Shifts towards conservative values don't necessarily occur as individuals become adults, but instead as they become parents.
It’s a quote that’s been around for at least 100 years, though nobody is quite sure who said it first: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you have no brain.” But a new study by The Royal Society Publishing has concluded that it’s parenthood—not age—that produces the shift in values. Researchers found that moms and dads become more socially conservative, while childless adults generally adopt an even more liberal worldview. The study sought to understand where strong opinions on divisive social issues, such as abortion, sex, and immigration begin.
Dr. Nicholas Kerry led the team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, hypothesizing that people invested in caring for children would be drawn to more socially conservative policies. The basis for the hypothesis was that conservative values seemingly prioritize stability, family, and safety. Therefore, being invested in parental care might theoretically make socially conservative policies more appealing.
Researchers examined what they call “parental care motivation.” Compared to other mammals, human children take an unusually long time to develop, requiring a great deal of resources, care, and guidance. The motivation to take on this task for around two decades is a major life decision with many emotional and physical commitments. Parental care motivation appears to drive a preference for traditional behaviors, such as long-term monogamous relationships. Conservatives also tend to prefer conventional social structures and are more likely to seek moral guidance.
The study included several measures of parental care motivation, such as the Parental Care and Tenderness scale. It required participants to rate six statements on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The statements were related to how much tenderness they would feel in certain situations, such as wanting to hold a baby when they see one, or how they feel when they see a young child fall and cry. A protection subscale asks parents whether they agree with statements such as, “I would feel compelled to punish anyone who tried to harm a child.”
The team surveyed 2,610 people from 10 countries chosen to represent a mix of geographical location and cultural norms. It found that the team’s hypothesis was correct: people with children or planning to have them were associated with increased social conservative viewpoints regardless of where they lived. Therefore, the parental shift from liberal to conservative is not just an American phenomenon. The 10 countries with study participants included the United States, Australia, Chile, Denmark, El Salvador, Japan, Lebanon, Poland, Serbia, and South Korea.
The strongest connections between parenthood and conservatism were found in South Korea, followed by Lebanon, the United States, and Poland. They did not fluctuate across age groups, which supports the theory that parental behaviors prompt a shift to the right—not advancing age. The researchers also discovered a significant link between parenthood and conservative viewpoints over economic matters. The study confirmed the results of the World Values Survey, a similar, 40-year study involving 400,000 participants from 88 countries.
Researchers speculate that decreasing global fertility rates will lead to more liberal policies in the future. According to the World Economic Forum, over the last 70 years, fertility rates have declined worldwide, representing a total 50% decline. In 1951, the global average number of children per family was five. In 2020, it was 2.4. Therefore, if the study’s results are true, the liberal mindset that accompanies childlessness will inevitably create a more left-leaning society, steering away from any conservative control.