Do We Do What is Important in Life?

At some point in my life, maybe last Tuesday, I realized that what I, and others, want in life is sometimes very different than what we put our time and energy into. I suppose that I have mostly assumed that people do what they want—within the boundaries of external constraints and opportunities. So, if someone spends a lot of time at work, they main value is getting ahead in their career and maybe providing for others, and if someone else spends a lot of time with their children, their main value is how they raise their children.

There are certainly people that I know whose lives are well integrated in that they know what they want and they put their life into it. But I also know of people whose actions and efforts seem, well, unrelated to what they profess as their values. This could be interpreted as their actions reflecting what they really value, but it could also be just a general sense of inefficacy in this aspect of life—that they never learned or otherwise figured out how to focus long-term on what is most important.

Still others seem to have an inverse relationship between what they want in life and what they do. The more they want something, the more they veer away from it. This could represent anxiety and fear. Important things are scary and taking them on requires self-confidence and often some level of external security.

So, since I like to make figures and tables, we can envision the relationship between effort and value as something along the lines of the following:

Now, I have spoken about it as if there are three different types of people, put really I think that each of us probably has elements of all three models in our lives. In my life, there are some areas where I’m pretty good about putting myself into what matters, but there are other areas in which I’m not and still others that I pretty much ignore because they are important. A good example of the latter is a letter that I have been wanting to write to a funding agency asking for money. I’ve been talking about it for about a year, and it will take me an hour max, and it’s potentially much more important than a lot of other things that I do, but I haven’t/ won’t make the time to do it.

In recent years, I’ve tried to pay more attention to the alignment between how I spend my day and what is really important to me, and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve needed to change and still need to change. I’ve also realized that, as a parent, I need actively to train my children in how to pursue what is important.

How about you?

Part 2: More Info about the Study on Adult Children of Parents who have Same-Sex Relationships

Part 2 in a series on the New Family Structures Study I conducted.

Just a few links, as well as the answer to some common criticisms of the study…

The study itself is free and publicly available, beginning today, at this site, together with another study on the matter by Loren Marks (LSU professor), and three comments on the studies, including one by Paul Amato, Penn State sociologist and current president of the National Council on Family Relations.

My short summary piece on the study is up at, here, as is William Saletan’s take.

In response to a common criticism about the fact that there are few respondents who reported growing up in stably-coupled lesbian families, I had this to say:

“One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–a limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses. If randomness wasn’t the key priority, then we could’ve done it. And we’d have had a nonrandom sample that was no better than anything before it. So, while critics are taking potshots, they should remember that there’s a (low) ceiling to what’s possible here. My team of consultants elected to go with the screener questions (including the one about same-sex relationships) that we did, anticipating–accurately, too–that there would be no way of generating ample sample size if we narrowed the criteria (for who counts as a lesbian parent) to the sort that critics are calling for. We figured that, with the household roster/calendar offering the opportunity to identify who you lived with, we’d comfortably get enough cases wherein the respondent reported living with mom and her partner for many consecutive years. But few did.”

Q & A with Mark Regnerus about the background of his new study

Part 1 in a series on the New Family Structures Study I conducted.

Figured it was worth answering some basic background questions about the new study, me, etc., given all the hubbub it’s receiving.

Q: Why did you undertake the study about adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships?

A: Two reasons. First, because I thought I could pull together a diverse group of people to figure out how best to test the “no differences” hypothesis. And second, because it’s an interesting research question, and I don’t mind navigating controversy a bit. I’m at a point in my career where I’m less concerned about making my professional peers happy and more about studying interesting things. In particular, the “no differences” hypothesis seemed quirky to me. I wondered if it was really true.

Q: You realize the Witherspoon Institute is a pretty conservative organization, politically.

A: Yes. And the Ford Foundation is a pretty liberal one. Every academic study is paid for by someone. I’ve seen excellent studies funded by all sorts of interest groups. I don’t waste too much time worrying about the sources of funding, so long as the research questions are compelling and the data collection methods solid. Funding is hard to get these days. Witherspoon had nothing to do with the study design, or with the data analyses, or interpretations, or the publication of the study. To me, I treated it the same as if the funding came from NICHD or NSF.

Q: So why didn’t you go to NICHD or NSF for funding?

A: For two reasons. First, because in informal conversation about it, Witherspoon expressed openness to funding it. I was between book projects and it sounded like
an interesting thing to pursue. I informed Witherspoon that if I were to run the study, I would report the results, whatever they may be. And honestly my bet was that it would be a far more mixed set of results, with many null findings. Second, I actually don’t think a study like this would fly at NICHD or NSF. In the wider social science community, the matter of “no differences” is considered either settled or too politicized. Of course, why it would be considered settled is beyond me. What issues get settled in a decade?

Q: Have other studies used the same methodological approach you did?

A: Most have not, as I elaborate in the literature review section of the study. That’s what’s unique about this study. Only Michael Rosenfeld’s 2010 article in Demography utilized a large population-based sample to compare one outcome among same-sex and other types of households. Others have worked with existing population-based samples, but rather small ones. But apart from Rosenfeld’s study, this is the largest nationally-representative sample of same-sex households, and I looked at 40 different outcomes, not just one or two.

Q: Why did you use Knowledge Networks as the firm to carry out the data collection?

A: I investigated several firms’ ability to collect random data from small populations, and their reputation and track record in academic research kept popping up. The fact that they actively maintain a large random panel of respondents was a big plus. Other family scholars have used them. Major data collection projects—funded by federal agencies, private entities, and even condom manufacturers—have used them. They’re very good.

Q: I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “correlation does not equal causation.” Is that the case here?

A: For sure. This is an overview piece that explores statistical associations, and explores what happens when I control for a variety of other variables. But an assessment of causation is not possible here. I explored a likely suspect—household instability—but apart from longitudinal data, I’d be in a tough spot to claim causation.

Q: So besides the results, what makes this study any different from previous ones?

A: In a nutshell, it’s primarily the sampling strategy, the sample size, and method variance: we employed a random, population-based sample, and a large one at that, so people can generalize to the broader population of young adults in America. And we talked to independent adults, not to parents or kids still in the home. Nobody did that before.

Q: Is there a political take-home message in the study?

A: No. As I stated in the article, “this study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships…”

Q: Come on. You can’t surmise what people will make of this study politically?

A: You know, I don’t think it easily lends itself to one particular answer to any of the politicized questions that are circulating about gay marriage, or parental rights, etc. What it comprises is significant, new, high-quality information on the long reach of household structure in the lives of American young people. And more information is always a plus, I would think.

Q: Some might say this study reveals evidence that gay and lesbian parents would benefit from access to the relative security of marriage. What are your thoughts on that?

A: It’s possible. How gay marriages would function for children is an empirical question, but it’s only answerable in the future, after ample numbers of cases have accrued, after considerable time has expired, and when the respondents are old enough to speak and reflect about it, as the respondents in my study have.

Q: What did you think of President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage?

A: I’m a researcher. It doesn’t alter how I approach the academic study of sexual behavior or family formation.

Q: From a Google search of your previous work, it appears that you’ve talked with a variety of religious groups. Are you personally religious, and if so doesn’t that compromise this study?

A: I’m Catholic, for the record, and politically haven’t yet voted for a Republican presidential candidate. Religious organizations have historically been interested in the sorts of subject matter I’ve studied. But there’s no “Christian” approach to sampling or “Catholic” way of crunching numbers. Any trained methodologist, data manager, and statistician can locate the same patterns I reported. Others may ask different questions, or follow different decision rules on measures. But that’s normal science.

Q: So are gay parents worse than traditional parents?

A: The study is not about parenting per se. There are no doubt excellent gay parents and terrible straight parents. The study is, among other things, about outcome differences between young adults raised in households in which a parent had a same-sex relationship and those raised by their own parents in intact families. It’s not about sexual orientation, at least not overtly. There are many significant differences, but the study does not ascribe any causes for the differences. This can only be assessed with additional research. What is evident in the data, however, is above-average instability among households in which mom or dad had a same-sex relationship. For example, among the former only two respondents total said they lived with their mother and her partner nonstop from birth to age 18. Two more said they did so for 15 years, and two more for 13 years. To be sure, these 10 fared better on more outcomes than did their less-stable peers. They’re just uncommon, and too small a group to detect statistically-significant differences, for sure. Future studies would ideally include more children from “planned” gay or lesbian families, but their relative scarcity in the NFSS data suggests that their appearance in even much larger probability samples may remain infrequent for the foreseeable future.

Q: Will you conduct more research on this subject?

A: There will not be additional data collection efforts with the NFSS. While I am working on several studies using the data, I intend to return to the study of heterosexual behavior soon.

Tracing Your Ancestry? Thank a Mormon!

Work in the summer continues and while the emphasis is on getting research papers written, I still keep an eye out for good “edu-tainment” pieces that might be useful in the classroom. One of the ones I have been trying out has been the genealogy series’ that have been shown on two networks: NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’s Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots. I admit that while the NBC one is probably well produced, I am much more hooked by Gates’ series. It’s probably because the recent episode included two Asian American celebrities who are children of immigrants, comedienne Margaret Cho and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The series did a great job at reminding viewers that very often new immigrants arrive in America with lives full of tragedy that they will never speak of, not even to their own children.

Finding Your Roots: Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta

In Margaret Cho’s story, she never heard her father explain why their family left North Korea. As it turns out Margaret’s father’s father was branded a traitor for doing his job under the service of the Japanese flag in the early 20th century when they occupied all of Korea. For some Korean men like Margaret’s father, that’s a kind of family shame he won’t speak of, and didn’t, not to his own daughter even in her 40s.

For Sanjay Gupta, his mother experienced terrible loss as India was partitioned creating the new country of Pakistan in 1947. I was captivated by the map video that traced the path she and her family took from her home city, across the coastline, through the interior of India. She would not see her homeland again. And over 1 million people were killed in the partitioning.

In Cho’s case there was another remarkable dimension, the work of Mormon genealogists. As Gates explains, Mormons collect all manner of data that helps track down the ancestry of anyone who wants to baptize their families retroactively. Given the importance of baptism in the Mormon tradition, they take the work of ancestry documentation very seriously. As it turns out, there are records called (in Korean) “jokbo” which is basically a family record that apparently can be traced back to some prime individual (usually male I believe). The Mormon genealogy center has a microfilm copy of Cho’s jokbo! Apparently her family starts in the 1200s as was seen in the jokbo documentation (written in Chinese as is the Korean tradition).

For Gupta, his father’s lineage was still intact but this time it was held through a combination of oral history (his father visited the village that still has elders who remembered his father or Sanjay’s grandfather), and written documentation held on immensely long strips of paper material stored in a collection held by two brothers in their house (or a structure that doesn’t look fitting for preserving this kind of paper). It struck me how delicate these histories are held by living memory and preserved under conditions that could easily be subject to natural disaster or social disorder. Imagine if the Mormons can make a copy of this and store it in their archives.

So if you wind up searching for your roots, you may want to send a thank-you to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who are fervently working at preserving a wealth of data that can give us a sense of rootedness and meaning that is irreplaceable.

The Opportunity Cost of Cannibalism, A Reflection on Aging

For reasons that I don’t fully understand, I seem to be getting older every year; in fact, if memory serves, I have yet another birthday coming in the next twelve months. Part of aging for me, and I suppose everyone else, involves reflecting on how I’m changing with age. Of course there are the usual things—knee pain, graying hair, and the accumulation of millions of dollars, but in addition, my prioritization in day-to-day life is changing.

Specifically, I’m becoming more aware of the opportunity costs of what I think and do. Opportunity costs, as I understand them, regard what you are not able to do when you chose a course of action. For example, if a student goes to the bar on a Friday night then on of the opportunity costs is that they are not spending the time studying.

I’ve known the concept of opportunity costs since Econ 1A back in college, but how I’m becoming much more aware of it. As I approach my fiftieth birthday in October (gift registry information to come), somewhere deep inside of me a little voice is letting me know that I have a limited number of work days and evenings and sunny weekends left, so I should probably be careful about how I use them.

My heightened awareness of these costs comes through at different times. Earlier this week, during a summer school class, a student mentioned a recent murder case in which the assailant apparently started to bite into the victim (the “zombie killer”?—don’t care enough to look it up), and several other students excitedly chimed in with what they knew or thought about the case. My first reaction was something along the lines of, “that’s gross,” but my second reaction was thinking what a waste of brain space for anyone to think about, and yet it makes national news. Should we spend our time thinking about such a deed when there are things of beauty or need or promise in their own lives?

Over the past 5-7 years, I have cut back on my television watching such that now we don’t get regular stations (available here only by cable), and I watch maybe two or three episodes or movies a month, with the family, on Netflix. This simple action has freed up much mental and emotional space for things in life that I value more than participating in a rousing discussion of what happened on last night’s reality television show. When I do watch regular television, I’m come away wishing that I had that time back, but, even more so, surprised by how much time I spend thinking about it for the next day or two.

Basically, with age I am starting to be clearer in recognizing and enacting my priorities in life. Perhaps this is analogous to how I handle money. When I’m on a trip or am in some other situation where I have an initial sum of money to last me for a specified period of time, I am more of a spendthrift at the start—thinking that I have plenty—than at the end, when I’m much more careful in how I spend. So, my spending priorities sharpen as I have less money. Maybe same happens with life expectancy?

This probably underlies the transformative power of near-death experiences, where people realize that their days are numbered, so they had better get to what they want now before it’s too late. A friend of my extended family had a grave illness in his teens, and when he survived it against the odds, he decided that it was time to be a cowboy like he had always wanted to be. So, upon graduation, he moved from the East Coast out to Montana and set up shop as a rancher, a life situation that he enjoyed for several decades.

The irony, of course, is that we all have a limited number of days, it’s just our awareness of them that changes. I wish that I could have had a firmer grasp of this when I was younger, but maybe that’s not the nature of youth. Still, I’m glad that I’m getting it now while my knees can still get me around.