Divorce and Motivated Reasoning in the WaPo
By Bryan Caplan
In The Economic Naturalist, Robert Frank remarks:
Psychologist Tom Gilovich has suggested that someone who wants to accept a hypothesis tends to ask, “Can I believe it?” In contrast, someone who wants to reject it tends to ask, “Must I believe it?”
“Can I believe it?”:
No-fault divorce has been a success. A 2003 Stanford University study detailed the benefits in states that had legalized such divorces: Domestic violence dropped by a third in just 10 years, the number of
husbands convicted of murdering their wives fell by 10 percent, and the number of women committing suicide declined between 11 and 19 percent. A recent report from Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress found that only 28 percent of divorced women said they wished they’d stayed married.
“Must I believe it?”:
While some studies show that children of divorced parents do experience worse life outcomes — including diminished math and social skills, a higher chance of dropping out of school, poorer health, and a greater likelihood of divorce themselves — Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld points out that there is no way to test definitively whether children of divorced parents were already more likely to experience such outcomes. And as Stephanie Coontz, a historian and the author of “Marriage, a History,” explains, what’s most critical is the high-conflict environment that kids grew up in before their parents separated.
<sarcasm>How fortunate that there is a “way to test definitively” whether domestic violence and female suicide would have fallen if divorce laws hadn’t been liberalized!</sarcasm>
“Must I believe it?” continued:
Would making divorce less accessible encourage partners to stay together, as conservatives hope? Probably not. Waiting periods and mandatory classes “add a new frustration to already frustrated lives,” Rosenfeld notes. In other words, a cooling-off period isn’t cooling anybody off.
“Can I believe it?” continued:
More problematic, these roadblocks “could easily exacerbate the situation and harm kids,” Coontz says, noting that divorcees are “more likely to parent amicably if they haven’t been locked into a long separation process.”
Keyes’ double standard vexes me even though I think (a) government should play no role in marriage, and (b) twin and adoption evidence shows little or no effect of divorce on kids’ adult outcomes. All of the following still remain highly plausible:
a. There are a lot of so-so marriages.
b. The cost of divorce affects the divorce rate for couples in so-so marriages.
c. Most kids of couples in so-so marriages strongly prefer for their families to stay together.
Oh, and if liberalized divorce has been so great, why did this happen? Don’t tell me what you can believe. Don’t tell me what you must believe. Just tell me what makes sense to you.