Family matters: Regardless of country or culture, people prioritize loved ones over all else

TEMPE, Ariz. — From Seoul to Seattle, what matters most to people at the end of the day is their family and loved ones. That’s the uplifting finding of a new, extensive international study encompassing over 7,000 people from 27 different countries.

The study, led by a team of social and evolutionary psychologists at Arizona State University, is especially interesting because family- and kin-based motivations are a topic that has been largely ignored by evolutionary psychologists for the past few decades. Instead, researchers have focused on how mate attraction and selection drives people’s behaviors.

“People consistently rated kin care and mate retention as the most important motivations in their lives, and we found this over and over, in all 27 countries that participated,” comments first author Ahra Ko, an ASU psychology graduate student, in a media release. “The findings replicated in regions with collectivistic cultures, such as Korea and China, and in regions with individualistic cultures like Europe and the U.S.”

All continents, except Antartica, were represented in the research. Just a few examples of participating countries include Australia, Bulgaria, Thailand, and Uganda. The research team at ASU sent out surveys to scientists in each country, intended to measure fundamental behavioral motivations. Then, once each local research team got their hands on the survey, they translated it into the native language, and made any necessary edits to ensure the questions were culturally appropriate for that specific country.

For the better part of 40 years, evolutionary psychology has emphasized how sexual behaviors, mate selection, and the search for new romantic partners drives people to act in certain ways. On a purely scientific level, this makes sense, sex and reproduction is ingrained in our DNA and undoubtedly influences behavior patterns. However, participants from all over the world in this study consistently rated this motivation, termed mate selection, as one of the least important factors influencing their motivations and behavior in life.

Instead, kin care (taking care of family) and mate retention (maintaining a meaningful relationship with a significant other) were rated as much more important motivators for people all over the world. This held true even among younger people and those not currently in committed relationships, two demographics that researchers assumed would prioritize sex and mate attraction.

“The focus on mate seeking in evolutionary psychology is understandable, given the importance of reproduction. Another reason for the overemphasis on initial attraction is that college students have historically been the majority of participants,” explains second author Cari Pick, an ASU psychology graduate student. “College students do appear to be relatively more interested in finding sexual and romantic partners than other groups of people.”

Now, that doesn’t mean people without a partner aren’t prioritizing attraction. Predictably, across all 27 countries singles tended to prioritize finding a new love interest more than those already in a relationship. Also, men put more of an emphasis on mate-seeking than women. Ultimately, though, these fluctuations were small in comparison to the overwhelming emphasis the majority of participants placed on taking care of their loved ones.

“Studying attraction is easy and sexy, but people’s everyday interests are actually more focused on something more wholesome – family values,” says senior author Douglas Kenrick, President’s Professor of Psychology at ASU.. “Everybody cares about their family and loved ones the most, which, surprisingly, hasn’t been as carefully studied as a motivator of human behavior.”

These different behavioral motivations were also found to be related to overall well-being, but in drastically different ways. Interestingly, those who placed more of an emphasis on attracting new partners and sex were less satisfied with their lives and much more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Conversely, those who prioritized family care and long-term relationships consistently described themselves as satisfied with their lives.

“People might think they will be happy with numerous sexual partners, but really they are happiest taking care of the people they already have,” Professor Kenrick concludes.

The study is published in the scientific journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.