Over 200 introductory psychology students at a large U.S. Midwestern university agree: People who don’t have children are not only miserable, but deserving of our moral outrage. That is the result of a new study that found that deliberately not breeding makes you look like a bad person who lives a purposeless life devoid of real joy. Bonus finding: Men and women without kids were equally despised, proving that there is no gender limit to our disgust toward those who do not procreate as directed in the handbook Being a Correct Adult.
The study, published in Sex Roles, carries the torch of three decades of cited research that has consistently found that deliberate non-breeders (as opposed to the infertile, who get a pass) have always been disliked. Previous studies have found these rogues among us are rated less positively, are seen as being less psychologically fulfilled and are, in essence, maladjusted bastard people. (One exception: A 1983 study found that the only thing we hate more than a child-free person is a pregnant woman who is not happy about her pregnancy.)
The question then, isn’t whether we hate people who don’t want children, but why we hate them so much. Study author Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, set out to prove this based on a few hypotheses. Her theory is that because having children is such a powerful, strongly held norm — something we’re conditioned to want from our own childhoods — that opting out violates the social code. (She cites Pew Research from 2010 saying that just one in five women in the U.S. will choose not to breed.)
Those who violate it face backlash just as women face backlash for being too aggressive, and men do for being too humble. The moral outrage this violation of the social code causes makes people think of the child-free as less happy. In other words, because most of us have kids, it’s very difficult for us to imagine that everyone doesn’t want them — and anyone who doesn’t is probably miserable, the suckers.
To test the theory, she had the college students read one of four paragraphs about a fictitious former student, James or Jennifer, who had either no children or two children, under the guise that the study would be about testing intuition. The story read as follows:
James (Jennifer) lives in Columbus, Ohio. He (She) graduated from [name of university] with a degree in biology in December 2002. After graduating, he (she) worked as a pharmaceutical sales rep to pay back some student loans, but after a couple of years he (she) decided that career wasn’t a good fit and investigated other options. In summer 2003, James (Jennifer) married his (her) college girlfriend (boyfriend). They decided to have no (two) children and when surveyed in 2005 they had stuck with this decision.
Students were then asked to predict how happy they thought these people were, with their marriages and lives overall, as well as their decision to have or not have children, or their likelihood of getting divorced. Then they ranked their disapproval, anger, outrage, annoyance and disgust toward these characters.
Ashburn-Nardo said in the study’s press release that she believes the results — that the child-free were believed to have less fulfilling lives, and evoke disgust — demonstrate that we’re so invested in the idea that one should procreate that anyone who doesn’t is simply seen as wrong. “Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children,” she explained. “That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work.”
Not only does this make people with children sound like smug assholes they are (though the study was conducted with young adults who have not yet procreated), it’s also not great news for the child-free, who will likely feel the need to offer up more reasons why not having kids is just fine.
That cottage industry has already produced justification after justification from childless people — mostly women — defending themselves against charges of selfishness. (Though sometimes they take the reverse tack, admitting they are definitely selfish and wouldn’t spoil their interesting lives for anything.)
Lately, though more men have begun to chime in with their reasons for opting out of fatherhood. They aren’t that different from women’s, and pretty much all center around wanting the kind of autonomy that children tend to derail ruthlessly — a perfectly reasonable desire.
Hating people who don’t want kids is such a strange, short-sighted waste of perfectly good disgust. If the child-free were actually miserable, they could simply change their minds. That so many don’t must mean they’ve figured something out. And while those of us who do have children may occasionally envy the child-free, it’s hardly worth hating them. Save that for Comcast.