Bryan Caplan  

Baby Fever

Mead's Asymmetric Treatment of... Pop Quiz...
According to conventional wisdom, women want kids more than men.  But when you start looking at the data, conventional wisdom doesn't seem to check out.  Country by country, men and women desire almost exactly the same number of kids.  Kids hurt women's happiness more than men's.  So is the idea that women want kids more than men just a myth?

I was starting to wonder until I came across a fascinating article on "baby fever" in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology.  The authors asked 1,560 Finns, "Have you felt a strong wish to have your own child?"  Survey says:

Notice: When you focus on "baby fever," a big gender gap emerges.  Less than half of men in their twenties feel baby fever - versus more than two-thirds of women.  Women are more than three times as likely as men to say that they "often" long for kids.  Baby fever increases in both genders once they hit their thirties, but the gap remains: Just 14% of thirty-something women never experience baby fever, versus 30% of men.

Sure, it's just one study from Finland, but it strikes me as highly psychologically perceptive.  Women don't want more kids than men, but they do want kids more.  In fact, the results suggest to me that most men would forego children for the right price, but most women would not.  Am I reaching?

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:

Not reaching at all. Such data more or less confirms my own observations.

Zac Gochenour writes:

I don't think you're reaching. Women have told me that having their own child, at least one, is part of the female gender identity. I think a genetic explanation for this would make perfect sense.

A few times, this is accompanied with a little bit of sunk cost fallacy: "If I'm not going to have any kids," she says, "all these periods would have been for nothing!"

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Women do indeed seem more inclined to want at least one child, but it seems very few of them actually desire a large family. I think the question 'would you like to have a large family' is more likely to be dominated by men, but I do not have any data.

But what do I know; I am a man who has actively wanted children even before his 20ies. At 25, I can see the older women in my social circle getting some baby-anxiety, but at my age contempt is the socially desirable attitude, and it prevails. With that attitude persisting for a few more years, you may still have a child, but if you want children, you are already gambling. It seems to me the desire for 'children' isnt actually that strong in most women.

Interestingly, both my sisters, though rather SWPL and guilt-ridden with overpopulation concerns, have strong breeding instincts and active disregard for cultural norms saying they shouldnt have any children before age 30, 25 or whatever. Even though there isnt anything in our upbringing suggesting such a shared attitude.

The horniness mechanism may be thoroughly obsoleted by contraception, but it will only be a few generations for something just as powerful to take its place. This kind of evolutionary pressure puts the black death to shame.

Peter Finch writes:

Women have always known whether or not they have had any children. Men who were sexually active could not be so sure.

It's probably easier, therefore, for a man to be satisfied by sexual activity. In a world without birth control, that meant "babies, probably" even if you didn't raise them, or even meet them. For women, it didn't. For women, actually having babies was the indicator of reproductive success.

Maybe we'll see the evolutionary pressure driving us to "want kids" rather than "want sex" hit women first, because the biological basis is already there? I.e., men are subject to being tricked, so they feel the pressure less strongly. It would be interesting to observe whether the data in the article were changing with time. You would expect to see the gap widen as women move rapidly to the new optimal desire level, followed slowly by men, wouldn't you?

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:

Given the cost and public awareness of DNA testing nowadays, the gap need not be that big, but I agree, there would probably be a gap.

Whether these things are actually going to be measured anytime soon is questionable though. Insofar as evolution applied to humans is conversation for polite company to begin with, disturbing the comfort many find in the notion of self-stabilizing populations seems like one of those bad moves for your academic career.

Peter Finch writes:


Do you mean we might have un-fakeable signals of our desire or lack of desire for children, so that we can marry the right person? That kind of DNA test?

You might be thinking of testing to determine your children are your own, which isn't what I was thinking of.

I was thinking that I don't see how you could test to see that you had never fathered a child in your oat-sowing days... If a male had been sexually active in the past, he might have had a child he doesn't know about. He must estimate the number of children he's had as a function of the amount of activity, and whether he kept close contact with the people he was active with. The number is bounded below by zero, but it's not zero if he has been active and fallen out of touch with the female(s).

Hence, the female is comparing one child to zero children, but the male is comparing one child to ~0.25 children, or whatever his estimate is of his past fatherhood. So you would expect an asymmetry.

Connie writes:

Agree with Eelco and Zac. Women do indeed seem more inclined to want at least one child (not large family thou). That is part of the female gender identity. It's like their life is not complete without a child.

Steve Sailer writes:

Dear Bryan:

Your interpretation sounds insightful and plausible to me.

Eelco Hoogendoorn writes:


Sure, there is also such a thing as planned single motherhood, but im not sure it accounts for a significant fraction of births.

Historically at least, cuckoldry was the main source of asymmetry, and I expect it to lose much of its historical significance due to DNA testing.

Peter Finch writes:


You are right, as far as I can tell.

I just wanted to point out that the asymmetry works both ways. For every person being cuckolded, there's someone doing the cuckolding. It doesn't have to be "planned single motherhood."

Women know the lower bound on their child count, men don't.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

There's an economic theory of marriage implied by these data -- women will want to get an anchor to keep their reluctant partner from sailing away.

Peter Finch writes:

> Women know the lower bound on their child count, men don't.

Upper, not lower. Women know the precise number. Men know it's greater than or equal to zero.

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