Parents are supposed to love all their children equally – but subconsciously, they may be biased, a new study suggests.
Women really do prefer daughters, and men (slightly) prefer sons, according to new research from Finnish and American scientists.
Women were significantly more likely to see girls as ‘good’ and invest more money in them, while men showed a slight preference for sons.
And their findings may show the ripple effects of social changes that are – subconsciously – leading parents to prefer their daughters over sons.
Measuring people’s honest preferences accurately is notoriously difficult, but the latest study is part of a growing body or research that uses cleverly constructed tests to reveal real feelings – and suggesting that girls are gaining ground.
‘People can talk about their preferences, but they don’t always know and they may be lying to themselves,’ says lead study author, Dr Robert Lynch of the University of Turku in Finland.
‘They say one thing and act differently, and a lot of research on this topic shows that in a lot of cultures they “we really prefer our sons,” but they do the opposite, and [act as though] they prefer their daughters.’
So Dr Lynch and his team asked 347 women and 423 men about their (explicit) preference for a male or female child, and used a simple test to gauged their subconscious, or implicit, preferences.
In the test, they showed a series of rapid-fire images of baby girls and boys to the participants, and asked to categorize them with subtly positive or negative adjectives.
When asked outright, women had a fairly clear preference for daughters, while men had a slight preference for sons.
In the rapid-fire picture test, ‘you categorize “girl” and “little girl” and “baby girls” with “good” way faster than you categorize pictures of baby boys with good words,’ says Dr Lynch.
‘Women really do [have a preference for daughters], and men sort of do [for sons].’
This was not at all what the research team – comprised of Dr Lynch, as well as his colleagues at Arizona State University University and Rutgers University (which provided funding for the work) – expected to find.
In fact, it wasn’t even the bias they were looking for. The scientists were trying to measure whether Trivers–Willard hypothesis was true.
That theory states that wealthier parents will prefer sons, while poorer families will prefer daughters.
‘But we didn’t find any of that,’ says Dr Lynch.
Though his study did not ask people to explain their preferences, he suspects that a number of social and cultural shifts have tilted the bias scales toward girls.
‘Girls are, first of all, more valuable,’ Dr Lynch says.
‘They are doing better in schools, especially in countries like the US where many opportunities for girls have really increased.’
Participants in his study were also more willing to invest money in charities that supported girls and women – overwhelmingly so for female participants.
Some theories suggest that people inherently invest more of their time in a child of the same sex because that time is more ‘efficiently’ spent.
Dr Lynch, who has two sons and one daughter, says: ‘If I invest one hour in my daughter Phoebe or in my son, William, I’m more familiar with the things that boys need to know, to what’s more helpful to being a guy.
‘So that hour is better spent with my son. And the opposite is true of my wife.’
That has changed to some extent, though, as women have gained more access to and acceptance in more traditionally ‘masculine’ activities.
‘Fathers may be able to connect with them through things like increased participation in sports,’ says Dr Lynch.
‘I can play soccer with my daughter, where I don’t know if that would’ve been true 50 years ago.’
That expansion hasn’t seemed to happen symmetrically for activities that boys and their mothers can share.
Such parent biases may not cause any significant harms to children in two-parent homes.
But it may meant that children of single parents are ‘missing out,’ and that’s disproportionately true for sons of single mothers.
‘If you don’t have both your mom and your dad, it could be quite costly, especially for boys who are growing up without dads,’ Dr Lynch says.
‘We see it in social mobility studies: poor boys are just far less mobile, especially poor, black boys in the US are far less socially mobile than poor black girls, and its a potential effect of single parenting.’
This may be particularly important given that more than 80 percent of single parents are mothers and black women are twice as likely to be raising their kids alone as white women are.
‘You could maybe correct for that bias, though,’ says Dr Lynch, though he declined to offer advice on how to do so.
‘If you’re a single parent, though, I think you have a moral responsibility to be aware of it.’