Bryan Caplan  

Murray and Marriage

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I had an interesting argument with Charles Murray at yesterday's Cato Book Forum.  While he expressed fundamental agreement with my views on nature and nurture, he thought parental marital status was an important exception.  Children of divorce do worse than children whose parents remain married; children of never-married parents do worse than children of divorce.  At least at first, Murray seemed to see these disparities as entirely causal: getting married causes your kids to do better in life; getting divorce causes some (but not all) of that benefit to go away.

I objected that divorce and single parenthood are not random.  People who divorce are on average more impulsive and quarrelsome.  Single parents are on average more impulsive and less achievement-oriented.  Since these traits are heritable, we'd expect children of divorce and children of single parents to have worse outcomes - even if they were adopted at birth by Ozzie and Harriet.

I also mentioned that if Murray were right, he shouldn't express fundamental agreement with me.  After all, about 40% of divorces end in marriage, and about 40% of kids are born out of wedlock.  So if marital status matters as much as Murray says, my results hold only for (1-.4)*(1-.4)=36% of the population.

In his response, Murray seemed to admit that some of the apparent effect of marital status on kids wasn't causal.  But he insisted that much of it was.  How could we otherwise explain the simultaneous decline of the traditional family and the rise of so much social pathology?  I failed to fit in a full response, but here's what I would have said:

1. Lots of factors changed since the 50s besides family structure: Expansion of the welfare state, increase in rights of the accused, skill-biased technological change, feminism, decline of religion, etc.  Why single out family structure, especially given all the adoption and twin evidence that sheds so much doubt on such explanations?

2. Many social pathologies have been falling for the last two decades, even though in Murray's eyes, family structure is now worse than ever.  (Divorce is down a bit, but single parenthood is way up).

3. Even if family structure explains the changes, the causation could easily work across families rather than within them.  Maybe the problem is living in a world where lots of kids don't have dads around - not whether or not your dad is around.  If so, Murray's point is relevant for policy-makers but not for individual parents.

4. Given the prevalence of single parenthood and divorce, adoption and twin methods should pick up much bigger family effects than they do.

A few hours after the talk, Garett Jones reminded me that there's at least one paper that tries to adjudicate my dispute with Murray: O'Connor et al's "Are Associations Between Parental Divorce and Children's Adjustment Genetically Mediated?" published in Developmental Psychology in 2000.  The study uses the Colorado Adoption Project to measure the causal effect of divorce.  The results are mixed:
In biological families, children who experienced their parents' separation by the age of 12 years exhibited higher rates of behavioral problems and substance use, and lower levels of achievement and social adjustment, compared with children whose parents' marriages remained intact. Similarly, adopted children who experienced their (adoptive) parents' divorces exhibited elevated levels of behavioral problems and substance use compared with adoptees whose parents did not separate, but there were no differences on achievement and social competence. The findings for psychopathology are consistent with an environmentally mediated explanation for the association between parent divorce and children's adjustment; in contrast, the findings for achievement and social adjustment are consistent with a genetically mediated explanation involving passive genotype-environment correlation.
Read the whole piece for details.  The main problem with the study is that it focuses on 12 year-olds.  We still don't know how divorce affected kids' adult outcomes.  But as a general rule, long-run effects are smaller than short-run effects.

I have a knee-jerk horror of divorce.  But if you asked me, "What's so bad about it?" I'd still downplay what social scientists call "adult outcomes."  Instead, I'd focus on the parent-child relationship.  Getting a divorce won't ruin your child's life, but it is fairly likely to forever maim or destroy the way your beloved child feels about you.*

* I tried but failed to find any academic research on this specific point, so I'm going with common sense plus the academic literature on appreciation.


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

I think what I'm about to say supports your last point Bryan:

There is evidence in the psych literature and elsewhere that the real predictor of the bad outcomes on average for children of divorce is the degree of parental conflict. High-conflict, intact marriages produce kids that look more like kids from high-conflict divorces and who do worse than kids from low-conflict divorces.

What does seem to cause problems for kids is parental conflict, which would certainly lead kids to grow up thinking ill of their parents, marriage or divorce. It may also support the inheritable explanation in that people who are in high-conflict marriages may have a suite of personality traits that they pass on to their kids that are problematic for their success.

Curious what you'd say to that.

Evan writes:
I objected that divorce and single parenthood are not random. People who divorce are on average more impulsive and quarrelsome. Single parents are on average more impulsive and less achievement-oriented. Since these traits are heritable, we'd expect children of divorce and children of single parents to have worse outcomes - even if they were adopted at birth by Ozzie and Harriet.
If I recall reading Harris' The Nurture Assumption, she mentioned that a child's socioeconomic status affected how their peer group treated them (lower status=worse treatment), which in turn affected their personality, since children are socialized by their peer groups. Since divorce often lowers SES, since the parents are now supporting two households instead of one, could it affect kid's personalities in that indirect fashion?
Many social pathologies have been falling for the last two decades, even though in Murray's eyes, family structure is now worse than ever. (Divorce is down a bit, but single parenthood is way up).
I think the obvious reason that some social pathologies seem more common today (besides the pessimistic bias, of course) is that people have become wealthy enough that they can cushion themselves from the consequences. For instance, single parenthood is probably more common because even the poorest women can now afford to support a child on a single income, whereas in the old days women rarely made enough money to do so. Single fatherhood, while less common, probably also increased with wealth, since men could now afford to outsource domestic chores previously performed by wives to maid services, restaurants, and technology.

Lots of people blame the welfare state for this, but I think that the welfare state probably just accelerated an already existing trend. As the productivity of workers rose, inevitably some of them would have chosen to forgo husbands and wives. The welfare state merely lowered the minimum productivity required. Nontraditional families are the inevitable result of a wealthy society, and I think that this is a good thing, traditional families are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Anyone who still likes them for purely sentimental reasons (me for instance) is still free to have one if they want, but it's good that people have more options now.

Similarly, if you have a drug habit that lowers your productivity, today you'll often still be productive enough to live a normal lower-middle class life since, as Arnold keeps pointing out, we're getting closer and closer to the Diamond Age.

PrometheeFeu writes:
I have a knee-jerk horror of divorce. But if you asked me, "What's so bad about it?" I'd still downplay what social scientists call "adult outcomes." Instead, I'd focus on the parent-child relationship. Getting a divorce won't ruin your child's life, but it is fairly likely to forever maim or destroy the way your beloved child feels about you.*

You should look at your own statement about the non-randomness of divorce. I would argue from personal experience that some households are much more pleasant for children to live in post-divorce compared to pre-divorce.

Michael Wiebe writes:

"After all, about 40% of divorces end in marriage"

I'd like to see the details on that.

Jody writes:

After all, about 40% of divorces end in marriage

A statistic for which all divorced men weep...

[FWIW, I assume the sentence was meant the other way round]

Eric writes:

On the other hand, 100% of divorces begin with marriage ;)

GlibFighter writes:

Single parents also tend to be a lot poorer, and the causal effect on their children is obvious. The 1965 'Moynihan Report' was totally on target, and the trends he identified have, since then, become more deleterious and pervasive. Data discussed here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/26/us/26marry.html?_r=1&ref=us

are consistent with this. In particular: 'Rising income inequality has divided American society, making college-educated people less likely to marry those without college degrees. Members of that educated group have struck a new path: they marry later and stay married. In contrast, women with only a high school diploma are increasingly opting not to marry the fathers of their children, whose fortunes have declined along with the country’s economic opportunities.'

The divorce rate of parents at Ivy League & equivalent schools is around 10%. Go figure.

Steve Sailer writes:

The upper reaches of society are evolving in directions that discriminate against children who don't have two parents involved in his or her upbringing. The multi-year elite college admissions process would be very hard for a single parent to handle. In particular, the recent emphasis on girls' sports gives big advantages to girls whose dads are actively involved in their lives.

Lea Oksman writes:

Research on the effect of divorce on adult outcomes is provided in Elizabeth's Marquard's book, "Between Two Worlds." She would corroborate Bryan's claim on the parent's relationship with the child.

Fred writes:

Has anyone read David Lykken's "The Antisocial Personalities"?

From the Amazon product description: "The author demonstrates that the sharp rise in crime and violence in the United States since the 1960s can be attributed to the coeval increase in divorce and illegitimacy... Two generalizations supported by modern behavior genetic research are that most psychological traits have strong genetic roots and show little lasting influence of the rearing environment. This book demonstrates that the important trait of socialization is an exception."

Ted Craig writes:

I believe that 40 percent number is inaccurate because it doesn't take into account serial "wedders" like Larry King and Liz Taylor.

sourcreamus writes:

I read a book whose name I can't remember by a researcher who did a longitudinal study of children of divorce and the main adult effect was on their romantic relationship.

Tim Starr writes:

My father was a hypoglycemic cokehead, smoker, cheater, wife-and-child-beater, and convicted felon. When my mother divorced him (when I was 5), my grandmother told her: "Oh, good, I thought you were going to kill him!" Does Murray think my sister and I would've been better off if my mother hadn't divorced him? Seriously?!?

Studies, shmuddies. Murray needs to get his head out of the clouds & get back to reality, along with anyone else who thinks that lack of (nuclear, heterosexual) "family structure" causes kids to turn out badly.

Mik writes:

Social conservative bias. A lot of (social conservatives) people that interpret research findings such that "parenting in general does not matter for childrens outcome" are quick to believe that, "well, with the exception of divorce or a family structure deviating from the nuclear heterosexual one".

Divorce is highly (negatively) correlated with SES and there are very few studies that, in a believable fashion, has a good causal identification of divorce on childrens outcome.

Confligt is certainly more relevant to focus on (as noted in the comment by Tim Starr). It is not obvious that divorce leads to increased conflict. It may often be the other way around.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

In very simplistic terms, the organizational origins of practically all cultures have been:

Family, Clan and Tribe - often referred to as the "Tribal Culture."

In the "Western Tradition" the associations that make up the culture have first eliminated the "Tribe," then the reduced to zero the significance to its members of the "Clan;" thus leaving only the family, generally reduced to the nuclear grouping.

As Western culture evolves it appears that even the nuclear family association is to be reduced to the maternal connections, so far as "organic" relationships are involved.

In his recent treatise, Fukuyamma touches on some of the factors that have given rise to some of these results in the political context.

Regardless of what may be "lost" or "impaired," the trend seems fixed and what associations will intermitently (there is no ultimately) come into being can only be conjectured.

Andrea D. Merciless writes:

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Emily writes:

What about parental death? That's obviously much rarer but I bet it's also much more random than divorce as far as being associated with negative parental traits. If we saw that kids who have a parent die in some more-or-less random way (car accident, disease) do worse on these outcomes, could we extrapolate at all to other situations where kids don't have two active parents?

mcra99 writes:

I am a formerly divorced father. My daughter, at the time of the divorce, was 2 and half years old. After almost sixteen years since the divorce, all is well; however, I relentlessly pushed to maintain a relationship with my daughter through the court system and doing everything my female lawyer told me - I walked the line putting my life on hold until the mother understood that I was not going quietly into the night. I do credit the mother for understanding my importance in our daughter's life albeit it took awhile. I also moved to be near my daughter when the mother felt compelled to move out of state, shortly after the divorce.

I think the research indicates that the effects of divorce can be mitigated if the father is actively involved in the upbringing of the child(ren). In my opinion - and I've seen a lot of single mothers and fatherless children come through my classroom - many mothers focus on themselves rather than their children and do just about everything to prevent the father from participating in the child's life.

There are exceptions, however, but those do not disprove the rule, so to speak. Fathers are key.

Maciano writes:

I've always sensed that divorce would not be that much of a problem as it is often pointed out to be. Plenty of people succeed in life even though their parents are divorced. There would not necessarily have to be a negative consequence.

OTOH, I do think that it could help if your parents are together, because I'd guess they'd be more resourceful than separate. A stable family and background could help children and 20-somethings during crucial stages and blows in their lives. Some parents might be able to do this apart from each other, but after a divorce one of the parents often seems to slide in the background.

Apart from that, I do think people shouldn't blame their parents too much for how they turn out; they can always think for themselves.

George X writes:

"After all, about 40% of divorces end in marriage..."

You know, with any other author, I'd just assume this was a mistake. But is there some astonishing statistic you're pointing to here, Bryan? (Triumph of hope over experience, natural human (over-)optimism, and all that.)

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

The last census figures show that only 48% of "households" are now comprised of married couples as compared to 52 % last time.

While indicative, it is not conclusive of the trend - e.g. survivors of marriages maintaining households.

BUT the trend is there

emerich writes:

I haven't read Bryan's book mainly because my kids are beyond the age for me to care that much anymore (my youngest is in college, and I can confirm that I it's been a while since my preferences and opinions have had any noticeable effect on his behavior). Still from reading this post, reviews of the book, and the econtalk interview, I'm struck that Bryan's position is a paradoxical one for an economist. Economists generally believe "incentives matter," but if nothing parents do has much impact on a child's behavior, habits, our achievement, aren't we almost in a world where incentives don't matter? After all, much of parenting is structuring incentives (do this and you'll be rewarded, do that and you'll be punished). I'd like to hear (or read) Bryan's theory on what does determine behavior, if not parenting. Why are cultures different? Why is tardiness endemic in Italian society? Why is Singapore safe and Sao Paolo dangerous? If parent-created incentives have no effect, what does drive behavior?

Love to hear what you have to say on that, Bryan.

emerich writes:

I haven't read Bryan's book mainly because my kids are beyond the age for me to care that much anymore (my youngest is in college, and I can confirm that I it's been a while since my preferences and opinions have had any noticeable effect on his behavior). Still from reading this post, reviews of the book, and the econtalk interview, I'm struck that Bryan's position is a paradoxical one for an economist. Economists generally believe "incentives matter," but if nothing parents do has much impact on a child's behavior, habits, our achievement, aren't we almost in a world where incentives don't matter? After all, much of parenting is structuring incentives (do this and you'll be rewarded, do that and you'll be punished). I'd like to hear (or read) Bryan's theory on what does determine behavior, if not parenting. Why are cultures different? Why is tardiness endemic in Italian society? Why is Singapore safe and Sao Paolo dangerous? If parent-created incentives have no effect, what does drive behavior?

Love to hear what you have to say on that, Bryan.

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