Humans are intrigued by the unknown. While some expectant parents prefer to know the sex of their unborn child, others may want to prolong the mystery. Why we want to know, and why some of us just can’t wait, is motivated by emotion. At the same time, our thoughts (cognitions) help us make a decision about knowing, if the possibility is available, or just speculate about the outcome. Expectancy, curiosity, exploration, and information-seeking are associated with the emotion of interest and its more intense display as experienced in excitement. [1, 2, 3] Interest-excitement is triggered in mysterious contexts such as pregnancy. [4] We want to know because emotions make us care.

When technology is not available or is not used to reveal fetal sex, friends, relatives and strangers may offer ways of “knowing.” Predictions about fetal sex are based on all sorts of correlations, such as what the mother eats, the way she feels, or how the child is carried.

Some parents justify their urgency to get a sneak peek at what’s incubating with the thought that they can then decide on decor, clothing, toys, or a name associated with a specific gender. Knowing the sex of the fetus may increase their attachment through enjoyable imagery related to their future child. Some may rationalize that it is best to know fetal sex to process any disappointment before the baby is born or be relieved of the possibility of a letdown. On the other hand, parents who prefer to keep fetal sex a mystery often believe the excitement and surprise they will feel as their newborn enters the world will make any possibility of disappointment insignificant if not irrelevant.

Some parents who are provided information about the sex of the fetus decide to keep it to themselves, hoping to keep the interest and excitement of others on their unique experience of pregnancy. Fetal sex information would understandably draw the attention of others to the actuality of the child and away from the parents’ experience of pregnancy. Once people have information that enables them to regard a growing fetus as a physical being outside of its mother’s womb, they may be more prone to attribute certain personal and physical characteristics to the future child. Even without knowledge about fetal sex, we sometimes ascribe personality traits to a fetus based on our awareness of its presence, such as attributing a spirited nature to a future child who “kicks” in utero.

For similar reasons, an Australian researcher recently recommended that prenatal testing should not include fetal sex in the test reports because there is a discrepancy between what parents are concerned with (gender) and what the prenatal test can provide (sex). [5] The researcher argues that parents conflate sex with gender because they are most often concerned with the gender role their child will adopt, rather than their child’s sex chromosomes or even their genitalia. In this regard she believes the disclosure of fetal sex is misinformation that promotes sexism via gender essentialism, and that knowledge of fetal sex can potentially expand the market for sex selective abortion.

Certainly, it’s easier to focus on the sex of the child during a scan rather than what may be wrong. Focusing on fetal sex during a scan for abnormalities may sometimes represent an avoidance response to fear that is activated by a parent’s negative expectation. One can expect anything that falls within the range of the best or the worst outcome; if the expectation is negative it may produce fear, and if it is positive it may result in hope. [6] Sadly, for some women, the hope for a healthy child of either sex may be tainted by guilt; namely, a secret expectation that the health or well-being of her unborn child will be affected based on some “punishment” for an incident in her life or past behavior. Prenatal testing under such circumstances may provide temporary relief, notwithstanding any revelation about the sex of the child.

The emotion of interest-excitement and its different flavors of curiosity, exploration, information-seeking, expectancy, and hope can lead our imagination in many directions. The mystery around pregnancy, and the activation of emotion that surrounds it, provides us with an opportunity to learn about ourselves.

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1. Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

2. Tomkins, S.S. (1962/2008). Affect imagery consciousness. New York: Springer.

3. Izard C. E. (1977). Human emotions. New York, NY: Plenem.

4. Kaplan S. (1992). Environmental preference in a knowledge-seeking, knowledge-using organism. In Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L., Tooby, J., editors. The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 581–598.

5. Browne, T. K. (2015). Why parents should not be told the sex of their fetus. Journal of Medical Ethics. doi:10.1136/medethics-2015-102989

6. Izard, C. E. (2009). “Emotion theory and research: Highlights, unanswered questions, and emerging issues.” Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 1-25.

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