Mom still matters—In study, young adults tended to prioritize parents over friends

August 8, 2018, University of California, Los Angeles
Jennifer Silvers and Joao Guassi Moreira Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

If you're a parent who feels your college-age children would choose their friends over you, a new UCLA psychology study has a reassuring message: You're probably underestimating their loyalty to you.

The psychologists demonstrated for the first time that when forced to make a decision that benefits either a parent or a close friend, are more likely to choose the parent.

"Our study suggests mom still matters," said Jennifer Silvers, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology and senior author of the study, which is published online today in the journal Psychological Science. "Parents continue to have an enduring impact on their children as they become adults—and on their decision-making."

The study involved 174 people between the ages of 18 and 30. Each was asked to play a series of games that forced them to choose between the interests of a parent and a friend they chose. Each subject began with either $5 or 50 points, and was told to play as if the points could be redeemed for prizes, and the choices they made would increase or decrease their winnings. In half the rounds, all of the player's gains went to the parent and all of the losses went to the friend. In the other rounds, all gains went to the friend and all losses to the parent.

In each round, were shown 16 cards on a computer monitor, with the cards "face down." On the side that was hidden, each card indicated that the subject had either won or lost a certain amount of money or a certain number of points.

Participants could choose to turn over as many cards as they wanted until they chose to stop or until a card revealed they had lost cash or points. Most of the cards provided money or points, but a few resulted in losses. This meant the longer each participant chose to play each round, the more they helped one person they love and put the other person at risk. Each participant played 48 rounds.

Before playing, each participant completed a 28-item questionnaire that gauged their feelings toward the parent and friend they chose. Overall, the surveys suggested the participants had strong, positive feelings toward both, but on average, the participants felt their relationships with friends were stronger.

The experiment with the cards, however, revealed something different: When they knew they were playing the card game to benefit their parents, the participants were more than 25 percent more likely to turn over additional cards. In other words, they were substantially more likely to make choices to benefit their parents. (Researchers controlled for important variables, such as age, gender and the quality of the participants' relationships.)

"When push came to shove, they prioritized their parents," Silvers said. "Even though not much was at stake, the preferences were quite consistent."

The researchers expected the bias toward parents would occur more among older subjects than younger ones, but the study found it occurred equally regardless of age. Results also were consistent between men and women.

Interviewed after the game, participants expressed ambivalence about the task they performed.

"Many of them seemed conflicted," said Joao Guassi Moreira, a doctoral student in Silvers' laboratory and the study's lead author. "Several said slight variations of, 'Even though it was hard to not pay as much attention to my , I felt like I owed it to my parent, who has helped me so much.'"

The researchers are interested in studying why young adults prioritized their over their closest friends and whether the phenomenon would be the same among young teenagers as well.

Explore further: How gift cards initiate children into the world of 'credit'

More information: Psychological Science (2018). journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/1 … 177/0956797618778497

Related Stories

How gift cards initiate children into the world of 'credit'

July 19, 2018
Western children have more toys, games and possessions than ever before. And Australia has one of the highest rates of average spending per child on toys. Faced with a glut of children's toys at home, more and more parents ...

Criticism from parents affects how children's brains respond to emotional information

June 11, 2018
Children of highly critical parents show less attention to emotional facial expressions, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University at New York.

To improve future relationship with your kids, turn up the music

May 1, 2018
If you're a parent whose teenagers spend family road trips with earbuds firmly in place, you may want to encourage them to unplug, then turn the car radio to something the whole family can enjoy.

Adolescents don't just think of themselves, psychologist reports

October 31, 2017
Parents often see that when their sweet, socially-minded children become adolescents they change into selfish 'hotel guests' who think only of themselves. But adolescents become increasingly better at weighing up one another's ...

Do mothers favor daughters and fathers favor sons?

October 4, 2017
Imagine a parent who is shopping and has a few moments to spare before heading home. If the parent has both a son and daughter but time to buy only one surprise gift, who will receive the gift?

Young people with older friends can help reduce ageism

June 9, 2016
Young people are less likely to be ageist when their friends have friendships with older adults, research led by psychologists at the University of Kent has shown.

Recommended for you

People are more honest when using a foreign tongue, research finds

August 17, 2018
New UChicago-led research suggests that someone who speaks in a foreign language is probably more credible than the average native speaker.

FDA approves brain stimulation device for OCD

August 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—A brain stimulation device to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has received approval for marketing Friday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

16 going on 66: Will you be the same person 50 years from now?

August 17, 2018
How much do you change between high school and retirement? The answer depends on whether you're comparing yourself to others or to your younger self.

Research eyes role of stress in mental illnesses

August 17, 2018
We all face stress in our lives. Even researchers seeking to understand why some people shrug it off while others face battles against disorders like depression or PTSD.

It's okay when you're not okay: Study re-evaluates resilience in adults

August 16, 2018
Adversity is part of life: Loved ones die. Soldiers deploy to war. Patients receive terminal diagnoses.

Men and women show surprising differences in seeing motion

August 16, 2018
Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology on August 16 have found an unexpected difference between men and women. On average, their studies show, men pick up on visual motion significantly faster than women do.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.