Are family wealth conflicts caused by evolution?

You might not think, at first glance, that evolution would have anything at all to do with family wealth conflicts. Granted, my perspective isn’t universal, but an October 13, 2013 article in the New York Times suggests that it does.

The article, “Evolution and Bad Boyfriends”, written by Piet van den Berg and Tim W. Fawcett, talks about a recent paper that tries to explain why evolution might have an effect on the all-too-common phenomenon of parents finding fault with their children’s (in this case, daughters’) choice of mates. From an evolutionary perspective, parents want to have as many surviving grandchildren as possible, regardless of which children produce them, and will distribute their resources to further this goal.

Adult children, however, have a stronger interest in their own reproductive successes than that of their siblings. The authors point out: “It is this conflict over parental resources that can lead to conflict over a mate choice.” Using computer modelling, the authors ran many iterations of mating, reproduction, and grandparents choosing how to distribute their resources. Over time, the grandparents invested more resources in the daughters who had chosen mates who had fewer resources.  Eventually, daughters had an incentive to take advantage of this investment pattern and grandparents, in turn, developed a preference for sons-in-law who were more supportive.

Looking at these concepts from the family wealth perspective, it’s easy to see why conflicts would develop. If one daughter chose a mate who supports her and their children well and another chooses a mate who does not, and their parents choose to subsidize or otherwise favor the daughter with the less supportive mate, there will be fertile ground for conflict. One daughter may feel it’s only fair for Mom and Dad to help out because she needs it. The other may resent what she sees as rewarding less productive behavior or lifestyle.

What’s a family do? Communicate about family priorities, expectations, and choices. It’s not always easy, but it is worth the effort.

Posted in Conflict Resolution in the News, Family Wealth Mediation, Thursday, October 31st, 2013

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