Is Parental Love Merely Cognitive Dissonance?


If parenting is so costly, why do so many people claim it’s more fulfilling than a tropical vacation

True or false: A person can never be truly satisfied in life without experiencing the joys of parenthood?

If you thought “true,” you might not want to read a recent study by researchers Richard P. Eibach and Steven E. Mock. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Eibach and Mock review evidence to suggest that the often touted emotional rewards of parenting are a myth. Instead, the cite evidence that the real payoffs of parenting include a downturn in emotional well-being, a lowered frequency of positive feelings, and a higher frequency of negative emotions like anger when Junior turns over his breakfast bowl with a loud yucch). Children also seem to lower their parents marital satisfaction whilst raising their levels of depression. And incidentally, they note that all these benefits come at a cost of approximately $200,000 per child. And the authors don’t even list the much more important non-monetary costs of parenting: the year of lost sleep, the thousands of dirty diapers to change, the ranting and raving of the terrible twos (which really last until about age 5), followed by a period of adolescent disdain in which junior rolls his eyes up to the ceiling at every stupid thing you say (with periods during which almost everything you say qualifies as a stupid thing).

So, how to explain the fact that many people (including yours truly) do in fact report that being a parent is the most fulfilling part of their life? Eibach and Mock turn to Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. You remember that from intro psych, right? If you have to undergo a severe initiation to join a group, you rate it more positively than if you undergo a mild initiation. If you receive a paltry payoff for a task, you rate it as more intrinsically satisfying than if you are well-compensated. What could be a less well-compensated task than parenting? As mom used to eloquently express it: “After all I’ve done for you kids, this is the thanks I get?”

The researchers conducted a pair of clever experiments to test the role of dissonance in parental satisfaction. Consistent with predictions from dissonance theory, they found that emphasizing the costs of parenting led to a paradoxical increase in parents’ tendency to agree with idealized statements such as: “Nonparents are more likely to be depressed than parents.” and “There is nothing more rewarding in this life than raising a child.” They also found that thinking about the many costs of raising a snot-nosed brat led parents to want to spend more time with said snot-nosed brat (of course, they used more objective language, with no references to brattiness or snotty noses).

Now, I find this pair of studies troubling for a couple of reasons. For one, I have two sons, one aged 32 and one aged 6. I estimate that I spent more than that average 200 Grand on the Number One Son, and that I will spent still more on Numero Dos (in Lego costs alone!) Besides the money, I spend a lot of energy, waking up at night worrying about how both of them are doing, and about their lives will turn out. I even worry that if I worry too much about them, I’ll have a heart attack and won’t be around to worry about how they are doing anymore.

And despite all the costs, I’m a big parental idealizer. I often tell people that being a parent has been the most rewarding part of my life, and I honestly believe it. I also honestly believe that I love my sons, and enjoy their company, more than anyone else I could imagine. In a paper that got a lot of press last year, I argued that “parenting” should replace “self-actualization” at the top of the revised hierarchy of human motives. And in book Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life (just released last week), I suggest that one key to a meaningful life is taking care of your family.

At the same time, my wife pointed out a big inconsistency in my parental attitudes just the other day. When I talk to a younger colleague or a grad student who thinks it would be a great idea to have children, I always say: “NO! Don’t do it! It’s nothing like a Kodak ad, and you have no idea how costly it is until it’s too late!”

Dissonance Driven Commitment: It’s Not for Everyone

So, how do I account for my own inconsistency in this regard. And how do I continue to justify my own feelings of love and life satisfaction associated with my sons? Well, here goes: Having children is not like other costly relationships you’ll have in life. Dissonance can only go so far in boosting your felt satisfaction with friends, lovers, coworkers, or other members of that cult you joined that incorrectly predicted the end of the world. If your friend gets too costly, you may well find a new friend. If your coworkers are a pain in the ass, you may get a new job. If your spouse gets too costly, you may stick around (especially if there are kids), but you might also just get a divorce and move to Australia. Most of the people in Festinger’s classical study of the end-of-the-world cult (the ones we don’t talk much about in the textbooks) simply quit the cult.

But with children, you don’t quit the cult, and you don’t move to Australia. Not only do you stick with them and continue to love them, but you ironiincrease your commitment when they increase their needs. Why the special form of dissonance reduction for our kids. Here I think we need an evolutionary perspective – thanks to inclusive fitness and parental investment, our parents, and theirs, were designed to increase their commitments as their children’s demands went up, and we get those costly mechanisms along with the $200K they invested in us. I advise my younger colleagues to hold off and enjoy a childless life for as long as they can because the commitment-inducing mechanisms don’t start working until your child is born and looks up at you with those big crying eyes. And while other people are contributing to overpopulation, those of you who hold off can still afford a ski vacation in Banff.

Eibach, R.P., & Mock, S.E. (2011). Idealizing Parenthood to Rationalize Parental Investments. Psychological Science, 22, 203–208.

Kenrick, D.T. (2011). Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.  New York: Basic Books. 

If you check out the webpage, you can watch a cool 3 minute video made by my highly talented older son (who has a degree in film production from NYU, and whose talents have more than repaid my investment in him.  And that's not just cognitive dissonance speaking!)

Related Stories:

Rebuilding Maslow’s Pyramid on an Evolutionary Foundation.
Motivation Pyramid 2: Don’t Judge a Scientific Idea by It’s Press Release.
Why Don’t Kids Make Us Happy? By Sonja Lyubomirsky

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.