The plasticity of parental love

I’m looking at some sources on happiness and life events, partly so as to improve the relevant section on Wikipedia (if you’re going to tell the world something, why not tell it how to be happy?) Here I’ve come across an interesting overlap between happiness research and bias research.

In a study summarised by the Association for Psychological Science, parents were given information about the financial implications of having children. This was deliberately biased information, emphasising the enormous costs rather than future benefits such as having someone to make sure you’re okay in later life. Parents given this negative information increased their liking for their children, compared to a separate group who received positive information.

This is classic cognitive dissonance: if you are told that a decision has made you worse off, this conflicts with a self-image of being someone who is smart and in control. The mind will protect itself from the thought “I made a bad decision”, and so something has to give. In this case, the way out is to like children more; specifically, to more intensely value the emotional relationship with the child, so that the financial costs don’t seem to matter so much.

An implication of this is that people love their children much more in present society than in previous eras. The APS summary concludes “As the value of children has diminished, and the costs have escalated, the belief that parenthood is emotionally rewarding has gained currency. In that sense, the myth of parental joy is a modern psychological phenomenon.”

For more on the “Myth of parental joy”, I recommend Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness.

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