Bryan Caplan  

Snap Judgments vs. Apathy

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I say it's silly for parents to worry much about other parents' opinions of them.  They're probably too tired and distracted to pay any attention to you, anyway.  Robin demurs:
Bryan presumes we care less about the judgments others make when they make snappier judgments.  Yet we all care about how our surface features appear to others, especially when those others make snap judgments - after all if they judged more carefully, our inner beauty might shine through.  And the busier are other parents, the snappier are their judgments.
Robin's right to claim that sometimes we should take superficial first impressions seriously.  If you're applying for a job, you want good credentials so your resume doesn't go straight to the circular file.  The key elements in this story are (a) high rewards, and (b) high search costs.  Since the rewards are high, lots of people try to win; and since lots of people are trying to win, it's too expensive to carefully study all of the candidates.  The result: People try really hard to make a good impression, and anyone who fails to make a good impression pays a heavy price.

However, this is only one scenario.  Here's a more common one: Almost nothing is at stake, so almost no one is paying attention.  Even if you make a great impression, the rewards are trivial.  And since the rewards are trivial, it's hard to make a good or bad impression, because people have their minds on other topics.  Frankly, they don't give a damn.

My claim to Robin: I agree that parents sometimes seek each other's respect.  But for the most part, they're in the latter scenario.  The other parents are too busy to think about you, and even if they did, they don't have much to offer.

Now if Robin wanted to argue that in primitive tribes, others' opinions were important, I might agree with him.  But then he'd just be confirming my point: We may be evolved to care about the opinions of other parents.  But this evolved desire is no longer adaptive, and parents would be better off if they stopped acting like it were.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
blink writes:

When making snap judgments about parenting, I think many rely on an obedience heuristic: When the parent makes a request, does the child obey or defy the parent? In fact, in the presence of others, I think parents avoid making that have a high probability of being rejected.

For parents who "pass," Robin's list becomes important. After all, parents talk a lot about their kids. If Suzy's mother tells about lessons for U, V, W, X, Y, and Z, it is difficult/embarrassing to say that your child does no such activities. For anyone within one's extended social circle, this is surely as strong a signal as, say, a fancy vs. beat up car.

Robin Hanson writes:

Well if only your employer's opinion of you matters, and they never see or hear about your kids, then of course you shouldn't pay attention to what others who see and hear about your kids think. But surely most parents care lots about larger social networks that are exposed more to their kids.

Pete writes:

I believe there are first and second order needs to manage your reputation among other parents. First, if a large part of your family life revolves around school, then there is simply a need to fit in and participate in all the typical activities. How you interact with your kids and their friends will be a significant factor for other parents.

Second, if you care about your child's ability to socialize with other kids, it is common for parents to manage those relationships as well (at certain ages). Others may not want their children hanging out with yours if you don't show a style of parenting similar to theirs.

Granted, all of this may be silly, but it is also human. I think parents are judging other parents all the time, and it is worth your while to care.

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