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Parenting

Having Children Changes How You Think About Human Nature

The transition to parenthood makes people gradually more trusting over time.

Key points

  • Previous research has made conflicting predictions about how becoming a parent affects trust.
  • We found that becoming a parent increases trust gradually over time.
  • Being trusting does not make you more likely to become a parent.

Trust is good. People who score high in trust (those who think that human beings are generally honest, good-natured, and dependable) tend to have more friends (Rotter, 1976) and earn more money in their careers (Stavrova & Ehlebracht, 2016). In other words, trusting others can make you popular and wealthy. Even economists, who as a rule argue for the importance of narrow self-interest, see the value in trusting strangers. High-trust countries tend to have faster economic growth than low-trust countries (Zak & Knack, 2001). But what is the secret to becoming a more trusting person? Although there are decades of research on trust and its importance, not much is known about the life events and choices that will make a person become more (or less) trusting over time.

In a forthcoming paper, led by Dr. Olga Stavrova, we examined the effects of the transition to parenthood on trust (Stavrova et al., 2022). Becoming a parent is one of the most change-evoking life events. But not much is known about how the transition to parenthood changes the way that people perceive and interact with the social world. In our study, we tested whether becoming a parent for the first time makes you more (or less) willing to trust in strangers.

Parenthood and Trust

How does becoming a parent affect trust in strangers? Previous research has supported two conflicting predictions: One prediction is that becoming a parent will make you more vigilant, and unwilling to trust in strangers. This prediction is based around the idea that becoming a parent activates a general motivation system geared towards protecting yourself and your immediate family. There is some prior evidence (mostly from laboratory experiments) supporting the idea that parents are generally less willing to take risks. On the other hand, other research supports the prediction that parenthood makes people generally more nurturing, and that caring for an infant has positive spillover effects on other social relationships. This view suggests that parenthood makes people more generally prosocial and positive towards other people. This means that parenthood should increase trust towards strangers.

To compare these two competing predictions, we examined how the transition to parenthood affected trust over time in a sample of adults from the Netherlands. We examined how parents’ levels of trust changed in the years leading up to (and in the years following) the transition to parenthood (the birth of the first child). Importantly, we also compared first-time parents to a group of matched control participants. These control participants were childless individuals who were otherwise similar to the first-time parents (for example, in terms of characteristics like age, relationship status, and income).

The main result of our study was that parents gradually became more trusting after their first children were born. Rather than a sudden (all-at-once) change in personality, the positive effects of parenthood on trust accrued gradually over time. Arguably, these effects of parenthood might build up over time because parents accumulate more and more positive social experiences, either with their children or with the world at large, that reinforce the idea that human beings are generally good-natured (Rotter, 1967).

We also tested whether trust makes someone more likely to become a parent. Arguably, people who are cynical about the world might be less likely to bring new life into it. We used a technique called survival analysis to test whether trust predicts the likelihood of having children (in this case, “surviving” means remaining child-free). We found no relationship between trust and the decision to have children, though we did find (unsurprisingly) that older participants and participants with partners were less likely to remain childless.

What Makes Us Trust?

Our study raises important questions about how other major life events and transitions influence trust. Other major life events, such as marriage, divorce, and getting a cat, might also lead to long-term changes in trust over time.

Trust is good, but we still know too little about how to cultivate it.

References

Rotter, J. B. (1967). A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust 1. Journal of Personality, 35(4), 651-665.

Stavrova, O., & Ehlebracht, D. (2016). Cynical beliefs about human nature and income: Longitudinal and cross-cultural analyses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(1), 116-132.

Stavrova, O., Reitz, A. K., & Evans, A. M., (2022). Temporal dynamics of interpersonal trust during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Research in Personality. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2022.104188

Zak, P. J., & Knack, S. (2001). Trust and growth. The Economic Journal, 111(470), 295-321.

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