Do Ticking Clocks Make Women More Anxious to Have Children?

Yes, but apparently only women who grew up poor.
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(Photo: abandsb/Shutterstock)

(Photo: abandsb/Shutterstock)

“The decision to get married and start a family is arguably the biggest decision that people make in their lives,” says Justin Moss, a social psychology doctoral student at Florida State University. We assume we make this decision ourselves, in accordance with our own values and life plans. But what if our minds could change simply by the tick of a clock?

Over two experiments, Moss recently had 133 undergraduates fill out surveys about the age at which they’d like to have children, the characteristics of their ideal mate, and their socioeconomic history. The students each sat alone at the same table, which was empty for some, but had a ticking white kitchen timer on top for others. "I’m interested in seeing how certain factors, whether overt or subtle, influence this decision,” Moss says.

The surveys’ results show the extent to which things we’re totally unaware of can influence our behavior—and the extent to which social class apparently can determine our susceptibilities.

The surveys’ results, published this week in Human Nature, show the extent to which things we’re totally unaware of can influence our behavior—and the extent to which social class apparently can determine our susceptibilities. Among the subjects, male students’ family plans were mostly unaffected by the tiny clock. Female students facing the timer, meanwhile, expressed different attitudes based on their childhood home’s economic status. The poorer the young women grew up, the more the clock pressured them into wanting a family in their early twenties as opposed to their late twenties, and the more ideal partner characteristics they were willing to sacrifice to start one.

These findings make sense psychologically, Moss says, even if they're hard to swallow. Men can father kids late into life, so time isn’t a concern. Women from poor backgrounds often learn early that “payoffs associated with long-term investments are uncertain and unpredictable,” according to the study, so in the face of a threat to a desire to have kids, they focus “on short-term gains associated with reproducing quickly." Women from more stable backgrounds, on the other hand, are more likely to respond to threats by “weathering the storm.”

What exactly this says about the actual social outcomes of this discrepancy, if anything, remains to be determined. The study captures how women’s “in the moment” attitudes toward childbearing shift under time pressure, but it’s noteworthy that these attitudes were about the same when no clock was present, regardless of childhood status. Is the implication that subtle stressors (such as ticking clocks) themselves nudge women from low-income backgrounds toward having children earlier? Or are the small sample size and college-educated population simply too limited for broad speculation?

“Future research would need to be conducted to see if there are any long-term effects,” Moss says.

Despite the less-than-rosy picture the study paints of economic differences and how much control we have over our lives, he doesn’t see the outcome as all bad. “These findings will at least bring awareness that these environmental stressors do influence people’s lives,” Moss says. “They aren’t necessarily something that can’t be overcome.”

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