Spanking attitudes and parents’ biased information-seeking, distrust in research, and overestimations of scientific knowledge




Scott, Justin Kyle

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This dissertation consists of three chapters that evaluate largely unexamined mechanisms through which parents with positive spanking attitudes could preserve or confirm their attitudes by avoiding cognitive dissonance-invoking information. In Chapter 2, I used Google searches to examine whether biased search terms about the benefits of spanking would retrieve websites that present justifications for spanking and then used those websites to simulate a search about discipline with a sample of parents. Justifications for spanking were most likely to appear when search terms were used about the benefits of spanking. Parents with positive attitudes toward spanking had a higher likelihood of encountering justifications for spanking by selecting search terms about spanking benefits and then selecting links that led to websites recommending spanking. In Chapter 3, I evaluated parents’ perceptions of excerpts from two policy statements about the physical discipline of children published by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association. Although a majority of parents perceived these statements favorably, those with positive attitudes toward spanking and those who professed a strong desire for autonomy in childrearing decisions reported less trust and belief in the statements. In Chapter 4, I examined whether parents who favor spanking exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, such that they would perceive themselves to have a thorough understanding of the science behind spanking yet score low on an objective measure of general scientific literacy. Parents with positive attitudes toward spanking scored the lowest on measures of scientific literacy, overestimated their understanding of how spanking influences children’s development, and even perceived themselves as being more knowledgeable than a family scientist—someone who researches, studies, and teaches about parenting and child development. These three chapters contribute to the existing literature on spanking attitudes in the United States by demonstrating how parents could potentially preserve their spanking attitudes by avoiding scientific information that could otherwise educate them about the risks of spanking.


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