Social Science Bites

Alison Gopnik on Care

March 4, 2024 1914

Caring helps makes us human. 

This is one of the strongest ideas one could infer from the work that developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik is discovering in her work on child development, cognitive economics and caregiving. 

As she explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, caring “is one of the things that’s most characteristically human. And one of the things that I think has been the greatest engine of our thriving and success and to the extent that we can scale it up beyond just these close relationships, to our relationships to the world in general, say, our relationships to the natural world or our relationships to people who are on the other side of the planet, or our relationships to non-human animals.” 

Gopnik, a distinguished professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Department of Psychology Graduate School and affiliate professor of philosophy at Berkeley, reviews several aspects of “care” in the interview, including a comparison of paid and unpaid caregiving, how to square the existence of care with some understandings of evolutionary biology, and how caring is good not just for the cared-for but for the carer. 

Her work on caring is the focus of a three-year-old multi-disciplinary project, The Social Science of Caregiving, based at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford and operating .in collaboration with research at Gopnik’s UC Berkeley lab, the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab. 

Gopnik writes widely on psychological research for both academic and general audiences, such as through books like 2016’s The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children and 2009’s The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life or through the Mind and Matter column she pens for the Wall Street Journal

Last year, the Cognitive Science Society awarded Gopnik the David Rumelhart Prize in Cognitive Science. A fellow of the Cognitive Science Society, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click this link and save. The transcript of the conversation appears below.


David Edmonds: Academics should care a bit more about care. That’s the view of renowned psychologist Alison Gopnik. Caring for children, caring for elderly parents, this can take up a fair chunk of our time. It’s exhausting. It’s also fulfilling. But given how central it is the most of our lives, it’s strange that care has received so little scholarly attention. Alison Gopnik, welcome to Social Science Bites.  

Alison Gopnik: Glad to be here.  

Edmonds: We’re talking today about care. What is care?  

Gopnik: Well, that’s a good question. It’s something that is incredibly important and deep for all of us. But it’s very odd from the perspective of most theories of economics and politics and philosophy and social science, because what happens in care is that someone who has more resources gives them away to try to help someone who has fewer resources. And they do that exactly because the other person has fewer resources. And they do it even though in some sense, especially, because the other person is not going to reciprocate. And that makes it something that’s really deep and important if you ask people. There’s a recent social psychology study that asked people what’s the most important thing in your life? What motivates you more than anything else? And sure enough, it turns out that what people say first is the way that I need to care for the people around me, 

Edmonds: When you use the term resources, that sounds like money, care means money, but presumably we’re talking about not just financial care, but activities, changing that piece, and so on. 

Gopnik: Right. It’s resources in the broadest sense. And in some important ways we give up our lives for the people that we care for. It isn’t just that we give them resources in the sense of giving them financial resources, or giving them chocolate chip cookies and tuna fish sandwiches, but we also give up our time.  

And one way that you could think about it is that when we care for people, their goals become our goals, or certainly we subordinate our goals to their goals, especially if you think about cases like a baby. It’s not just that we sort of are feeding the baby, because otherwise the baby will cry, and it will be irritating. The baby’s hunger, the baby’s need, is overwhelming to us, more so than our own need. And that’s true even in less dramatic cases where we have someone who depends on us and their needs, in some important sense become our needs. 

Edmonds: Should we draw a distinction between the paid and the unpaid sector because obviously, in the private sector and the public sector, there are people who are paid to be carers, and we call them carers, people who work in old age homes, people who work in hospitals, nurses and doctors. They’re carers of a kind. 

Gopnik: Yeah, they absolutely are. And one of the things that’s very interesting that we’ve been thinking about and working on is that care has both the sides. So there’s a side to it that is being served by markets and states, like all the other kinds of economic activities that we engage in. And there’s a very large group of people who are paid to care.  

But probably most of the work and care is actually not done in the context of that paid, priced economic system. It’s done by parents and children and older siblings and even close friends. It’s done in this kind of informal way. And one of the real challenges is what’s the relationship between that paid-to-care economy and that unpaid economy. And one idea that people have had, again, this kind of irony is that everyone feels as if care is incredibly important, but the people who actually do it are characteristically underpaid. So they’re almost always women, [and] very often in the United States, and I think in Britain as well, very often immigrants, very often not treated with great respect and certainly not paid very well. And there’s an interesting argument that in some ways, the non-economic benefits of care mean that the economic benefits are underpriced. So when you talk to people who are doing this care work, what they’ll say is, “Well, I do it because it’s really intrinsically satisfying. And it’s important and I care about those particular people.”  

The example that always strikes me as being particularly vivid and painful is when they were doing interviews with eldercare workers during COVID. Literally, these people were risking their lives going into nursing homes to take care of people with COVID. And they were not getting paid or particularly well treated in order to do this. And what they would say is, “Well, look, it’s Mr. Jones, right. I can’t just turn around and leave Mr. Jones to get sick. Of course, I have to take care of him.” There’s a really interesting interaction between these very spontaneous, unpaid relationships of care and motivations of care, and what happens in the paid professional carers, too. 

Edmonds: Is it fair to say that you’re more interested in the unpaid than the paid sector?  

Gopnik: Well, what I’m interested in is, what is it that makes care such a strong motivation outside of pay. And that’s true obviously in the unpaid sector. So it’s a real paradox from a kind of classical economic point of view. Why are people investing all this work doing all this time when they’re not apparently getting any reward for it? But it applies to the care economy in general and I think an idea that lots of people have had is part of the reason why there’s a sort of crisis of care, we feel as if there just isn’t enough of it and it’s not being done very well, is exactly because it’s in this strange zone between what we think of as being paid work and what we think of as being unpaid work. 

Edmonds: At least the paid work, talk about it being underpaid, but at least it’s captured by GDP figures, whereas the unpaid work that the mother or father was doing with the kids doesn’t show up at all in the stats. 

Gopnik: That’s right. I mean, it’s completely invisible and it’s invisible in the statistics and it’s, it’s invisible in the conversation in economics, or political science or philosophy for thousands of years. Even though it’s so fundamental and important to people, there just hasn’t been very much attention paid to it, it’s treated as if it’s off in that little private, domestic woman’s universe. And that has consequences. That’s part of the reason why we — especially in a large industrial economy — we don’t do a very good job of implementing it. Our usual way of solving problems is either we have some kind of market solution, or we have some kind of state solution. And neither market solutions nor state solutions seem to be the best way of solving problems of care, or at least not as they’re classically formulated.  

Edmonds: So let me ask you the most basic question, why do people care? It looks like with kids, at least, there might be a simple evolutionary explanation, we want our genes to survive. 

Gopnik: Yeah, so I think there’s at least a potential evolutionary story about this, that’s very interesting, which is, it seems like the behaviors and the neuroscience and the activities of care start out with mammalian mothers, and for mammalian mothers, for mouse mothers, there’s a perfectly straightforward evolutionary explanation of it. But it’s still kind of paradoxical, right? I mean, if you think about it, it’s remarkable. Any mammalian mother is literally giving up calories that could be feeding her as an organism and giving them to another organism. That’s a very unusual thing to do and we can think of an evolutionary story about how it happens in mammalian mothers, because babies need to mature for longer and in order for them to survive, you need to provide them with resources.  

But the story is, once you get the cognitive and the neural and hormonal apparatus available to be able to do that — so now we know something about the kinds of genes that are activated in mammalian mothers, the kind of hormones like oxytocin that are involved in this care — then that can get used in other contexts. So we know, for example, that pair bonding, which is extremely unusual among mammals, so when fathers are caring for babies, and also caring for their spouses, when that starts, you see it in animals, like some species evolves, it sort of takes that same hormones, takes the same brain activation patterns, takes the same behavior. But now, instead of the mother doing it for the baby, it’s the mate doing it for the other mate. So now you get a different kind of context now, but you get the same kind of behaviors and you even get the same neurological underpinnings. And there’s various kinds of evolutionary explanations you could have about why that’s a good thing and beneficial for that species.  

Then what happens is, as species get more and more complex, it turns out that this mechanism can be used for all sorts of other kinds of altruism and cooperation. So if you’re talking about wolves, for example, or carnivores, who have very complicated social structures, now it can be a way of putting together the members of the group. And by the time you get to humans, it’s something that’s so abstract, that we can think about caring for the dead, or we could think about a God that cares for all humans, or we could think about being a bodhisattva, that cares for all sentient beings. And it’s kind of completely gotten divorced now from the mammalian babies who have to continue to exist, but it’s real, right? And it gives us a way of thinking about other people and organisms that lets us thrive, that lets us do things that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. 

Edmonds: Caring for the dead doesn’t sound like it has an evolutionary explanation, but you’re saying that it does, that somehow, it feeds into success for individuals and groups in some weird way?  

Gopnik: Well, I think it’s more like a kind of case of what biologists call something being abstracted. So it starts out being about evolutionary success, but I think what happens is that then, and this is true about humans all the time, then we can take this abstract structure and apply it in cases where it wouldn’t necessarily be directly related to reproductive success.  

More broadly, I think one of the things that’s really interesting about care is it has this quality of operating over long timescales. We care for babies and we grow up and then we become elders and then we care for elders. And not only that, but we care for our ancestors, the people who came before us, and we care for and care about people who are to come, even though there’s no possible way in which we could have reciprocal relationships either with our ancestors or with our descendants. That’s a very distinctively human characteristic that we have this sense of our lives extending over time, not only over our particular lifespan, but extending over cultural time. And I think that our impulse to care is very closely connected to that aspect of what we’re like as humans. 

Edmonds: So care for the elderly, how would that fit into the system you’ve just been explaining? Because, again, that doesn’t look like it’s got a straightforward evolutionary explanation unless you think that it’s very useful having wise elders populating the planet. 

Gopnik: Yeah, it’s fascinating, because one of the things that we know about humans is that we have a much longer childhood than any of our close primate relatives, an exceptionally long childhood and an exceptionally long, immature, needy childhood. And we have many more people who are invested in caring for children than other species do. But we also, in parallel, have this long period of elderhood. Famously, humans have postmenopausal grandmothers and that’s rather puzzling, like, why is it that we’re living for 20 years after we no longer are fertile? A common explanation for that is that those grandmothers and grandfathers, too, can pass on cultural information. And again, it’s part of this picture of humans as extending over time. We’re a uniquely cultural species and our relationship with the people who had information before us, and the people who are going to pass the information on to, is really important.  

So from that perspective, what you might think of as the kind of normal elders, the elders between, you know, 55, and 80, and people have been living till 80 for as long as there’s been people, not as many as live now, but there’s definitely people who are in that age range in forager cultures, and historically, in lots of cultures. Now, lots of people die before they get there but if you get there, then you can live until 80 and you can be prosperously living until about 80. Now, part of what’s happened now is that we have an extra 20 years that is the result of having modern medicine, and so forth, but the parts, it’s sort of 55 to 80, that just seems to be part of the human developmental trajectory.  

And that raises a really interesting question. We have some good evidence, I think that people in that kind of elderhood phase of life are just like children and have quite different motivations and different kinds of capacities than they do earlier on. There’s quite good evidence that as you get into that phase of life, you become more altruistic, you start caring more about other people, you care more about transmitting information to the next generation rather than trying to get goods for yourself. And the fact that there’s a group of people who have a lot of knowledge and information that they can pass on to the new generation, that’s another really important part of human success. So in that sense, caring for elders, at least caring for that group of elders, is a sensible thing for humans to do. 

Edmonds: They’ve had plenty of time to pass on that information over the past few decades. You’re saying they’ve only got the motivation to do so once they reach this phase of life, or maybe they’re passing on to their grandchildren? 

Gopnik: There’s really some really fascinating anthropological evidence about this. So Michael Gurvin, who’s an anthropologist at Santa Barbara, looked at hunting across many, many different kinds of groups and cultures. And hunting is really hard, you don’t really get to be expert at it until you’re in your mid-30s. And what he discovered was that there’s an interesting kind of paradox, which is that you need to have someone really teaching you to be able to be a good hunter, like these great hunters when you’re 35. But guess what? Actually having a bunch of little kids trailing after you when you’re hunting and trying to teach them is not a good way to be an effective hunter. And what he discovered was that if you looked across a lot of the cultures, the 35-year-olds who are both strong and knowledgeable and expert would go off by themselves, and they would get the biggest yields. And then the 50-year-olds who aren’t as strong anymore, who can’t, aren’t as capable, but who know more, and the 14-year-olds were going off and hunting together. So it was actually the elders who were passing on the information and the knowledge to the younger ones. I used to describe this by saying, “Oh, the 35-year-olds think so highly of themselves, they think they’re the whole center of the story, right? They’re out there, getting resources and finding mates and fighting off predators. And they really think they’re the center.” But really, when you think about it, the babies and children who are learning and the elders who are teaching, they’re the ones who are doing the really good, important human work.  

Now, with my own children being adult, I feel like oh, those poor 35-year-olds, the grandmothers and the kids get to do all the fun human stuff. And then they have to do all the stuff about actually going out and getting resources. But exactly because the typical adult is so involved in doing things like getting resources, they don’t have the spare capacity to pass on information. So the thought is that taking care of elders is valuable, because there’s this kind of tradeoff between their physical increasing fragility, but their knowledge and expertise. 

Edmonds: So it sounds like it could be very good news that societies across the world are aging.  

Gopnik: Well, it’s an interesting question. So I think the first reaction that people have had to it is it’s a terrible demographic problem. What are we going to do with all of these old people? But I think you could make the argument the other way around. What it means is that there’s many more people available to take care of young people who are very well designed to take care of young people. So there might actually be an advantage to thinking about children having all of their grandparents alive, for example, which is something that’s happening now that hasn’t happened before in human history.  

Edmonds: One of the things that’s happening in technology is that some of this care is now being subcontracted to robots. Is that a proper substitute for human-to-human care? 

Gopnik: I don’t think anyone really thinks it is and one of the curious things about AI is that robots are really terrible. Robots are still having a really hard time even doing things like picking things up and putting them somewhere else, let alone being in these kinds of close relationships of care. And one of the things that’s interesting about care is that it seems to take place in the context of these particular close relationships with other people. So robots, I don’t think are going to be able to even begin to replace that. On the other hand, there is a lot of physical work that’s involved in caring, especially say caring for elders and children. And you can imagine, just as you know, having dishwashers means that you can use bottles in a way that you couldn’t before. Having robots could mean that you could take care of some of that work, but I think it’s very unlikely that robots are actually going to be able to do the work of care. 

Edmonds: You’ve got this very striking phrase, let me read it to you. “We don’t care for others because we love them. We love them because we care for them.” That seems very counterintuitive to me. What’s the empirical evidence to back that up? 

Gopnik: Well, one thing is that, as I said, we humans have a much wider range of carers than any other species. So one of the things that we really know about people is that not just biological mothers, but fathers and grandparents and siblings and other members of the community, everyone can potentially be involved in caring for somebody else.  

And I think one of the practical challenges is that we don’t have very good ways of institutionalizing that care beyond say, just the care of parents, for children, or children for elderly parents. But there’s actually some interesting data about this. If you look at the brain activation patterns that you see, say classically in pregnant women after their babies are born, there’s some very distinctive hormonal and brain patterns that show up. And a lovely, kind of natural experiment, if you look at gay men who’ve adopted babies, you see exactly the same changes. So you see that gay men — this relatively new phenomenon of gay men who are raising babies together — you see the same kinds of brain changes for them just as a result of holding the baby and taking care of the baby. And you see something like this with fathers as well. It’s sort of more dramatic if you think about the case of the gay adoptive parents. But that’s a really nice vivid example of how the act of being engaged in and caring for someone else actually seems to change the way that you function in a way that leads you to feel the bond and affection and love for them.  

Edmonds: So far from seeing care as a burden, care is kind of good for us.  

Gopnik: Well, there’s this kind of funny paradox because in one sense, what we’re doing when we’re caring for other people is giving up our own goals, giving up our own resources, giving up what we want to do for the sake of the other person. And what makes it even more interesting and complicated is, it isn’t just that we’re trying to accomplish someone else’s goals, we’re trying to put them in a position where they can have new goals of their own. So what we’re trying to do, and this is part of what makes caring so cognitively, intellectually challenging, is that we have to figure out how do I have the person I’m caring for still be autonomous, still be able to do the things that they want, not the things that I want. And that’s a big challenge, both with caring for children, and with say, caring for the elderly, or caring for a student if you’re a teacher, or caring for a patient if you’re a therapist. It’s a kind of constant, distinctive feature of the way that care works.  

But on the other hand, it’s one of the things that’s most characteristically human. And one of the things that I think has been the greatest engine of our thriving and success and to the extent that we can scale it up beyond just these close relationships, to our relationships to the world in general, say, our relationships to the natural world or our relationships to people who are on the other side of the planet, or our relationships to non-human animals. Those are all things that seemed like obvious extensions of our moral world and often the way that people think about scaling up our moral sentiments, they think about it in the context of sort of a social contract. So I’m going to do something for you because you do something else for me and that’s true and thinking that way has genuinely scaled up our moral concern across the planet.  

But I think an idea that goes back to the philosopher Mengzi, that Confucian philosopher is that we could also think about how can we scale up those close relationships of care which are challenging but incredibly satisfying the thing that makes life meaningful? How can we scale those up to say, the scale of a planet? 

Edmonds: “Satisfying” — that’s an interesting word. So I was thinking of precisely that, the connection between being a carer and wellbeing. That is empirically grounded, is it? 

Gopnik: Yeah as I say, it’s a kind of interesting paradox. And it’s something that people have found in looking at the wellbeing literature about having children. If you sort of look moment by moment, it’s stressful and difficult and people will say, “Oh, no, I’ve had this really difficult day.” But if you ask people to look back and say what was meaningful and satisfying in your day, they’ll tell you something about their care, either for children or for elders. And there’s quite good empirical evidence that things like taking care of other people actually makes you feel better. You know, if you’re in a terrible state, you’re better off going and helping someone than you are even, you know, eating a piece of chocolate cake. And that, again, suggests that this is a very deep part of who we are.  

Edmonds: It seems to me, you’re more interested in the perspective of what it’s like to be a carer. But are there interesting questions also to be asked about what it’s like to be cared for? 

Gopnik: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question.  

We know from the developmental psychology literature, which is where I come from, has put a lot of emphasis on the degree to which having care is deeply important for children’s development. That rather remarkably, over the past 20 years or so, there’s a giant literature that shows that what are called “adverse childhood experiences,” which basically means not having care, end up having consistent and very long-term effects that were affecting, like, how likely you are to get cancer when you’re 50. So it’s clear that being cared for is really centrally important for children and I think centrally important for human beings in general.  

But we’ve only really started thinking about the other side, about the role that caring for other people plays for the people who are actually doing the caring. And part of what I’ve been thinking about recently is we have all sorts of good psychological accounts of how we understand other people’s minds, like the kind of theory of mind work that I’ve done, how we understand other social arrangements, how we know about who’s in our in group or not, we don’t know very much about what children or adults or anybody thinks about care, about how care works, about who’s an appropriate caregiver, about what the obligations and pains and joys of it actually are. 

Edmonds: So give me a research agenda for care. 

Gopnik: So what we’re actually doing at the moment, the first piece of it, is just very simple, is asking people questions like, “Suppose someone’s sitting in the park with mom, will that make the child more likely to explore or less likely to explore?” That’s a good example of something that you might imagine it would kind of go either way. But you might also think that one of the advantages of care is that it allows exploration so we can ask kids, what do you think? We can ask kids, “Here’s a list of people, a mom, or grandma or an older sibling, a friend. Which one of those is most likely to go and take care of someone when they’re in distress?” Part of what we’re doing is looking across cultures and different groups with different kinds of people to see if those answers might be different in different places and at different times. 

Edmonds: It’s extraordinary given how central care is to our lives that these questions haven’t been asked already.   

Gopnik: Isn’t it amazing? I think this is the most striking thing that we’ve all realized in this project. It’s an interdisciplinary project funded by the Sloan Foundation, is that even though if you just ask someone, “What’s the most important moral decision that you’ve ever had to make in your life?” Or, “What’s the thing that makes your life meaningful? What’s the thing that has the most significance to you?” People will talk about relationships, about care. But it’s pretty much invisible in the psychological and philosophical and political and economic literature. So in terms of moral psychology, for instance, people in moral psychology have talked about all these different kinds of moral relationships you could have. You could have relationships of harm, or you could have ideas about justice, or you could have ideas about exchange, and this very basic thing about why is it that I’m responsible for my elderly parent, even at cost to myself, is not in the list of the things that count is being basic pieces of moral psychology. And if you look at accounts of altruism, they’re all about, well, I might look as if I’m being altruistic, but really, it’s because in the long run, I’m going to expect something from you. And care just isn’t like that. So it’s, it’s at the same time, one of the most foundational things about us and about our lives, and the most paradoxical from the perspective of something like, like homo economicus, which is the way that we often think about how we make decisions and do things so it makes it a wonderful subject to investigate. 

Edmonds: Alison Gopnik, thank you very much indeed. 

Gopnik: Thanks very much. Always happy to be in conversation. 

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

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