Over non-parents, in response to perceptual cues

Over a century ago, William McDougall’s
groundbreaking psychology textbook devoted dozens of pages to “the parenting
instinct,” characterizing it as “the most powerful of instincts” (p. 68;
McDougall 1908; see Buckels et al. 2015). Parenting has been a central activity
throughout human history, contributing immensely to offspring survival and
well-being (Geary 2000; Hill and Hurtado 1996). Human
caregiving is facilitated by a parental care motivational system, which we
refer to as parenting motivation and define as the drive to take care of the young, who tend to be
particularly vulnerable. (Griskevicius and Kenrick 2013; Kenrick et al.

2010; Buckels et al. 2015). This fundamental system is central to parenting and
caregiving, and is also believed to serve as the foundation for empathy,
compassion, and altruistic behavior (Batson 2006; Goetz, Keltner, and
Simon-Thomas 2010; Preston 2013). The parental motivation system tends to be
activated frequently after a person becomes a parent. For instance, parenting
is accompanied by specific hormonal changes that facilitate parenting (Atzil, Hendler,
and Feldman 2011; Gordon et al. 2010; Hahn-Holbrook, Holbrook, and Haselton
2011). Becoming a parent also alters people’s psychological orientation to
facilitate child care, leading people to become more risk-averse, cautious, and
careful (Cameron, Deshazo, and Johnson 2010; Chaulk, Johnson, and Bulcroft
2003; Fessler et al. 2014).

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Although
parenting motivation is likely to be frequently activated among actual parents,
all human adults possess the foundations necessary for parental care,
regardless of their current parental status (Gilead and Liberman 2014; Senese et al. 2013).

McDougall himself (1908, p. 63) suggested that the “parental instinct” is
responsive not just to one’s own offspring but also to “any other helpless and
delicate thing.” Parenting motivation may therefore be temporarily activated
even among non-parents, in response to perceptual cues and events that simulate
the presence of children or other vulnerable individuals (Kenrick et al. 2010;
Griskevicius and Kenrick 2013). For example, baby animals, which have facial
features mirroring those of human infants (large head, big eyes, and round forehead),
lead people to exhibit the kinds of tendencies shown by parents, such as being
more cautious and careful (Sherman, Haidt, and Coan 2009). The tendency for
cute images to evoke cognitions and actions that facilitate caregiving is in
line with research showing that exposure to subtle cues can strengthen goals relevant
to the cue and prompt goal-directed behavior (Chartrand et al. 2008; Fitzsimons,
Chartrand and Fitzsimons 2008; Shah, Kruglanski, and Friedman 2002).