speak. Or select at whom you look.

18) End of life effect.
If a person judges his life backward before his death, his children will be seen only positive.
Then, the financial costs, the sleepless nights and the teen headaches are long forgotten.
This lead to the person judging kids as a blessing only decision.
Mistake based on the time one sums it up, and how.
(sure, including the older years in the utility calculation about having kids is right. Giving special weight for one's story about life has also a point. But still what counts is taking everything into account includeing the high costs of the child rearing years and the fact that older people with kids are not necessarily happier.)

It reminds me of Kahneman's "peak-end" rule, where people summarize a long experience by looking at the last moment and the most vivid one. Can it be that the strongest moment about kids is also positive? adding to a mistaken conclusion?

Idea from the book "losing control" of baumeister at all (1994)

19) Differences between US and France may give a hint
In a research by Kahneman, it was found that the experience of raising children is dramatically different betweenn the US and France. The momentarily happiness felt when caring for kids is
-0.22 for American moms and +0.09 for the French. This may imply that the children effect on happiness is especially negative in the US where much research is done. I looked at five studies about children reducing marital satisfaction. Four were US and one UK (a culture whihc resembles US in many variables) One can confidently say, that we do not know about children and happiness outside of US-UK

20) Positive illusions are an important part of a healthy psych. Who does not have kids do not know how it feels. Whose who have are stuck with them for good. It makes sense for them to fool themselves that they enjoy the kids. It helps actually enjoying the kids company, helps self feeling that I did not made a huge miscalculation in having the kids, and so on.

21) Morality. Seeing children negatively is considered immoral.

22) Preferences falsifications.
From personal experience, it is highly damaging to one's reputation to say that children do not bring happiness. You got to be painted as a heartless and immoral person. And stupid, too. Lacking emotions, and so on.

Such social dynamics have serious effects on the sharing of information and on the sincerity of people when talking their preferences.

Private Truths, Public Lies, is a book by Timur Kuran, discussing the strong effects these lies have on choices and expressed opinions.
I have not doubt that there is a role for that social norm. Where it is illegitimate to say that you do not like children or do not want to have, it should bias actual responses of people towards that.

23) Loss aversion.
Females cannot have kids after age 45. Not having children means losing the option to have children.
Technically, having kids is also irreversible. But loss aversion is a matter of psychological framing (it is how you define the choice rather than its objective properties). It feels like losing the option.

I have heard this point several times form women.

24) Self delusion dynamics. Self delusion is generally beneficial for mental health. Depressed are generally mnroe realistic, while happy people are deluding themselves that they are smart and so on. Generally, people manage to switch out of self delusionary state when making a decision, and then going back to happy delusions. Yet in kids too many people and stages in life we want to believe kids are great. As kids we do not want to think we are a burden on our parents. We want to belive they have fun sponsoring us and suffering us etc. as people wiht kids we want to belive same. Even without kids we have an interest to enjoy our fantasies and indulge in the idea of a better future oncre we sedttle down and create a family etc. dreams. Possibly, there is not much possibility to switch back to realistic state.

It is also possible that much of opinion creation about kids value is done without a decision mind state. Moreover, many may not even deliberately think whether kids are good and whether they want them. (maybe it is generally good not to think too much, but it fires back for highly important decisions especially if the natural default is not beneficial)

Curious point. I have never heard of a scientist working on a campaign to convince people aobut the parenthood paradox to convince people to avoid having kids. Why?

PS. Curious about the financial cost of raising a child?

Says $125,000 in after tax amoney.

I haven't reviewed the numbers.


For a great review see:
Appendix B: The Parenthood paradox, in Baumeister Roy, The meanings of Life, 1991

Baumeister RF, Heatherton TF, Tice DM (1994): Losing Control:
How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San
Diego, Academic Press

The Cultural Animal is a book by Roy Baumeister, 2005.

Stumbling on Happiness is a book by Daniel Gilbert, 2006, Knopf, NY

Lucas, R.E., Clark, A.E., Georgellis, Y., & Diener, E. (2003). Re-examining
adaptation and the setpoint model of happiness: Reactions to changes in
marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539.

See also


Yechezkel Zilber said...

Curious about the financial xcost of raising a child?

Says $125,000 in after tax amoney.

I haven't reviewed the numbers.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if there is happiness generated from being a grandparent that balances the earlier costs. - Daniel

Yechezkel Zilber said...

grandparently bliss feels a great solution for the parenthood paradox. But I do not think it actually helps.

1) Genrally, people with no grandchildern are no less happy than people with grandchildren. That is what I remember from the literature.

2) Remember, that while the loss of happiness with kids is immediate, grandparently bliss is far in time, and you should include the "interest" + uncertaincy in any calculation

3) the value of kids for their old parents is much lower now than in rural times. Then kids were caring also meterially for parents. Now it is much less. many kids live far away. And the contact as well as material care is relatively lower.

4) Nevertheless, there is a study about lonely elders whose health and mood improved upon weekly visist from descendants. It is only if they were totally lonely, and the general findings about elder's wellbeing does accord with this specific finding.

Thanks Daniel for coming over.

Anonymous said...

Great great great post zilber.

Anonymous said...

I am skeptical about the research that describes (frames) our happiness in terms of having kids in context. How does one truly test the idea? Self-reported happiness filtered through memory and present context. All I can say is that given (a) all the self-reports that I know that kids are fun to have and (b) the complexity, dare say impossibility, of scientifically proving this abstract notion (happiness up or down when kids present)---these make me feel/reason that a hard edged idea that this is a discernible question ought to be softened a bit.

I don't have kids, I'm married and all of the happy with kids people I know are in a wealthy developed and peaceful country with plenty of farmland around.


Anonymous said... is a new Baumeister et al paper on happiness vs meaningfulness that supports the idea of parenthood providing "meaning" to offset the unhappiness, and that "people will pursue meaningfulness even at the expense of happiness".