Caring for family is what motivates people worldwide

December 8, 2019

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Caring for family is what motivates people worldwide

Across the globe, caring for loved ones is what matters most. But, for decades this has not been the focus of many social psychology or management studies. An international team of researchers led by evolutionary and social psychologists from Arizona State University surveyed over 7,000 people from 27 different countries about what motivates them, and the findings go against 40 years of research. The study is in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

What the researchers say: "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," said the lead author. "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 study included people from diverse countries—ranging from Australia and Bulgaria to Thailand and Uganda—that covered all continents except Antarctica.

For the past 40 years, evolutionary psychological research has focused on how people find romantic or sexual partners and how this desire affects other behaviors, like consumer decisions. But study participants consistently rated this motivation—called mate seeking—as the least important factor in their lives.

Evolutionary psychologists define kin care as caring for and supporting family members, and mate retention as maintaining long-term committed romantic or sexual relationships. These two motivations were the most important even in groups of people thought to prioritize finding new romantic and sexual partnerships, like young adults and people not in committed relationships.

"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," said the researchers.

In all 27 countries, singles prioritized finding new partners more than people in committed relationships, and men ranked mate seeking higher than women. But, the differences between these groups were small because of the overall priority given to kin care.

"Studying attraction is easy and sexy, but people's everyday interests are actually more focused on something more wholesome—family values," the lead researcher said. "Everybody cares about their family and loved ones the most, which, surprisingly, hasn't been as carefully studied as a motivator of human behavior."

The motivations of mate seeking, and kin care were also related to psychological well-being, but in opposite ways. People who ranked mate seeking as the most important were less satisfied with their lives and were more likely to be depressed or anxious. People who ranked kin care and long-term relationships as the most important rated their lives as more satisfying.

"People might think they will be happy with numerous sexual partners, but really they are happiest taking care of the people they already have," the researchers said.

So, what? The important piece left out of this study was any definition of family. They speak of kin groups. But this in itself is a very misleading term. From recent research we know that hunter-gatherer bands were made up of people who shared commonalities rather than those who were necessarily kin-related.

We have also known for some time that people are prepared to defend and to sacrifice for those that they have most in common with. Of course, genetics are a form of commonality, but by no means the most significant—we have come a long way from the “selfish gene” theory.

A “family” is simply a grouping of those with commonality. Those that have a lot in common tend to form more stable relationships (including marriage) with each other. We are drawn to others with whom we share commonalities. According to other research published this week, we are likely to move to neighborhoods and communities where people share commonalities such as political beliefs.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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