What causes parents to transmit generosity?

Mark Wilhelm

In October co-Investigator Ye Zhang presented the paper “What Motives Cause Parents to Transmit Generosity?” (co-authored with Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm) at the Conference on the Economics of the Family in Paris.  The conference, hosted by the Institut National d’Etudes démographiques, the Paris School of Economics, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, and Université de Cergy-Pontoise, honored Nobel-Prize
winning economist Gary Becker upon the 30th anniversary of the publication of his book A Treatise on the Family (work that led economists into the study of the family). In the paper Ottoni-Wilhelm and Zhang propose three hypotheses that might explain why parents transmit generosity to their children: altruism (the parent thinks that
the child’s performing generous behavior will be an important part of
the child’s happiness in later life), duty (the parent thinks her child
has a duty to perform a specific level of generous behavior, regardless
of the implications for the child’s happiness), and identity-formation
(the parent thinks that generosity should be a part of children’s
identity).  The authors develop predictions from mathematical
representations of each hypothesis, and test these predictions using
data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics’ generosity module and the
American National Election Study.  The pattern of evidence from the two
datasets is consistent with parents transmitting generosity because
they think generosity should be a part of their children’s identity.
The results are significant because they provide empirical support for
the emphasis that theorists in economics and other disciplines are
placing on identity in models of prosocial behavior.  Further,  the
results inform how cultural transmission models can be applied to the
intergenerational dynamics of generosity transmission, and suggest a
potentially fruitful way to learn why specific parent actions (e.g.,
role-modeling) are effective in developing children’s prosocial
behavior by asking: Is the specific action effective in influencing the
child’s identity as a generous person?  The results suggest a practical
implication: the practical literature about teaching children to be
generous will be more useful to parents to the extent that its
recommendations are aligned with what parents are trying to achieve in
the transmission of generosity: the transmission of a generous identity.

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