Kids, Parents Disagree on Spouses

Monday’s Post:

Do young people and their parents really disagree about the qualities of a suitable mate? … A study involving Dutch, American and Kurdish students … found that the cliche is, in fact, true. Young Americans told the researchers that qualities they would find unappealing in a potential mate included low intelligence and physical unattractiveness. But they said their parents would object to a mate who was of a different ethnicity, was poor or lacked a good family background.

The responses of Dutch and Kurdish students were similar in that young people invariably considered the potential mate’s attractiveness the most important quality, whereas parents uniformly paid more attention to the suitors’ social background or group affiliation — race, religious background and social class.

[The authors] said the consistency of the conflict across cultures suggests the hand of evolution: Parents and offspring … genetic self-interests, while overlapping, are not identical. The reason young people care so much about intellectual and physical attractiveness, the scientists suggested, is that these characteristics are markers of genetic fitness. By contrast, they said, parents care about group affiliations because parents are primarily interested in whether an incoming member of the family is likely to make a good parent — and a good all-around team player.

There should indeed be some conflict between kids and parents on suitable spouses, but the size of the conflict seems surprisingly large – do parent and kid genetic interests really diverge that much?   Here’s a graphic showing huge differences:

Washpost408

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “[The authors] said the consistency of the conflict across cultures suggests the hand of evolution: Parents and offspring … genetic self-interests, while overlapping, are not identical. The reason young people care so much about intellectual and physical attractiveness, the scientists suggested, is that these characteristics are markers of genetic fitness. By contrast, they said, parents care about group affiliations because parents are primarily interested in whether an incoming member of the family is likely to make a good parent — and a good all-around team player.”

    It would be interesting to read an elaboration of the theory that parents and offspring don’t have identical genetic self-interests, and how this shapes these preference differences for the offspring’s mate selection. For example, why would it be more in the parent’s interest for the offspring’s mate to be a good parent, than in the offspring’s interest? Why would it be more in the offspring’s interest for their mate to have markers of genetic fitness than in the parent’s interest?

  • Elise Conolly

    I wonder whether the results would have been as striking if you’d asked the parents, rather than asking the kids what their parents’ responses would be.

  • mitchell porter

    A meta-question: Has there ever been a discussion here about the appropriateness of always lunging for the evolutionary explanation, especially in psychology? It’s a bit like the search for a God gene or a gay gene. The brain is a product of evolution, but it doesn’t mean that every single thing that brains do is evolutionarily optimized. One could try to explain the differential preferences of parents and children by referring to (i) a particular species-universal cognitive architecture, which nonetheless leads to different preferences (ii) at different times of life and (iii) when being on different sides of a relationship. That the younger person, who will actually have to live with the prospective mate, should care about looks and personality, while the older person, who already spent many years economically supporting the younger person, should care about the prospective mate’s wealth – none of that seems to require evolutionary optimization to be explained. It’s simple pragmatism in action; it might be taken as a sign of human cognitive competence.

  • Caledonian

    Failing to distinguish between [what students said their parents would value] and [what their parents would themselves claim] is extremely sloppy thinking, and is enough to invalidate the conclusions of the study.

    At least it provides some interesting data on what a subset of young people claim to look for in a mate.

    A more-interesting study would involve examining what both students and parents actually choose. Difficult to pull off, especially in today’s world, but not necessarily impossible.

  • Dan

    There should indeed be some conflict between kids and parents on suitable spouses, the size of the conflict seems surprisingly large – do parent and kid genetic interests really diverge that much?

    No, they usually don’t. And if they did, this data would not be a good indicator. The problem with this kind of study (and a lot of ev psych) is that a psychologist/anthropologist/etc will read a little Dawkins or population genetics and tack on stupid hypotheses like this to their data. By itself, this kind of data isn’t always fascinating enough, so it gets sexed up with half-baked evolutionary theory so it’ll get published and grab attention. Science journalists especially love hearing a half-baked evolutionary hypothesis, for reasons I cannot discern.

    It would be interesting to read an elaboration of the theory that parents and offspring don’t have identical genetic self-interests, and how this shapes these preference differences for the offspring’s mate selection. For example, why would it be more in the parent’s interest for the offspring’s mate to be a good parent, than in the offspring’s interest? Why would it be more in the offspring’s interest for their mate to have markers of genetic fitness than in the parent’s interest?

    Simple model of parent/child having different genetic interests: The parent’s interests are best served by having (let’s go nuts) ten kids, and only paying a certain amount of attention to each. The kids’ individual genetic interest might be better served by hogging resources and/or killing off their siblings, Cain and Abel style. You have 100% of your own genes and your siblings only have 50% of your genes, so genetically they’re worth half as much as you are, which might make them expendable under some circumstances. Your parents, however, are 50% related to all of their kids – you’re all equally valuable. This is a conflict, and it can play out in fascinating ways and lots of papers have been put into quantifying its dynamics.

    Good mate choice ordinarily benefits the parents and the kid in the exact same way, however. There’s little evolutionary reason that human parents and kids should look for radically different things in a mate, and they’re not the ones mentioned in the article. And, even if there were a reason which I am overlooking (could be), there’s no data here to rule out a generation gap, culture shock, horny college students, or even a completely different evolutionary tale as a more likely cause than genetic parent/child conflict.

    As a tangent, this is part of why a number of good biologists hate evolutionary psychology with an unquenchable passion. It’s not all politics- it’s also the fact that evolutionary psychologists often want to tack “evolution” onto things without using any of the perfectly good tools people actually studying evolution use. It can be almost as bad as postmodern literary critics talking about chaos theory and physics.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    Mitchell,

    I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy between evolutionary and “more sociological” (or whatever term you prefer) explanations. If I remember correctly, it was Daly and Wilson who wrote that on the basis of evolutionary reasoning we should expect people to be responsive to the situation they find themselves in.

    Evolutionary and rational choice reasoning can lead to the same predictions.

  • Chris

    I think they should have asked the parents directly.

    My girlfriend: “My mom will hate you, you aren’t Iranian!”

    Her mom: “I wasn’t sure about you when I heard about you over the phone. But you seem like a good boy.”

  • Mason

    It seems to me that the reason for the differences maybe more than differences in genetic self-interests. Mainly there are differences in the way parents and children will interact with a future mate (that’s one of them). So while genetically it’s likely that parents and children would desire the same mate for the off-spring, I think it’s very likely they’d desire different mates for themselves.

    How pleased would the child be if their mate turned out to be a great lover? Probably more pleased than the parents. How disappointed would the child be if their mate turned out to be a terrible cook? Probably more disappointed than the parents. How disappointed would the parents be if the spouse was a financial mooch? Probably more disappointed than their child (the money will first go the family if theirs any extra it may go to the parents). How disappointed would the child be if their mate turned out to be sterile? Equally as disappointed as the parents.

    Agreed that this study only confirms that this cliché is actually a cliché.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    “For example, why would it be more in the parent’s interest for the offspring’s mate to be a good parent, than in the offspring’s interest?”

    Let’s take female chimps as an example. It’s known they “monkey around” with as many guys as possible despite the best efforts of the alpha males to control the females to ensure the maximum # of kids are theirs. Female chimps will mate within their “social circle” but not always with the guys they “should” by social order.

    This is probably to ensure maximum diversity, while not going so far out of the set that their “irregular” offspring risk being killed by the group because they are too unrelated. There’s a tension between being related enough and overly related — it’s in the parents’ and alpha males’ interest for children and grandchildren to be more highly related, whereas it’s in the interest of those doing the mating to get a little more healthy diversity into the situation.

    However if as a chick chimp, I’ve snuck out on my alpha guy, the actual “parent” of my kid isn’t going to be able to act parental openly. I have to pretend the alpha guy is the father, lest he kill my kid. (Primate society apparently can be unpretty.) So thus continuing “parental fitness” won’t be key for me. But as the grandparent, I want to know the putative father is gonna take good care of my genes and that his genes will be close to mine anyway, maximizing my gene survival.

    I propose we consider that humans are not much different in the essence of this diversity question, we just have different criteria than chimps!

  • Skip

    Only the American kids weren’t repulsed by a fat mate.

    As for the different social background, that’s definitely true, and it’s not just what kids imagine. Latino and black parents are just as racist if not more than white parents when it comes to their kids dating someone of a different race.

  • josh

    A hypothesis:

    The difference is that the parents are guaranteed at least 50% of their childrens’ genetic make-up while the gandparents are only guaranteed 25%.

    Genes want to make copies of themselves, and the also want other fitness genes around to help protect those copies. The trade off is different for grandparents and parents. Grandparents want their children to mate with somebody with copies of their genes, while children are more willing to give this up in exchange for fitness. This may simply be wealth effects in terms of genes to be passed down.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    As a parent, I want my kids to be happy and fulfilled in their relationships, but I would be concerned that hormonal influences can be so strong as young adults that it is hard for them to look beyond superficial features. Things like different religions, ethnic background, family status, may show up down the line as sources of potential conflict when challenges arise or when it is time to raise children. It seems like the parents here are looking at longer-term issues while the kids are using a shorter time scale.

    Here is a paper I found (only read the 1st page) which offers an evolutionary model of why young adults should discount the future more than older people: http://www.jstor.org/pss/2118062. That might partially explain these survey results.

  • http://meteuphoric.blogspot.com/ Katja Grace

    Elise and Michael,

    I agree that asking the children what their parents’ preferences are isn’t useful for supporting the conclusions drawn, but I think it is still interesting. Aside from producing inaccuracy, asking the children will skew the parents’ recorded opinions toward what the children notice, for instance what they disagree with (thus giving the appearance of greater divergence of interests). While the data does not show what parents opinions are, it might show what messages they most forcefully communicate to their children. Perhaps people like intelligent good looking people generally, so it is only useful for parents to assert the bits that are missing from the parents’ optimal choice, again meaning the gap between the interests of the two groups is less than inferred from the other explanation.

    Why parents’ and children’s interests diverge in this case:
    Social connections and wealth of spouses are a tragedy of the commons if the extended family shares resources. If a child who marries poorly will require more support from the parents, the child doesn’t have the full incentive to avoid this. The parents do because it detracts from the resources available to other siblings, so is a net loss to their genetic interests. Benefits from partner attractiveness and intelligence accrue mostly to the smaller family group because they are mostly beneficial genetic additions to the offspring.

    Mitchell,

    That the person who has to live with the partner should be more interested in looks and intelligence is still a result of evolution, as is human cognitive competence (or lack). To ask whether an evolutionary explanation is always appropriate is like asking whether an atom based explanation for physical occurrences is always appropriate. While there might be other levels on which to analyse the system, it isn’t incorrect. The brain came about through evolution, so there is some explanation of how this occurred, whether it resulted in a simple trait optimised for a certain aspect of the environment or a more complicated and/or apparently not optimal outcome.

  • Patri Friedman

    “Parents and offspring … genetic self-interests, while overlapping, are not identical. The reason young people care so much about intellectual and physical attractiveness, the scientists suggested, is that these characteristics are markers of genetic fitness. By contrast, they said, parents care about group affiliations because parents are primarily interested in whether an incoming member of the family is likely to make a good parent — and a good all-around team player.”

    This is completely bogus. Yes, parent and offspring genetic interest differ – because offspring have a closer genetic tie to their kids than their parents do to the grandkids. But to go from there to saying that kids care about genetic fitness but parents don’t is just ridiculous. Parents genetic self-interest means they care about the genetic fitness of their kids mates. If “good parent” and “all-around team player” are part of “genetic fitness”, then the kids should care too. If they aren’t, then the parents shouldn’t care very much.

    The difference is interesting, and there may well be an EvBio explanation for it, but this explanation is clearly not it.

  • Constant

    Considered as a study about actual choices, it’s not even worth speculating about the results of the study given how badly designed it was (i.e. getting the parents’ alleged opinions second hand). But above that, even asking the kids themselves what they would choose is not especially useful. The sizable difference between what people say about how they would choose, and how they actually choose, is sufficiently notorious to be a cliche.

    However, considered as a study about what people will say about themselves and others, it’s not all that bad, though admittedly it should ideally be contrasted with a study about the reality that they are talking about. I hypothesize that the kids will greatly exaggerate the political correctness of their own choices, and they will greatly exaggerate the political incorrectness of their parents’ choices. The actual results are consistent with this hypothesis.

  • Psychohistorian

    The EvPsych explanation really does seem like a reach, even ignoring the experimental design flaws. The preference of kids makes plenty of sense. The preference of parents seems to be entirely pragmatic – if I marry some fat, ugly, bad-smelling person, it only affects my parents the few times a year they see me. If I marry someone of a different race or religion, then it might affect my parents socially (it wouldn’t in reality, but it might for a hypothetical person). That seems like a cleaner explanation.

    It’s also interesting to note that the study doesn’t seem to measure how much people care, but only how much they care in relation to their parents. Thus, if I don’t care about something, but I know my parents totally don’t care about it, it ends up way on the left side of the scale.

  • Peter St. Onge

    Could this be seen as an agency problem, as opposed to differential genetic motivation? It seems reasonable that a spouse gains utility from the attractiveness and intelligence or cleverness of their partner, while a parent is indifferent. Anecdotally, some variant of parent-child conflict over the attractive but poor poet seems a recurring theme in fiction.

  • http://maggiesfarm.anotherdotcom.com/archives/8190-Love,-marriage,-and-kids.html Maggie’s Farm

    Love, marriage, and kids

    Staying in the dating game.Parents often disagree with kids’ choices of spouse (oh, really?)Do people really like having kids?The breakdown of marriage costs the taxpayers $112 billion/year. JulesWell, I guess there’s always gay marriage as an alternative

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    No mention of Robin Trivers yet?

  • http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb Barkley Rosser

    Well, the evolutionary argument is exogamy versus endogamy, with some amount of the former
    clearly having evolutionary advantages. Now, why it is the young who currently seem to
    favor exogamy over endogamy is not entirely clear, but it may be a matter of people becoming
    somewhat more ethnocentric and racist as they age, along with them worrying about the broader
    social aspects of fitting in with the extended family and “will we get along with the in-laws
    at the wedding” and other such tripe. Thus, they may end up being the relative advocates of
    more endogamy as it were.

  • b.

    How about the idea of complimentary coevolution such that parents’ preferences only kick in to modify outcomes if those preferences lead to better fitness? Something like…

    IF: environment is such that socio-cultural factors are very important

    THEN: parental influence over mate choice is likely to be relatively strong due to these factors, and such influence would lead to the higher probability of a mate with higher social quality, which is beneficial for that given environment.

    ELSE: parental influence is less, the child’s preferences dominate and individual genetic fitness (discounting social quality) is more heavily weighted in the mate selection process, social quality being less important for this environment.

  • Recovering irrationalist

    Sorry I’m late, just caught up on backposts after moving cities.

    but the size of the conflict seems surprisingly large – do parent and kid genetic interests really diverge that much?

    While I question the study’s value as evidence for it, I’d expect that conclusion.

    As a hunter-gatherer teenager’s “choice” of mate is influenced by preferences of both parent and kid (though the balance varies), it makes sense that those preferences would diverge significantly more than would be best for the genes of the parent or kid if the choice of mate was made just on the preference that parent or kid.

    A gene that would lead the kid to choose the best mate if it’s parent’s influence was not a factor will be out-replicated by a gene that instead counterbalances the preferences of the parent relative to it’s own best interests. Cue the arms race.

  • michaela_wiley

    I have dated the same man for 5 and half years and his parents can not stand me even made it clear they will disown him if he married me my daughter who is now 10 does not have a opinion and I love him with everything I am but he keeps pulling back. I am 33 and white he is 37 and black I am a CNA at a nursing home he is a assistant Dean at a private college. What do I do?