Creating Domestic Anchors
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph

Douglas P. McManaman
Holy Family 2015
Reproduced with Permission

One of the great achievements of modern psychology is a more precise understanding of the unconscious mind and the many ways that our judgments and decisions are unconsciously influenced by outside factors. Anchoring is a cognitive bias that, for the most part, we are unaware of. The bias is that we have a tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information we are given when making decisions or judgments. To demonstrate this to students, I will show them a picture of a stack of old and rare books and all they have to do is circle whether or not they believe the books are worth more than $100 or less than $100. They will circle what they think, and then they are asked to estimate the total worth of the books. We then add up the total numbers and divide by 30 students to get the average. We then show them how much their average differed from another class that was given the same picture, only they were asked whether they believed the total cost was more than $800 or less than $800. The students of that class would circle what they believed and then would estimate the total cost of the books. The class average for them was always significantly higher, because they were unconsciously influenced by the mention of $800, while this class is unconsciously influenced by the mere mention of $100.

Salesmen are aware of this and use it to their advantage. I traded in my car one year, and the dealer offered to give me $4000 for it. I thought that was a bit low, so he asked me what I thought was reasonable. I did not do my homework beforehand, so on the spot I thought perhaps $6000 was reasonable. He left for 15 minutes, came back and said it was a battle, but his boss finally agreed: $6000 it is. When I told a friend of mine this, he looked up the value of the make, model and year and said I should have received $10,000 for it, and they would have sold it for $13,000. He anchored me low; I was influenced by the $4000 and did not want to stray too far from that number, just as the students were influenced by the request to decide whether the books were over 100 or under 100. If they thought they were worth more, they didn't estimate too much more.

Why do I bring this up? Because there are all sorts of anchors that influence us in ways we are not explicitly aware of. There are cultural anchors, and many of them are moral anchors, which are culturally accepted standards, and today the moral anchors of contemporary popular culture are very low, but so few are aware of it. What we are aware of, however, is the cultural anchors of a past era. We look back to 19th century slavery in the United States or Nazi Germany and are astounded that people could have tolerated black slavery or the violent persecution of Jews. However, the citizens of that time were just as subject to cultural moral anchors as we are today, it's just that hindsight is 20/20; when we are outside the influence of the anchor, our vision is much clearer. So in a few hundred years, a generation will be looking back at us today, shaking their heads at what we are doing and failing to do. It's hard to say exactly what this will and will not include.

But how do we go about changing this cultural depravity and moving society along towards a more civilized and humane world? I ask this because when we begin to feel how little we are in this vast world, we begin to despair that we can do much to influence things for the better. The temptation is to capitulate. But there is a way, and it is a small way, but it is the only way forward. I'm referring to the creation of domestic anchors--the moral anchors that are established in the context of the family.

The reason I find teaching to be such a delight at this time is that my students come from very solid immigrant families. Their parents, for the most part, have not allowed themselves to be influenced by contemporary culture. They discipline their kids, they eat with their kids, they teach their kids, they leisure with their kids, they love their kids, and those kids have not been emotionally neglected, and so our students are generally happy and can concentrate on school. A good number of these parents exhibit a genuine moral integrity, and so there is a very high moral anchor in the home. Hence, the students are not terribly influenced by the low moral anchor of the culture outside the home. But if a family crumbles, or should the parents fail in their duty to be inspiring models for their children, the only anchor left for children is the very permissive and low moral anchor of the culture - and picking out who those kids are is very easy to do.

The latest in neurology corroborates this point on the importance of parenthood. The proper development of a child's brain depends significantly on the mother and how she relates to her child. A psychologically healthy mother will intuitively know not to overstimulate her child, nor will she under-stimulate the child through emotional neglect. There are mirror neurons in the brain that line up with the neural circuitry of the mother, permitting the baby to feel what the mother feels. The human emotions are contagious precisely because of these mirror neurons. We are influenced by the emotions of others, and this is especially true of the child and his or her mother. When parenting fails, the repercussions, beginning with the neurological effects on the child, are far reaching; but when couples parent well, they influence their child's entire neurological development in ways they are probably not aware of.

The nobility of the institution of the family cannot be acknowledged any more emphatically by the Church than Her decision to situate the feast of the Holy Family right after Christmas day. This is a season of hope and light, and the family is the hope of civilization. Parenting is the most important work, and that's how civilization is moved forward. We don't hear that anymore, but there is no vocation that has greater importance--everything is at the service of the family (the Church is at the service of family, so too the economy as well as education, etc.). The task of parents is to do the little that has been entrusted to them, to focus on their spouses and children and to become persons of the highest possible moral and psychological integrity for the sake of their children. What happens after that is in God's hands, not ours. There is no doubt that children might very well turn away and allow themselves to be influenced by the low cultural anchors out there, but like any anchor, they tend not to veer too far from the domestic anchor that was theirs growing up. So that's our task, and it is a profoundly important one.