If you’ve ever watch the Maury Povich show, you’ve undoubtedly come across one of an endless number of episodes that deal with paternity uncertainty (see here for a representative clip). A couple is brought on the show and the man is submitted to a DNA paternity test to establish whether or not he has sired the child in question. It makes for dramatic TV viewing precisely because it speaks to an evolutionary threat of great import (cuckoldry). Interested readers might wish to check out my books The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption (2007), and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature (2011), as I offer detailed discussions of how cultural products (e.g., song lyrics, plotlines of television shows and movies) contain contents that speak to our shared and universal human nature. Check out my earlier posts here and here for other issues dealing with paternity uncertainty.

In today’s post, I’d like to discuss a 2004 study authored by Lisa S. Hayward and Sievert Rohwer and published in Evolution and Human Behavior wherein the objective was to gauge sex differences in the response to the following question: “Should hospitals routinely include paternity exclusion tests for newborns? (Paternity exclusion tests verify whether the mother’s partner is the child’s father.)” Of course, the evolutionary expectation is that women would be much less in favor of such a program than would men (men wish to thwart such a threat while there are evolutionary advantages for maintaining paternity uncertainty from a woman’s perspective).

The number of men and women who answered the survey were 294 and 439 respectively. As expected, men were much more in favor of the paternity test (p < .0001). The actual numbers though are somewhat surprising: 50.3% and 32.1% of the men and women were in favor of such a test respectively. Why would nearly half the men opt to remain in blissful ignorance? One possibility is that this is a strategy to signal trust in their female partner (similarly to how some couples refuse to sign a prenuptial agreement). A second possibility (addressed by the authors) is that under certain circumstances, it might be adaptive for men to adopt the “ignorance is bliss” approach. For the nearly one-third of women who were in favor of such a test, this might be a strategy of signaling their trustworthiness as a long-term partner. An interesting area for future research would be to identify key factors that drive individuals’ attitudinal position vis-à-vis such a program (marital status and income were explored by the researchers, and were deemed inconsequential).

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