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How Families we Imagine Affect our Decisions

Natalia Engovatov
Department of Psychology
Stanford University
March 2002

Have you ever thought of yourself as a member of a nation? American? Some other? How do we imagine ourselves as belonging to a nation? Do we think of all the millions of people that form the nation? Probably not, as imagining millions of faces at the same time is hard. Yet, our membership in a nation has to start somewhere and some faces come to mind. Just think of an Olympic athlete, representing their country, who might they imagine as they see their country's flag being raised for them? Perhaps you noticed that when talking about their country people often use such expressions as "founding fathers of the country" or "being a good son/daughter of one's country." Thus, in speaking and thinking about the country, people invoke metaphors of family as Olympians dedicate their efforts to their families.

The metaphors of family are used prominently in political debates in the US. Both liberals and conservatives rely on the "nation as a family metaphor." There is a striking difference, however, in the kind of the families that these two groups refer to. My research focuses on this corrosive debate in American politics-the debate between liberals and conservatives-and looks into the impact that diverse family models have on widening the divide. In doing so, I look forward to bridging the perspectives of social psychology and cognitive linguistics. Psychology demonstrates that we often go beyond the information given in the world and attempt to fill in the gaps with our preexisting knowledge. We have different world views and no two persons view the world in the same way. Cognitive linguistics has taught us that metaphors are not simply poetic devices by important tools we use in understanding the world.

Metaphor analysis of the debates in politics that George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, conducted indicates that the key source of misunderstanding stems from differences in family models that conservatives and liberals have. Political conservatives tend to carry around a strict-parent model of family, while liberals tend to have a nurturant-parent model. The strict parent model purports that the main goal of family is to teach the young to distinguish between right and wrong. The family must teach the young that "the world is tough" and, therefore, a person must rely solely on himself or herself and excel at self-discipline and self-reliance. The nurturant parent model holds that the source of success lies in developing one's talents, knowing oneself well, and being able to empathize with others.

In my research, I vary models of family that people hold and see how invocation of different models affects the decisions that people make with respect to different social dilemmas. I proceed from the assumption that most people possess views that can be conservative and liberal, and therefore people can be induced to respond to issues in either liberal or conservative fashion by making one or the other set of views more prominent in their minds. Thus, I do not contrast the views of political liberals and conservatives but rather attempt to show that a person may start reasoning like a conservative after taking about the importance of the discipline in the family or, in contrast, like a liberal after deliberating the nurturant view of the family.

In a study, I asked participants to recall events in their personal family history that corresponded to liberal versus conservative family views. For one half of the participants these lessons involved nurturance and the notion that one should "get what one needs", for the other half, discipline and the notion that one should "get what one deserves." After a period of reflection in solitude participants responded to questions in an interview where they expanded upon what they had written about their experiences of family life. Following the interview, the participants responded to a questionnaire calling for a number of specific judgments about specific issues. One set of judgments had to do with the domain of criminal justice, and one set pertained to a problem in limited resource allocation.

As predicted, I found that invoking participants' representations of a family as a primarily disciplinary institution lead to reasoning in terms of retribution and revenge about problems in criminal justice, while invoking participants' representations of family as a nurturant institution elicited reasoning in terms of restitution and rehabilitation. I could see a similar discrepancy in the recommendations that people in my two experimental groups made about the role that need versus merit should play in the allocation of scholarship funds. Participants who reflected on lessons in self-discipline and self-reliance gave scholarships based on merit considerations, while participants who reflected on lessons in nurturance and empathy gave their scholarships proportionally to needs.

My research has the potential to enhance our theoretical understanding of the liberal-conservative divide in American politics.