Heartening News for Parents of Young Adults

Imagine playing this simple card game. Sixteen cards are arranged face down on a table. On the face of each card is a number. Most of the cards have positive numbers (+10 or +20), but one or two have negative numbers (-30 or -60). To play the game, you can either turn over a card or pass.

  • If you turn over a card to find a positive number, you gain that number of points and the round continues.
  • If you turn over a card with a negative number, you lose that number of points and the round is over.
  • If you pass (i.e., don’t turn over a card), you keep whatever points you have accumulated and the round is over.

The way you play this game says something about your appetite for risk. Some people turn over a lot of cards, gaining many points but also racking up losses. Other people play it safe, ending the round as soon as they’ve turned over a few positive cards. You can play the game with money instead of points if you want to make the risk more real.

Now imagine a new twist on the game: If you gain money, you get to keep it; if you lose money, someone else has to pay. In this case it makes sense to turn over all the cards—that is, to take as much risk as possible. (Actually, it sounds a lot like the game banks were playing in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis . . . come to think of it, they still are.) Or consider the opposite arrangement: Wins go to someone else, losses are paid by you. (Hello, Taxpayer!) The point is that your behavior in the game should depend on who stands to gain or lose.

Versions of this game, which is known as the Columbia Card Task, have been widely used in psychology and behavioral economics to assess people’s appetite for risk. To turn over a card is to take a risk; to pass is to play it safe. But when the game is arranged so that different people stand to gain or lose by it, it becomes a way of measuring social preferences.

To see how this works, take yourself out of the equation altogether and imagine you are playing for two other people: Bert and Ernie. The money you win goes to Bert, and losses are paid by Ernie. Now the game is not just a way of measuring your appetite for risk, but your preference for Bert or Ernie. You can benefit Bert by turning over more cards, or protect Ernie by turning over fewer.

This was the logic behind a new set of experiments conducted by graduate student Joao Guassi Moreira in the lab of Professor Jennifer Silvers in the UCLA Department of Psychology. Guassi Moreira and his co-authors gave young adults (the mean age was around 20 years old) the chance to play this game—not on behalf of Bert and Ernie, but on behalf of their actual parents and friends.

Participants were asked to nominate one parent and one friend at the start of the experiment. Some of the participants played for actual money and others played for points. In both cases, the parent and friend began with a small endowment (e.g., $5). Then they played 24 rounds of the game: Half of the rounds were set up so that the parent gained and the friend lost; the other half were set up in the opposite direction. The question was whether young adults would act to benefit their friends at the expense of their parents, or vice versa. To find out what happened, I interviewed Prof. Silvers by email.

So, what did you find?

The most important thing we found was that participants prioritized their parents over their friends in their decision making. Based on prior research, we knew that both parents and friends exert a large influence over young adults’ decision making, but this is the first study to our knowledge to directly compare their influence. What really stood out to us was that participants demonstrated a preference for their parents despite reporting on questionnaires that they had better relationships with their friends than their parents.  

Was the effect the same for all participants? 

Relationship quality turned out to be a very important variable. Participants who reported having particularly strong relationships with their parents prioritized them the most, while the opposite was true who reported having particularly strong relationships with their friends. We had expected that older participants might prioritize their parents more than younger participants but surprisingly we did not find that to be the case – age played no role in participants’ decision making! Intriguingly, participants were more likely to prioritize their parents at the expense of their friends when rewards were theoretical, but not when rewards were real. We interpret that last finding to suggest that theoretical decisions lead participants to pursue idealized representations of their social relationships, and that in these idealizations family comes first.

Did anything about the results surprise you?

The fact that young adults prioritized their parents over their friends flies in the face of many lay theories about parents not mattering after puberty. We were slightly surprised by this central finding but it is consistent with a lot of work suggesting that parents play a big role in shepherding their children from adolescence to adulthood.

What should readers take away from this study?

Readers should take away that no matter how old you are, mom still matters.

Where can Psychology Today readers read the study for free? (Readers: Never pay to read a scientific article.)

You can read the whole article on PsyArXiv.



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