One of the most fundamental curiosities of social science research is “what motivates us?” New research is pointing toward the importance of family as the most essential motivator in human behavior.
This is an emerging cross-cultural fact. It doesn’t matter who you ask or where you look, long-term enduring family bonds are more important than preserving your health, finding a significant other, achieving status, or even self-preservation.
People who focus on the quality and maintenance of their families and long-term family bonds are happier and more resilient.
A study about the importance of family was just conducted by a research team at Arizona State University.
What was interesting about this study was that seeking a new significant other was ranked as one of the least motivating factors in their life.
Indeed, perhaps as a comment on the dangers of serial limerance, the research found that people who were more focused more on attracting new partners tended to have less overall life satisfaction. Those who focused more on their families and pre-existing long-term relationships are generally happier, the researchers found.
This study was huge! More than 7000 people from over 25 countries were surveyed. One of the challenges in conducting cross-cultural social science research is weighing the difference between individualistic and collectivist cultures.
Cultures are typically divided into two frames of reference: collectivist and individualist. Individualist cultures are synonymous with the “West.” Cultures such as the United States and Western Europe, subordinate group goals to emphasize and celebrate personal achievement. This often results in “competition” being extolled as a virtue.
On the other hand, Collectivist cultures, such as those of Japan, China, or South Korea, emphasize group goals above any particular individual needs, preferences, or desires.
Collectivism and individualism are deeply embedded in cultural assumptions. We accept our culture’s values without question. Both collectivist and individualistic cultures have their advantages and disadvantages. Individualist cultures are more susceptible to loneliness, and collectivist cultures can often foster groupthink and may stifle individual initiative.
However, it is a significant finding that the importance of family was paramount in both collectivist and individualist cultures.
Ms. Ahra Ko, the study’s lead author, said:
“People consistently rated kin care and mate retention as the most important motivations in their lives, and we found this over and over, in all 27 countries that participated.The findings replicated in regions with collectivistic cultures, such as Korea and China, and in regions with individualistic cultures like Europe and the US.”
The results showed that people from all over the world consistently rated the importance of family as their primary motivation.
Co-author Cari Pick observed:
“The focus on mate seeking in evolutionary psychology is understandable, given the importance of reproduction. Another reason for the overemphasis on initial attraction is that college students have historically been the majority of participants. College students do appear to be relatively more interested in finding sexual and romantic partners than other groups of people. Naturally, single people gave more priority to finding a partner, but it still paled in comparison to family.”
The importance of existing family ties over potential new mates may also explain why new mates who clash with family members tend to have more relationship failure.
“Studying attraction is easy and sexy, but people’s everyday interests are actually more focused on something more wholesome—family values.Everybody cares about their family and loved ones the most, which, surprisingly, hasn’t been as carefully studied as a motivator of human behavior.People might think they will be happy with numerous sexual partners, but really they are happiest taking care of the people they already have.”
But that’s focusing on the obvious. Recognizing the importance of family leaves a far more enticing question unanswered: How is relational significance achieved for “new” partners?
I think it’s far more interesting to think about this research in a different way. We now know that there is no Romeo and Juliet Effect. Family resistance does not fuse couples together into a united front. Families are powerful and important. They need to be deftly managed by a “new” couple.
For example, I recently worked with a couple that was recovering from infidelity (I have, of course, changed their names and some of the personal details).
Ironically, their relationship began only a few years earlier as affair partners.
With bad divorces behind them, they were a little gun-shy about marriage. “I’m afraid I’ll always just be Carl’s girlfriend” lamented Roxanne.
Carl and Roxanne clearly loved each other and were rapidly recovering from infidelity.
In fact, they learned a great deal about each other during their recovery. They were both very highly motivated and wanted to stay together.
They both agreed on the importance of family. But how they could go about blending their families into a more resilient over-arching sense of “we-ness” was a far greater challenge than their affair recovery… and that’s what this new research points out.
There is a dynamic tension between the reliably comfortable, life-long family ties, and the aspirational new ties we seek to forge with relatively new partners. And navigating this tension is where good couples therapy can be most helpful.
There is a critical paradox in the importance of family. How can couples reach a “tipping point” of trust and commitment to confirm and deepen new intimate bonds? At what point does the importance of family embrace a new partner? In other words, when is a “new” partner no longer new…and has become cherished and valued as a top priority?
Ko, A., Pick, C. M., Kwon, J., Barlev, M., Krems, J. A., Varnum, M. E. W., … & Kenrick, D. T. (in press). Family matters: Rethinking the psychology of human social motivation. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
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Parks, M. R., Stan, C. M., & Eggert, L. L. (1983). Romanic involvement and social network involvement. Social Psychology Quarterly, 46, 116-131. DOI:
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Thanks to James Stein – Graduate Student – Arizona State University for compiling this research.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.