New research has found that activating a desire for social status can lead people to favor having fewer children. This makes them more likely to delay the time of marriage and of getting their first child. The study was published in Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology.
In the past half a century, fertility rates around the world have declined greatly. Nearly half of the world’s population currently lives in countries where fertility rates, the number of newborn children per woman, are below the level needed to maintain population size. This is the most pronounced in highly economically developed countries such as South Korea and Singapore, but also in European countries and the United States.
Unlike previous historical population declines that were linked to catastrophic wars, epidemics, disasters and extreme scarcity, the current decline in fertility rates happens in an environment of economic prosperity and an abundance of resources. This development has been baffling researchers who now explain it by pointing that the society attributes higher social status to small families and that people are now more willing to invest in themselves rather than in children.
Studies have also found that more educated individuals tend to have less children. Paradoxically, at younger age, these individuals often plan to have more children than their less educated peers.
“Low fertility in economically affluent countries is an intriguing paradox that the research team has observed over the years,” said study author Amy J. Lim of Murdoch University. “These countries possess an abundance of resources that can be spent on starting families and raising children, but instead, what we are observing is that the fertility rates in these places are steadily dropping – often to below replacement levels. I, along with some scholars on the research team, are natives of and/or currently residing in Singapore where this issue is especially salient.”
To explore the link between the desire for social status and attitudes towards the time of marriage and having children, Lim and her colleagues conducted two experiments in which they tested whether activating the desire for social status leads participants to prefer to delay marriage and having children.
The first study looked at when people want to get married and have kids. The researcher used Amazon’s crowdsourcing platforms to recruit a sample of 268 participants aged below 40. They chose this age because women’s ability to have children declines markedly after 40. All participants were required to be single and have no children.
The participants were randomly assigned into one of two conditions – a social status condition and a control condition. Participants in the social status condition read a hypothetical scenario in which they imagined that a major purpose in their life was to move up the social ladder. The text said that reaching high-ranking positions is very important for them and for everyone in their social network, that success will bring them respect from others and good life.
In the control condition, the participants read a text asking them to imagine that they had lost their keys and that they could not find them although they spent several hours searching.
After reading these, the participants were asked about the age at which they would want to get married and about the age when they would prefer to have their first child. The researchers also asked them whether they would rather have one child and invest all of their time and resources into raising him/her, or have multiple children and split time and resources between them.
The second study, which included a sample of 451, followed a similar procedure to the first study. The social status group and the control group went through the same procedure from study 1, but now there was also a third group that did not read any text, but just reported on their preferred time of marriage and having their first child.
The results of both studies showed that participants in the social status group preferred to delay marriage and having their first child compared to the control group. On average, they wanted to wait 5 to 6 years more. They also liked the idea of having only one child and spending more time and resources on them.
“We live in a world with ecologies that are very different from those that ancient humans, and our psychological mechanisms, have evolved from,” Lim told PsyPost. “Because technological changes that create modern ecologies occur much faster than the rate at which evolutionary change occurs, our evolved psychological mechanisms are ill-equipped to effectively process cues within the modern ecology, which is then manifested in our decisions and behaviors.”
“In the context of our study, psychological mechanisms designed to detect status competition are ill-equipped to effectively process the exaggerated number of high-status competitors conveyed by modern forms of exposure and communication, hence chronically inducing people (their reproductive timing mechanisms) to perceive that do not have enough status to successfully reproduce despite the capital and resources they may already possess.”
The study sheds light on the link between the desire for social status and family planning. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the mechanism linking the desire for social status and marital preferences remains unknown. It also did not consider the interplay between the desire for social status and specific conditions of the modern world such as the low risk of children dying, high costs of raising children, and the influence of having children on the competition for status.
“Our study solely focused on people’s concerns over obtaining higher status; however there are other variables that also characterize contemporary societies, such as population density and the competition for resources,” Lim explained. “Moreover. selected life history strategies depends on exact notions of harshness and unpredictability. As such, future work will be required to tease apart the effects of status competition from the potential effects of related variables, and to define clearer notions of competition and its influence on the selection for life history strategies.”
“Fertility decline in modern societies has been an issue that has received considerable attention, leading to explanations from multiple disciplines,” the researcher added. “Despite the multidisciplinary attention, little is known about the deep causes of and psychological mechanisms underlying modern low fertility. Our line of research seeks to do that and provide a complementary perspective to the existing economic and cultural explanations.”
The study, “Desire for social status affects marital and reproductive attitudes: A life history mismatch perspective”, was authored by Amy J. Lim, Norman P. Li, Zoi Manesi, Steven L. Neuberg, Mark van Vugt, Andrea L. Meltzer, and Kenneth Tan.