The Men and Mental Health Blog features some curated content from online resources. This post originally appeared on the Institute for Family Studies website and was not written by Good Dads staff.
The Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has explained that humans have two ways of thinking and behaving. System 1 is fast, automatic, instinctive, driven by emotion, and more prone to unconscious factors. System 2 is slower, deliberate, logical, and more driven by our conscious will.1 Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University, has a clever metaphor to describe the way these two different systems interact. In explaining the distinction between our automatic or emotional behaviors and the part of our nature that is deliberate, Haidt compares a human being to a rider on the back of an elephant. The elephant is the intuitive or emotional side of ourselves that we cannot (easily) control. The rider represents the rational and deliberate parts of our behavior that we can control. Haidt describes:
I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.2
This metaphor can be instructive if we are trying to help people (including ourselves) behave better. The trick is to lead the elephant to places where he is likely to be on his best behavior (or to avoid places that bring out his worst). If you are trying to kick a drinking habit, it’s best not to let your elephant wander into a bar. Once inside the bar, it will be very difficult to control an alcoholic elephant.
So, how can we help people lead their elephants to places that will bring out our best selves and behaviors? This question is especially relevant for men, who by and large are responsible for the majority of violent crime and other social ills in society. More than 90% of all prison inmates are male.3 How can we help men lead their elephants to places that encourage them to behave better?
A very large body of research demonstrates that when men are engaged in helping rear their biological children, they are more likely to behave in prosocial ways. They are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to be violent, less likely to drink alcohol or consume drugs. Fatherhood seems to channel male energy and aggression toward constructive and prosocial ends. Indeed, across cultures, becoming a father has been observed to lead men to become less selfish and more socially responsible.4 In other venues,5 I explain how this link between prosocial behaviors and the rearing of children is related to the way in which evolution has shaped our nature.
But one of the problems with helping men be engaged fathers is that, compared to women, men have a relatively tenuous biological link to their children. This is because men expend a relatively small amount of effort to the biological conception of a new child. It’s even possible for a man to conceive of a child and never know it. For a woman, this scenario is impossible. Women carry the unborn child for nine months. Following birth, the mother strengthens her biological tie with the baby through nursing. In contrast, men have a fragile biological link. In almost all cultures, men are more likely than women to be uncommitted and detached parents.6 Nature has created an imbalance in the strength of biological ties children between men and women and their children. A strong social and cultural commitment is needed to link men to their children and enhance their role as fathers. For most of history, the institution of marriage has served this express purpose. Though it also serves other functions, one of the principal aims of marriage is to link a man to his biological children by linking him to the mother of those children. A wealth of sociological data shows that, especially for men, marriage and parenting are closely connected.7 Some sociologists have even referred to them as a “package deal.”8
Becoming a father can generate a powerful motivation for a man to provide for his children and behave in prosocial ways. Extending Haidt’s metaphor, fatherhood leads the elephant to a place that tends to bring out the best in his nature. But simply conceiving a child doesn’t cut it. A man must be active in his social role as father to realize this motivation. The social worker Charles Ballard recognized this as he helped unwed, absentee fathers re-engage with their children in the tough inner-city neighborhoods of Cleveland. Traditional thinking in sociology dictates that the way to help such men is to provide economic security for them: they must first have jobs before they are able to meaningfully re-engage with their children. But Ballard and his colleagues flipped that logic on its head: they found that when they focused on reuniting these men with their children, they were able to find the intrinsic motivation to improve their own situations. From 1982 to 1995, through a combination of home visits, therapy sessions, parenting classes, and other approaches, Ballard helped reunite over 2,000 absentee fathers with their children. When they entered the program, only 12% of the men had full-time employment. But after re-engaging with their children, 62% had found full-time work, with an additional 12% who had found part-time work. Over 95% started contributing financially to the support of their children.9
This finding would be in line with what social psychologists have long known: intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic motivation. From an evolutionary perspective, there is perhaps no more powerful intrinsic motivating force than the duty to provide for your own biological offspring.
The fatherhood initiative led by Ballard is a wonderful approach that yielded strong results. More social initiatives should take note of the powerful intrinsic motivation that comes from helping men fully engage with their children. Yet social programs such as these are extremely expensive. Our enthusiasm for such programs is further tempered when we recognize that this initiative is essentially trying to serve a purpose that marriage has naturally served for centuries in almost all cultures: tying men to their social roles as fathers of their biological children.
Overall, our understanding of the importance of marriage and fatherhood in helping men to behave in prosocial ways provides a strong impetus to use social policies and other measures to encourage men to become responsible husbands and fathers. At the same time, this does not require us to assume a posture of judgment toward men who either fail to succeed on this path or choose another. There are many men who will remain single or childless and will still provide significant contributions to society. Nonetheless, communities and countries would reap enormous benefits from helping more young men get and stay married.
1. See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2011).
2. Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 4.
3. U. S. Department of Justice, Correctional Population in the United States, 2010, December 2011.
4. David Gutmann, “Parenthood: A Key to Comparative Study of the Life Cycle,” in Life-Span Developmental Psychology, edited by Nancy Datan and Leon H. Ginsberg, 1975, 167-184. Edited by Academic Press.
5. Samuel T. Wilkinson, Purpose: What Evolution and Human Nature Imply About the Meaning of Our Existence (New York: Pegasus Book, 2024).
6. David M. Buss, Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, 5th Edition (New York: Routledge, 2015).
7. W. Bradford Wilcox, Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences, 3rd Edition (New York: Institute for American Values, 2011).
8. See, for example, Frank F. Furstenberg Jr., and Andrew Cherlin, Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).
9. Joseph P. Shapiro and Joannie M. Schrof, “Honor Thy Children,” US News and World Report, February 27, 1995, Academic Search Premier.
This article, originally posted on the Institute for Family Studies website, ifstudies.org, was adapted from Samuel T. Wilkinson’s forthcoming book, Purpose: What Evolution and Human Nature Imply About the Meaning of Our Existence. Dr. Wilkinson is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Yale University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Yale Depression Research Program. He received his MD from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. The Institute of Family Studies aims to strengthen marriage and family life and advance the wellbeing of children through research and education. The views and opinions expressed by guest writers outside of this blog do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Good Dads.