Long Term Effects of Childhood Family Structure on Interpersonal Trust

Katya Ivanova, University of Amsterdam
Matthijs Kalmijn, University of Amsterdam

Interpersonal trust, or individuals’ beliefs about how reliable others are, is an important predictor of a range of individual outcomes such as life satisfaction, educational performance, and health. Here, we build upon the limited number of studies which have examined how interpersonal trust is affected by parental life-course transitions such as divorce (e.g., Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990; King 2002; Viitanen, 2011). Our contribution is a significant step forward, as our unique data (OKiN or Parents and Children in the Netherlands; Kalmijn, Ivanova, van Gaalen, de Leeuw, van Houdt, & van Spijker, 2017) allow us to capture much better the diversity which modern family complexity entails such as living continuously with a single parent, parental union dissolution and re-partnering (without an explicit focus on marital unions but rather, also examining the formation and breakdown of cohabitations), and living with a stepparent. Our data allow us to test three competing ideas about the link between family structure and adult trust: (a) The role of nonintact families (e.g., experiencing father absence), (b) The role of instability (e.g., divorce, re-partnering, unmarried cohabitation), and (c) Direct transmission (dis)trust (e.g., spurious effects due to the intergenerational transmission of trust). Our preliminary findings are showing a clear link between the experience of living in a non-traditional family and offspring’s lower levels of interpersonal trust in adulthood. These results hold even after controlling for important individual-level predictors of trust such as income and educational level.

Title: Long term effects of childhoodfamily structure on interpersonal trust

Extendedabstract (759 words): Interpersonal trust, orindividuals’ beliefs about how reliable others are (Hardin, 2001), is animportant predictor of a range of individual outcomes (life satisfaction; Alvarez-Díaz,González, & Radcliff, 2010; educational performance, John, 2005; health, Fujiwara& Kawachi, 2008). Few authors have linked changes and differences in trustto demographic trends like increasing divorce and rising cohabitation. A fewstudies have examined exclusively the impact of parental divorce on children’slevel trust (e.g., Franklin, Janoff-Bulman, & Roberts, 1990; King 2002;Viitanen, 2011), often focusing on trust in intimate partners or parents. Theargument put forward by these authors is grounded in Bowlby’s (1979) attachmenttheory, hypothesizing that the dissolution of the marital union impactsparent-child ties, as well as, children’s learning through socialization of the(lack of) permanence of interpersonal relationships. Our contribution is asignificant step forward, as our unique data allow us to capture much betterthe diversity which modern family complexity entails such as livingcontinuously with a single parent, parental union dissolution and repartnering(without an explicit focus on marital unions but rather, also examining theformation and breakdown of cohabitations), and living with a stepparent. Ourdata allow us to test three competing ideas about the link between familystructure and adult trust: (a) The role of nonintact families (e.g.,experiencing father absence), (b) The role of instability (e.g., divorce,repartnering, unmarried cohabitation), and (c) Direct transmission (dis)trust (e.g.,spurious effects due to the intergenerational transmission of trust).

Weutilize a new unique, multi-actor Dutch survey (OKiN or Parents and Childrenin the Netherlands; for more information, see Kalmijn, Ivanova, van Gaalen,de Leeuw, van Houdt, & van Spijker, 2017). The data are characterized bythe systematic oversampling of individuals who grew up in non-traditionalfamilies (of the participants, 68.4% were not registered as living with both oftheir biological parents at the age of 15). We utilize the sample of primaryrespondents (N = 6,485) who were between the ages of 25 and 45 at thetime of the interview. We are able to distinguish between four groups: 1) thosewho lived with both of their biological parents throughout youth (i.e., frombirth till age 18); 2) those whose parents divorced during the respondent’syouth; 3) those who experienced a parental death in youth; and 4) those wholived with only one biological parent in the year after birth. Though thepreliminary analysis displayed in this extended abstract focus only on this classification,in our subsequent analyses, we will also be able to account for parental repartneringand possible coresidence with stepparents, as well as, for the precise timingof these events. This additional information will allow us to construct a muchfiner indicator of family complexity than the previously used dichotomousdistinction between “parents divorced” and “parents not divorced”. Ourdependent variable is the self-reported level of interpersonal trust which wasassessed based on the respondents’ agreement with five statements. Three itemsreferred to the category of generalized “others” (“Most people can be trusted”,“If you help others, you mostly get disappointed”, and “It is risky to open upto others”, a = .69)and two were more specifically directed to trust in close relationships (“In arelationship, I find it difficult to trust my partner” and “In relationships, Ioften doubt that things will continue working out well.”, r = .60). Theitems were rated on a scale from 1 = strongly agree to 5 = stronglydisagree and the items were recoded so that ahigher value on the final scale denotes higher levels of trust (Moveralltrust = 3.50 (SD = 0.70), Mstrong ties = 3.58 (SD= 0.95), Mweak ties = 3.44 (SD = 0.72)). Table 1provied descriptive information about our dependent variable. Another uniquefeature of our data is that we also have the self-reported by the biologicalparents information on their own level of interpersonal trust, which allows usto explore the possibility of intergenerational transmission of (dis)trust.

Whatwe can currently suggest, based on our first exploratory analyses (see Table 2),is that the experience of living in a non-traditional family is clearlyassociated with offspring’s lower levels of interpersonal trust. These resultshold even after controlling for important individual-level predictors of trustsuch as income and educational level. Currently, we see the most pronouncedeffect for those who were born to a single-parent. In our subsequent analyses,we will investigate this finding further by taking into account the potential “accumulation”of union formation and dissolution events which the respondents might have witnessedin youth.

 



Presented in Session 1140: Life Course