We prioritize family over self, and that has real-world implications

Humans evolved in small-scale societies, so tight-knit groups such as families remain important

A large family sits around a table sharing a meal.

Social scientists tend to study individuals to understand health and well-being. But two new studies suggest that researchers should also study families, with the definition of that term left up to survey respondents. That shift in focus could lead to more effective social policies.

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A focus on family might be the key to personal well-being.

Surveys in the social sciences, such as those measuring happiness or health, tend to focus on the smallest unit: the individual. But two new studies, each surveying over 10,000 people worldwide, show that primary unit of analysis may need scaling up. One study suggests that people adhere to public health guidelines less to protect themselves than their loved ones. And the other study provides an explanation for why that may be the case: People the world over prioritize family happiness over their own.

Neither research team defined the term “family,” instead allowing respondents to interpret the term as they saw fit. As such, the results suggest that the exact nature of family, whether nuclear, blood-related or extended, does not matter.

The findings have important implications for society, says Karen Bogenschneider, a family policy expert at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved with either study. That’s because policy makers occasionally rely on research findings to develop programs such as those aimed at reducing substance abuse or inequality. When researchers frame societal issues in terms of the individual or community, so too do policy makers. And those programs may be less effective as a result.

For instance, several studies in the past couple decades have shown that including family members in addiction treatment programs lowers the addict’s risk of relapse and improves family relationships.

Moreover, these studies challenge the assumption that individualism has turned the self into the most important unit of survival (SN: 10/7/19).

Family bonds drove individuals to adopt pandemic-related health behaviors

The idea that policy makers can target family to change behavior comes as no surprise to Martha Newson, an anthropologist at Kent University in England. For years, Newson has studied a concept known as fusion, where an individual becomes so enmeshed in a larger social unit that she or he is willing to sacrifice personal well-being, or even survival, for the group (SN: 6/23/16).

At the onset of the pandemic, Newson and her team began studying how social fusion might be influencing behavior around the world during the pandemic.

From March to May 2020, over 13,000 participants from 122 countries were shown a sequence of five pictures, each with two circles, one for the self and the other for a given group such as family, country or all of humankind. In the first picture, the circles are far apart, but in subsequent pictures they grow closer and closer together until they fully overlap. Participants had to select one of the five pictures to indicate their level of fusion with the group. A participant had to select the fully overlapping circles to be considered fused to the group.

Participants also filled out scales to indicate how much they had performed a given public health action, such as social distancing or masking, in the previous week.

Participants who were fused to family were overrepresented among those reporting strong adherence to public health guidelines, Newson and colleagues reported January 13 in Science Advances. For instance, despite representing roughly a quarter of the participant pool, participants with strong family bonds constituted three-quarters of those who reported following social distancing guidelines. And almost half of participants with strong family bonds reported frequent handwashing compared with about one-third of participants with weaker family bonds.

Humans evolved in small-scale societies, Newson says. “When we have crises … these smaller units remain very important.”

On average, people value family happiness more than their own

Meanwhile, another group of researchers had begun to question the widely accepted belief that many happy individuals sum up to a happy society. That idea originated in the West, and has often been treated as universal, says Kuba Krys, a cross-cultural psychologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.

But research over the years has indicated that non-Westerners may not value personal happiness as much as people in the West. For instance, outside the West, people tend to see happiness as more interdependent, or grounded in harmony and balance with others, than independent, or grounded in the self.

If happiness exists at least partially outside the individual, then Krys and his team wondered what unit researchers should study. They looked to family. 

The team had roughly 13,000 participants from 49 countries indicate how much the perfect or ideal person would agree with statements in two commonly used surveys of well-being. Statements appeared both in the standard “I” framing and in a new family framing. For instance, participants reflected on how the ideal person would respond to both the statements, “In most ways, my life is close to ideal” and “In most ways, the life of my family is close to ideal.” 

Nearly half of the participants valued family well-being over personal well-being, while less than a third preferred their own happiness, the team reports in an upcoming paper in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Moreover, participants in even the most individualistic countries, including the United States, valued family, on average, more than self.

The word “family” has become associated with conservativism, Krys says. But family remains central to people’s lives, regardless of geography or political affiliation. “The shape of family has changed but family as an idea, as a basic unit, has not changed,” he says. “I would advise progressives … not to be afraid of touching on family topics.”

Bogenschneider’s research backs up this point. In a study of more than 200 state legislators, she and colleagues found that while abortion and same-sex marriage remain highly polarized, policy makers tend to view other family issues, such as those involving domestic violence, juvenile crime or teen pregnancy, as largely bipartisan.

This suggests that issues that aren’t typically centered around family, such as climate change or inequality, could be framed in terms of family to garner wider support, Bogenschneider says. Researchers who are seeking to translate their findings into policy and advocates who are advancing particular causes could, she adds, “elevate policy makers’ interest in those issues by focusing on families and family contributions.”

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