Adults who choose not to have children inspire moral outrage in study participants

"Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong," said researcher Leslie Ashburn-Nardo.

By Brooks Hays

March 1 (UPI) -- A new study suggests adults who choose to delay starting a family -- or decide to not have children -- are being socially stigmatized.

Researchers in Indiana found study participants consistently displayed bias against adults who opt to not have children.


"What's remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children," Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said in a news release. "Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong."

Study participants were asked to read a short story about a person and their life. Afterwards, participants were asked to rate the protagonist's psychological fulfillment and describe their feelings about the person. The protagonist's gender and decision whether to have children or not varied in each vignette.

"Consistent with many personal anecdotes, participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children," Ashburn-Nardo said. "This effect was driven by feelings of moral outrage -- anger, disapproval and disgust -- toward the voluntarily child-free people."


The findings -- detailed in the journal Sex Roles -- recall previous studies which showed similar levels of moral outrage directed at people who deviate from social norms and societal expectations. Ashburn-Nardo argues her study is the first to offer empirical proof that childrearing is recognized as a moral imperative.

Ashburn-Nardo wasn't surprised that people find it strange when adults choose not to have children. Having children remains to norm. But she was surprised at the intensity of their reactions.

"That they are also outraged by child-free people is what's novel about this work," she said.

More and more adults are delaying the decision to have children. More adults are also forgoing having children entirely. Those who do could face social repercussions.

"Other research has linked moral outrage to discrimination and interpersonal mistreatment," Ashburn-Nardo said. "It's possible that, to the extent they evoke moral outrage, voluntarily child-free people suffer similar consequences, such as in the workplace or in health care. Exploring such outcomes for this demographic is the next step in my research."

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