Evolutionary Tradeoffs: Too Materialistic To Marry And Have Children?

Evolutionary social psychologist Norm Li and his colleagues have posted an interesting open access study at PLOS ONE, exploring materialism’s relationship to attitudes toward marriage and having children. They studied subjects in Singapore, finding that:

Materialistic values led to more negative attitudes toward marriage, which led to more negative attitudes toward children, which in turn led to a decreased number of children desired. Results across two studies highlight, at the individual level, the tradeoff between materialistic values and attitudes toward marriage and procreation and suggest that a consideration of psychological variables such as materialistic values may allow for a better understanding of larger-scale socioeconomic issues including low fertility rates among developed countries.

There’s a drop in fertility in prosperous countries:

In many modern societies, native populations are shrinking as citizens are delaying marriage and having less children. This is especially the case in East Asia, where countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea have fertility rates that are far short of what is required to sustain a population. Although this trend seems to be related to economic development, relatively little is known—especially from a psychological perspective—regarding what it is about economic development that may be responsible for inducing aversions to marriage and procreation. In this paper, we considered the possibility that a key factor prevalent in modern societies—materialistic values—may negatively influence the value that individuals place on marriage and children.

They further explain at the end of the paper:

Materialistic values may, from an early age, compete with and displace values relating to cooperation and interpersonal warmth. Such displaced values may directly or indirectly decrease the desire for marriage and family.

There seems to be an evolutionary mismatch here — between our evolved psychology and the modern world:

Modern-day materialism may involve a maladaptive engagement of mental processes evolved to impel individuals to acquire social status and signal their status to others. Although status signaling may be a manageable process in an ancestral village of 100 to 150 individuals, in the modern day, rapid technological advances combined with global competition induce symbols of social status to change at increasingly faster rates and luxury goods to lose their luster exceedingly quickly. Thus, it is not possible for most modern people to acquire what feels like enough status for very long or at all, and materialistic desires may lock individuals into a costly and futile pursuit of status targets perpetually moving upwards. Ironically, then, the pursuit of status may be leading to decreased reproduction in the modern day.

As for possible solutions, Norm Li explained in an email:

As long as evolved mechanisms for social status exist, accompanied by capitalism, technology, globalization, and advertising, there will likely be competitive materialistic processes. However, consistent with our previous findings and those of others, materialistic appetites can be curbed by improving the strength of personal relationships and finding ways to boost overall life satisfaction. At the individual level, though, one can reduce one’s own exposure to mass media, and associate with individuals and communities who aren’t so caught up in the materialistic game. My collaborators and I are looking into new ways to approach the materialism-reproduction tradeoff.  Stay tuned.


About Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon is the irreverent purveyor of “science news you can use.” Her most recent book is the science-based and bitingly funny "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014). Her award-winning, science-based syndicated column runs in about 100 newspapers. She is the 2015 president of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society and hosts her own weekly radio show, “ Nerd Your Way to a Better Life,” featuring the luminaries of behavioral science.

One thought on “Evolutionary Tradeoffs: Too Materialistic To Marry And Have Children?

  1. The question is why is fertility in the developed nations low? And, why is marriage decreasing in these same nations? Materialistic values here serve as jargon that is meant to explain these phenomena, but then there should be a correlation between the historical change in fertility and the historical change in materialistic status. Since wages for most people have not changed as these economies have dramatically expanded, there is doubt that this is the factor. But, in terms of r/K selection strategies. Perhaps, the developed economies switch over to the K-selection strategy and invest more in fewer offspring.

    But, there is another phenomenon which may also be related: the implementation of the no-fault divorce legal statute. As more nations and states adopted this approach to marriage, the population growth rate slowed. Now, that all the developed nations and states have this law in effect, the divorce rate has remained steady at over 50% of all marriages, and the marriage rate has decreased over 30% in the US, from over 90% up to 1986, now down to just above 60%. The relation between marriage and divorce and fertility should be understood.

    Also, the developed nations have experienced other changes in the household from women’s increasing presence in the labor force and in college graduation. These developments have changed the average age of marriage and first child to the late twenties and early 30’s. The typical sex difference has also led to greater preferences for the more cooperative female and less so for the more competitive male. Parental preferences on the basis of sex alone tend towards females who are also lower in the sex ratio between males and females. At birth, there are more males than females, but this ratio may change by reproductive age due to the higher mortality of males during infancy and adolescence. Parental preferences may influence life decisions of each sex differentially.

    The thesis that materialistic values may determine marriage rate and reproductive strategy including preferences for children and their sex requires much finer analysis: is the key factor income? or value orientations derived from the culture industry? as contrasted with traditional value orientations which may be religious and conservative. Or, perhaps, the explosion in pornography and the changes in the acquisition of sexual knowledge have disposed people in the developed nations to limit reproduction through contraception. It is probable that reproduction is related to economic considerations of feasibility in the modern nations but these should be spelled out in more detail.

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