Friday, May 28, 2021

Opinion: Expecting mothers to care for children with little support, while expecting fathers to provide for their families with little support, is likely to lead to adverse health consequences for mothers, fathers & children

Opinion: The male breadwinner nuclear family is not the ‘traditional’ human family, and promotion of this myth may have adverse health consequences. Rebecca Sear. Royal Society Philosophical Transactions B, June 21 2021, Volume 376, Issue 1827.

Abstract: The importance of social support for parental and child health and wellbeing is not yet sufficiently widely recognized. The widespread myth in Western contexts that the male breadwinner–female homemaker nuclear family is the ‘traditional’ family structure leads to a focus on mothers alone as the individuals with responsibility for child wellbeing. Inaccurate perceptions about the family have the potential to distort academic research and public perceptions, and hamper attempts to improve parental and child health. These perceptions may have arisen partly from academic research in disciplines that focus on the Western middle classes, where this particular family form was idealized in the mid-twentieth century, when many of these disciplines were developing their foundational research. By contrast, evidence from disciplines that take a cross-cultural or historical perspective shows that in most human societies, multiple individuals beyond the mother are typically involved in raising children: in evolutionary anthropology, it is now widely accepted that we have evolved a strategy of cooperative reproduction. Expecting mothers to care for children with little support, while expecting fathers to provide for their families with little support, is, therefore, likely to lead to adverse health consequences for mothers, fathers and children. Incorporating evidence-based evolutionary, and anthropological, perspectives into research on health is vital if we are to ensure the wellbeing of individuals across a wide range of contexts.

What are the implications of a male breadwinner isolated nuclear family norm for health and wellbeing?

So there is considerable evidence that the idea that the ‘traditional’ human family is an isolated nuclear family, in which mothers are solely responsible for childcare and fathers solely responsible for providing for their families, is a myth. Isolated nuclear families, who raise children without help beyond the parental unit, barely seem to exist at all, even in 20th or 21st century Western societies, and male breadwinning is both rare and novel in our history. Myths about the ‘traditional’ family, and what ‘traditional’ maternal and paternal roles should look like, are likely to have real world implications. The assumption that mothers are primarily responsible for childrearing, that they should sacrifice themselves to invest intensively and over a long period in their children, may put considerable 12 pressure on women to behave in ways compatible with this difficult-to-attain, and novel, ideal of motherhood (Budds, this issue). Particularly damaging may be the idea that mothers should be able to cope with relatively little support. Research has shown that new mothers in the UK spend a significant proportion of their time alone with their infants (one study found 38% of mothers spent >8 hours a day alone, and 34% between 4-8 hours [80]). This is a situation which appears to be less than desirable in a social species which relies on cooperation to raise children, and on social learning for developing skills in a wide range of behaviours including parenting. Such isolation and the expectation that mothers should cope with little support is not likely to provide ideal childrearing conditions for either mother or child; for example, prompting maternal guilt where mothers feel they are not living up to this ideal [81,82], increased rates of postnatal depression [83] and decreased breastfeeding [84] in the absence of support, and other negative effects on mother’s wellbeing [85]. Assumptions about the adverse effect of the ‘breakdown’ of marriages, which idealise the nuclear family as the best way to raise children, and blame adverse child outcomes on the absence of such a family structure, have also led to government interventions aimed at persuading couples to marry rather than cohabit in the US [86]. These interventions tend to focus on socioeconomically disadvantaged groups because such groups have lower rates of marriage than more advantaged groups. A belief underlying these interventions appears to be that if disadvantaged groups can be made to form marital relationships which mirror the family structure of advantaged groups, then their disadvantage will melt away. Such interventions have attracted criticism, because a more effective way of reducing “bad family outcomes” is likely to be to tackle economic disadvantage itself, rather than a marker of disadvantage such as cohabitation [87]. These marriage interventions also don’t work. Public health initiatives around maternal and child health in lower and middle income countries typically also assume a default nuclear family structure in which mothers are largely responsible for the health of their children – this excludes vital support structures such as grandmothers (see Daniele, this issue). There are even some perceptions in global health that grandmothers are the ‘guardians of tradition’ [88] and that, if they have a role at all, it is a role which has the potential for negative maternal and health outcomes given that the advice of older women may contradict that of public health professionals. This echoes some of the findings from the literature on grandparental investment which suggests that input from grandparents may not always result in child outcomes which would be approved of by a public health professional. But even if older women’s advice does contradict that of public health professionals, they are typically very influential in decisions around 13 maternal and child health, which suggests it is even more important to incorporate older women into public health interventions [30]. The positive results in the handful of studies which have incorporated grandmothers and older women in public health initiatives suggest this would be a fruitful avenue for improving maternal and child health [88–91], and mental health (Dixon Chibanda’s ‘Friendship Bench’ is perhaps the best known example of a successful intervention employing ‘grandmothers’ [92,93]). Ideologies around the family and ‘traditional’ gender roles feed into political ideologies which promote hierarchies of male dominance over women. Online fora have facilitated the spread of misogynistic movements, including Mens’ Rights Activist groups and Incels (“involuntary celibates”), which are collectively referred to as the ‘manosphere’. These movements use and misuse evolutionary psychology as their theoretical justification, and draw on supposedly biological arguments that women are ‘designed’ to bear and raise children while men are ‘designed’ to do pretty much everything else in society [94,95]. These movements have led to fatal terrorist attacks [96,97]. These ideologies not only present a terrorist threat, but also do not seem to benefit the men who adopt them, given such ideologies sometimes promote ‘men going their own way’ and removing themselves from (female) society [98]. The cooperative nature of our species suggests that such isolationism may not suit our evolved preferences [99]. At a less extreme level, the male breadwinner norm promotes ideals of male independence and isolation from others, since it assumes that men should have the ability to entirely provision a wife and children without support, which may feed into gender norms and socialisation which have been popularly referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’. These include emphasis on male dominance and self-reliance, and are considered to be detrimental to men, women and children [100]. Finally, despite the belief in some circles that intensive mothering, and lengthy, dependent childhoods, is optimal for children, the little research on the impact of intensive mothering does not find clear and conclusive evidence that such parenting has substantial positive effects on children [101]. Such childhoods may even fail to allow children to develop some of the skills they need to succeed in adult life [102]. Children and adolescents typically lack opportunities to develop parenting skills in Western societies, for example, as they are no longer involved in caring for younger children. Hrdy [1] also cautions us that, if we are a species adapted to a strategy of cooperative reproduction, then mothers raising children with little support from others, and keeping children dependent on mothers for lengthy periods, may hamper children’s abilities to develop the social, cognitive and emotional skills they need to succeed in adult society:14 “If empathy and understanding develop only under particular rearing conditions, and if an everincreasing proportion of the species fails to encounter those conditions but nevertheless survives to reproduce, it won’t matter how valuable the underpinnings for collaboration were in the past. Compassion and the quest for emotional connection will fade away as surely as sight in cave-dwelling fish”

People with more male descendants of a reproductive age had more conservative attitudes on gender-related issues and more conformity to traditional norms

Male Descendant Kin Promote Conservative Views on Gender Issues and Conformity to Traditional Norms. Nicholas Kerry et al. Evolutionary Human Sciences, May 28 2021.

Abstract: Political and social attitudes have been shown to differ by sex in a way that tracks individual  self-interest. We propose that these attitudes also change strategically to serve the best  interests of either male or female kin. To test this hypothesis, we developed a measure of  gendered fitness interests (GFI)—an index which reflects the sex, relatedness, and residual  reproductive value of close kin. We predicted that people with male-biased GFI (i.e., people  with more male kin of a reproductive age) would have more conservative attitudes towards gender-related issues (e.g., gender roles, women‘s rights, abortion rights). An online study using an American sample (N = 560) found support for this hypothesis. Further analyses  revealed that this relationship was driven not only by people‘s own sex and reproductive  value but also by those of their descendant kin. Exploratory analyses also found a positive  association between male-biased GFI and a measure of conformity, as well as a smaller association between male-biased GFI and having voted Republican in the last election. Both  these associations were statistically mediated by gender-related conservatism. These findings  are consistent with the hypothesis that GFI influences socio-political attitudes.

Keywords: gendered fitness interests; inclusive fitness; motivated cognition; gender roles; political attitudes; conservatism

Vitamin S: Why Is Social Contact, Even With Strangers, So Important to Well-Being?

Vitamin S: Why Is Social Contact, Even With Strangers, So Important to Well-Being? Paul A. M. Van Lange, Simon Columbus. Current Directions in Psychological Science, May 27, 2021.

Abstract: Even before COVID-19, it was well known in psychological science that people’s well-being is strongly served by the quality of their close relationships. But is well-being also served by social contact with people who are known less well? In this article, we discuss three propositions that support the conclusion that the benefits of social contact also derive from interactions with acquaintances and even strangers. The propositions state that most interaction situations with strangers are benign (Proposition 1), that most strangers are benign (Proposition 2), and that most interactions with strangers enhance well-being (Proposition 3). These propositions are supported, first, by recent research designed to illuminate the primary features of interaction situations. This research shows that situations with strangers often represent low conflict of interest. Also, in interactions with strangers, most people exhibit high levels of low-cost cooperation (social mindfulness) and, if the need is urgent, high levels of high-cost helping. We close by sharing research examples showing that even very subtle interactions with strangers yield short-term happiness. Broader implications for COVID-19 and urbanization are discussed.

Keywords: human cooperation, weak ties, strangers, COVID-19, well-being

Most research on social interaction and happiness has focused on people connected by a relationships, such as close partners, friends, or colleagues. However, there are a few exceptions. First, scientists who have advanced the importance of weak ties have shown that people who know quite a few people beyond their close network tend be happier than those with smaller networks of acquaintances. Possible reasons are that weak ties may facilitate connection with other people, may help a person obtain good advice or useful information, or may inspire a person to attain certain goals. For example, classic research showed that a large majority of people find a job through acquaintances that they have met only infrequently, and a quarter of those acquaintances are people they seldom see (Granovetter, 1973). And because people generally are in a good mood (Diener et al., 2015), encountering kindness is more likely than encountering unkindness, a phenomenon that may partially explain why people tend to be socially mindful and helpful toward strangers (Van Doesum et al., 2021). Recent studies on relational mobility similarly have found that people living in cultures in which it is easier to meet strangers and form new relationships tend to have greater well-being (e.g., Yuki & Schug, 2020).

Setting aside material or future benefits, we propose that social interactions with strangers fulfill the need for social contact. This idea is consistent with theoretical analyses emphasizing needs such as affiliation, need to belong, or relatedness (e.g., Baumeister & Leary, 1995Van Lange & Rusbult, 2012). Various lines of research support this claim. For example, the strength of weak ties is supported in research on social exclusion, which has shown that explicit or implicit signs of exclusion by strangers cause stress or discomfort in people. Being excluded in a ball-tossing game, even one that is virtual, causes strong aversion (e.g., Williams et al., 2000), and being ignored as a passenger (“to be looked at as though air”) causes feelings of disconnection (Wesselmann et al., 2012). Thus, at the very least, feeling appreciated by and connected to strangers matters.

The literature on weak ties has traditionally focused on the instrumental value of networks or the personal and societal benefits derived from interactions with members of other social groups. However, even fleeting interactions as such may have benefits. For example, in a recent study, students and community members were asked to count the number of times they greeted another person, regardless of the duration of the interaction. This study showed the strength of weak ties in that having more day-to-day interactions with acquaintances was associated with greater feelings of belonging and subjective well-being (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014a).

Moreover, experimental studies in which people are instructed to greet, smile, or initiate a very brief conversation—a single encounter—have demonstrated that such approach behaviors boost people’s happiness. Such benefits have been found in interactions with a bus driver, with fellow commuters on a bus or train, with a person selling cappuccino at a coffee shop, or simply with a fellow participant waiting to take part in an experiment (e.g., Epley & Schroeder, 2014Gunaydin et al., 2021). Moreover, the short-term boost in happiness occurs not only in the person initiating the conversation, but also in the person whose social contact was sought (Epley & Schroeder, 2014).

Our basic premise has been that interactions among strangers are benign, because the situations are benign and the strangers are often benign, and because the gratification of social contact fulfills basic psychological needs. Figure 2 provides a graphic summary of these propositions. From this perspective, one may ask why people “need’ interaction with strangers, and how such interactions might complement interactions with family and friends. We propose three reasons that illustrate the added value of interactions with strangers. First, close others are often part of a network of family members or friends. Although such connections are psychologically safe in numerous ways, there is always a risk that sensitive, private information shared with one or two close others may be spread in the larger social network. Strangers are far less likely to spread private information because they are unlikely to be part of one’s social network.

[Fig. 2. Summary of the three propositions: Situations with strangers are benign (left panel), strangers are benign (middle panel), and situations with strangers contribute to happiness and psychological well-being (right panel).]

Second, strangers are more likely than family or friends to be dissimilar in their background, attitudes, or opinions. This may yield gains in information (e.g., exposure to new perspectives) and amusement or excitement (e.g., exposure to unusual, novel events; Lewandowski & Aron, 2004). Also, when interactions with strangers elicit agreement in opinions, people may derive both enjoyment and confidence from having their opinions confirmed by others outside of their own network (e.g., Nickerson, 1998).

Third, and finally, compared with interactions with family or close friends, interactions with strangers may have the benefit of being more likely to provide opportunities, such as suggestions or advice regarding job opportunities, a chance to learn broader skills, or a starting point for beneficial exchange or extension of one’s social network (e.g., Granovetter, 1973).

Although the social benefits of interactions with strangers—Vitamin S—may be quite universal (e.g., Gunaydin et al., 2021), we acknowledge that individual differences matter. Some evidence suggests that extraverted individuals are more optimistic than introverted individuals about an interaction with strangers, even though the benefits after the actual experience do not differ much (Zelenski et al., 2013). The important implication of this finding is that some people might seek out new interactions with strangers to a lesser extent than others, and thus benefit less from opportunities for such interactions. This may be true not only for introverted people, but also for people who tend be less happy than average (e.g., Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014b). And last but not least, it is possible that there is an optimal level of Vitamin S for most people, that is, a level of social contact beyond which the benefits decline.