Study finds parents tend to be more socially conservative and judgmental than non-parents

New research has found that parenthood is associated with harsher moral judgments and greater social conservatism. The study has been published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“Parenting is obviously very important to humans, and it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that parenthood would influence your motivations and priorities. Yet there is relatively little research on the relationships between parenthood and social attitudes, and even less that examines parenting motivation as a psychological factor,” said study author Nicholas Kerry of Tulane University.

“Secondly, it’s fairly well-known that people become more socially conservative with age (at least in relative terms). Some previous work has explained this in terms of changes in cognitive biases or changes in openness to experience, but these explanations beg the question: why would these changes occur in the first place?”

“There is growing evidence that political and moral attitudes are to some extent self-serving, and that changes in them are often the result of changes in people’s goals and needs,” Kerry explained. “I was interested in whether parenting motivation, and parenthood itself, might play a role in influencing political and moral attitudes as a result of altering people’s needs and motivations.”

The researchers conducted four studies, which included more than 1,500 participants.

Their first study of 498 U.S. adults found that parents tended to be more sensitive to violations of moral norms than non-parents.

Their second study of 346 U.S. adults also found that parents were more likely than non-parents to have socially conservative attitudes. But parents were not more or less likely than non-parents to have economically conservative beliefs.

Their third study of 352 adults from 34 countries found that those who scored higher on the Parental Care and Tenderness scale tended to be more socially conservative. In other words, people who tended to be more motivated to care for and protect children also tended to be more socially conservative.

In their fourth study of 350 U.S. parents, the researchers failed to find evidence that participants who were reminded of their parenthood became more socially conservative. However, they did replicate the findings from their third study.

“Our research suggests that parenthood and parenting motivation may subtly influence your social attitudes across your lifespan,” Kerry told PsyPost. “More broadly, this type of research provides a reminder that people’s moral and political attitudes are not some objective truth: they are consistently influenced by your situation and needs, and will almost certainly change during your lifetime.”

But the study — like all research — has limitations.

“The main shortcoming of this work is that we have not yet looked at changes in individuals across time, so, although our findings are suggestive, we can’t say for certain that parenthood itself makes people more socially conservative or morally judgmental,” Kerry explained. “It would also be interesting to test whether this relationship holds in non-Western countries, where there are substantial differences in the ideological landscape, both regarding politics and parenting.”

“In addition to the published research, we also have some (as yet unpublished) data showing an experimental effect, such that making people reflect on positive interactions with children appears to make them express somewhat more conservative attitudes on social issues. This supports the idea of a causal relationship between parenting motivation and political attitudes.”

“What’s more, we found that the relationship between parenting and social conservatism (both in terms of actual parenthood status and parenting motivation) is partly mediated by changes in short-term mating orientation and belief in a dangerous world, which supports the theoretical reasoning in our original paper.”

The study, “Conservative parenting: Investigating the relationships between parenthood, moral judgment, and social conservatism“, was authored by Nicholas Kerry and Damian R. Murray.