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Psychology studies aim to capture real-life snapshots of our changing mentalities

Nowadays, at the start of the 21st century, the family is an inescapable crucible of social change. It was no surprise then to find this subject at the heart of several presentations at the 15th Conference of the Swiss Psychological Society, held on 4–5 September 2017 at the University of Lausanne. During the event, the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES made a large number of submissions focusing on the quality of relationships, wellbeing and modern family norms.

Views and attitudes relating to the family have changed at breakneck speed in recent years, and this subject is naturally of interest to research in all kinds of fields within the social sciences. This is all the more true for psychology, which has always prioritised the study of family relationships. Thus as ever, the structure of the family was a prominent subject among the many debated this year at the Conference of the Swiss Psychological Society. What was striking, however, was how often the subject of change arose.

On the first day, the public conference held by Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, referred to the many fears triggered by both the transformations of family structures and new methods of conceiving children. Drawing on a large number of studies conducted with atypical families or families where assisted reproduction played a role, she showed that the psychological wellbeing of children is not linked to parental type or the way the children were conceived, but to the quality of their family relationships.

In all scenarios, whether they involve same-sex parents, single-parent families or individuals with children conceived via assisted reproduction, the scientific findings of Susan Golombok contradicted the fears voiced by proponents of the traditional family unit. Her conference, sponsored by NCCR LIVES and the University of Lausanne's Science-Society Interface, discussed many examples included in her best-selling book published in 2015: Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms.

Members of NCCR LIVES presented 23 papers during the conference, which was attended by more than 250 researchers. Twelve of these papers were based on data gathered as part of specific projects conducted by the Centre (IP201, IP207, IP212, IP213). In addition to issues related to the world of work and ageing, the subject of the family was particularly well covered, with several female researchers seeking to better understand various aspects of the way family structures are evolving.

Progress on gender equality – but what about in Switzerland?

Professor Clémentine Rossier, a family demographer at the University of Geneva and leader of NCCR LIVES IP208, presented research conducted with Juliette Fioretta on the wellbeing of couples with children who adopt progressive attitudes and practices towards questions of gender.

Their study compared five countries – Germany, Belgium, France, Sweden and Switzerland – demonstrating that couples with the most egalitarian opinions have much better indicators of wellbeing, irrespective of country. One factor that explains this result is that couples who aspire to more progressive gender-based ideals also occupy a more privileged position in society. When gender equality was examined in practice – here observing couples where both partners work on a full-time basis – quite the same results emerged: couples where both partners were in full-time work generally had better wellbeing indicators.

Of the five countries studied, Switzerland was the only country where working couples with both partners in full-time work experienced greater financial and health-related difficulties than couples where the female partner did not work or worked on a part-time basis. Unlike in the other countries, women working full-time in Switzerland seem to be obliged to do so for financial reasons – to the detriment of their wellbeing – in a context which does very little to promote a balance between work and family life. Women from more privileged backgrounds, who gain an advantage from full-time work in other countries, opt heavily for part-time work in Switzerland because of a lack of appropriate childcare facilities.

This observation is confirmed by the fact that Switzerland also has the largest proportion of fathers who have reduced their working hours in order to look after their children (9%). The researchers concluded from these findings that "what is at the root of the problem in Switzerland, therefore, is the ability to juggle a career and family life, and not gender equality in terms of representation or other practices."

Individual views and social norms

This same finding – of changing mentalities not yet entirely reflected in real life – was also found in the highly promising and original study presented by Léïla Eisner, an NCCR LIVES doctoral student at the University of Lausanne under the direction of Professor Dario Spini. Following a survey of 1,105 people from all social backgrounds in various areas of the canton of Vaud, Eisner, a young social psychology researcher, studied the respondents' views on working mothers and same-sex parents, as well as their perceptions of what other people think of these same questions.

In relation to working mothers, her results revealed somewhat neutral views, with the least favourable attitudes expressed by the oldest and least qualified respondents. An analysis of the differences between personal views and the perceived norm showed very small disparities: in other words, few people believe their stance to be dramatically different from the feelings of the rest of society. This would tend to indicate that a woman's right to a career is now less and less disputed and is becoming more widely accepted as normal practice.

Progressive views on same-sex parents

However, in relation to views and perceived norms on the subject of same-sex parents, Léïla Eisner's analyses illustrate large gulfs between personal opinions and the picture the respondents had of the views of other people. Only 40% of those questioned said they were personally opposed to the idea of families with same-sex parents, but nearly double this figure thought most people were against the idea. A further significant point is that those respondents most hostile to the notion of gay or lesbian parents believed that society as a whole shared their view, whereas the opinions of individuals are in reality much more progressive, demonstrating that the opposite is true.

Yet those people who were least opposed to the right of same-sex couples to raise children believed they accounted for a small minority of public opinion on the matter whereas in reality, many more people actually agree with them than they realise. Closer examination of this avant-garde group of people, who feel at odds with the direction of society despite being quite representative of it, demonstrates that women, young people, those with left-leaning political views and the least religious are very strongly represented. But men, older respondents, and individuals with political views on the right or with strong religious beliefs are less likely to differentiate between their own opinion and that of other people, believing that it is a majority view when it actually seems to be a perspective in decline.

Emotional bonds first and foremost

Transformations affecting the family were also the focus of other presentations. Examples included the work of Professor Daniela Jopp and her team on relationships between grown up children and their very elderly parents, a phenomenon that longer life expectancies allow us to observe, and the presentation of Jeanette Brodbeck, a psychologist at the University of Bern and member of NCCR LIVES IP212. Brodbeck's team spent six years studying how individuals come to terms with the loss of a partner following a bereavement or divorce during the second half of their lives. The paper presented to the Conference showed that former partners who maintain friendly relations display far fewer symptoms of depression and are more satisfied with life, irrespective of their new relationship situation, socio-economic status and their personality.

This optimistic finding in the face of rising divorce rates echoes another result presented to the Conference by Shagini Udayar, a very young researcher and member of IP207, a project devoted to career paths. Her research, conducted under the direction of Professor Jérôme Rossier, demonstrates that people who say they feel supported by those around them gradually become more extrovert, agreable and conscientious, findings which were illustrated by the measurements taken in year four of the study. Society and family structures may have evolved, but emotional bonds remain our single most important resource.

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