The researchers suspected that overestimating risk reflects moral convictions about proper parenting. To separate the two instincts, they created a series of surveys asking participants to rate the danger to children left alone in five specific circumstances: a 2 1/2 -year-old at home for 20 minutes eating a snack and watching “Frozen,” for instance, or a 6-year-old in a park about a mile from her house for 25 minutes. The reasons for the parent’s absence were varied randomly. It could be unintentional, for work, to volunteer for charity, to relax or to meet an illicit lover.
Because the child’s situation was exactly the same in all the intentional cases, the risks should also be identical. (Asked what the dangers might be, participants listed the same ones in all circumstances, with a stranger harming the child the most common, followed by an accident.) The unintentional case might be slightly more dangerous, because parents wouldn’t have a chance to make provisions for their absence such as giving the child a phone and emergency instructions or parking the car in the shade.
But survey respondents didn’t see things this way at all. “A mother’s unintentional absence was seen as safer for the child than a mother’s intentional absence for any reason, and a mother’s work-related absence was seen as more dangerous than an unintentional absence, but less dangerous than if the mother left to pursue an illicit sexual affair,” they write. The same was true for fathers, except that respondents rated leaving for work as posing no greater danger than leaving unintentionally. Moral disapproval informed beliefs about risks…
“People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” the researchers write. “They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.”
This reminds me of the trolley problem. While it doesn’t deal with risk, it hints at how morality is involved in assessing situations. Good parenting today includes avoiding intentional absences (and even these can be ranked). Leaving a child for unintentional reasons is not so bad. Both are of equal risk – just as saving five lives in the trolley problem regardless of how it is accomplished – but not viewed the same.
Generally, we have difficulty these days estimating risk. Are we more in danger from a possible terrorist attack (limited risk) or getting into a car (one of the riskiest daily behaviors)? We don’t always assess situations rationally nor do we have all the information at our fingertips. I don’t know that the answer is to suggest we should be more rational all the time: this is difficult to do and may not even be desirable. In this particular case, it might be more prudent to explore where these ideas of morality come from and then work to alter those. Alas, this is also likely a lengthy task.