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Are We Becoming Too Materialistic For Marriage and Children?

The more we love things, the less we want to marry and have kids

A new study has found that the more we love things, the less we want to marry and have kids.

According to a dictionary definition of materialism, it is “a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.”

But is this doctrine fostering negative attitudes towards marriage and children—and even leading to startling low fertility rates in certain parts of the world?

This is the question psychologist Norman Li and colleagues investigated in a new study. In many countries around the globe, people are delaying marriage and having fewer children. In some places, the fertility rate is so low that current population levels will not be sustained.

What is striking about this trend is that it appears to be related to economic development. Specifically, individuals in developed and industrialized countries tend to have less children, whereas individuals in less developed countries tend to have more children. For example, in Niger, which is among the least economically developed countries in the world, the per capita GDP is $800 and the fertility rate is 6.89. Compare this to Singapore, where the per capita GDP is $62,400 and the fertility rate is 0.80. So although people in industrialized and comparatively prosperous nations enjoy substantially better living and healthcare standards, and in this regard have more resources for marriage and children, they appear to be rejecting what are considered basic human strivings.

So what's driving this trend? Li and his team propose that the sheer strength and mental demands of materialistic values, which is widespread in developed countries and central to consumerist economies, may be “crowding out” other values—including those pertaining to marriage and children. How? The investigators argue that the rapid globalization of consumer markets has ushered in a seemingly endless supply of products and services. In turn, this surfeit encourages materialism, and specifically the belief that the acquisition of material goods that signal high social status is the means by which to achieve happiness and success.

Here's what Li and his team did. They recruited undergraduates at a major university in Singapore (the researchers also point to research revealing that materialism is greater in East Asian countries. One study found Singaporeans to be more materialistic than Americans, which is noteworthy for this study given that Singapore has a lower fertility rate than America). Participants completed surveys assessing their attitudes towards marriage, children, the number of children desired, and materialistic values. In one condition, they were also exposed to a “luxury prime.” This involved reading a passage which vividly described either a person buying luxury goods, or a person looking for lost keys or taking a walk in the park (which were the control conditions).

What did the researchers find? Their analyses revealed that materialistic values gave rise to more negative attitudes toward marriage, which in turn gave rise to more negative attitudes toward children, and which in turn gave rise to wanting fewer children.

Li and his collaborators offer fascinating interpretations of these results. First, they draw on life history theory. Slow life history strategies are associated with a “quality” approach to reproduction involving greater investment in fewer children, whereas fast life history strategies are associated with less investment in a greater number of children. The authors contend that people from countries such as Singapore subscribe to a slow life strategy. Moreover, the high population density and social competition in such a context creates an intense need to achieve and display social status, and may act as triggers that lead to materialistic values and a slow reproductive rate.

Yet these results may reflect an evolutionary mismatch, which refers to adaptive mechanisms we evolved in the ancestral environment, but which may produce a maladaptive result in the modern world. For example, the taste for sweet, salty, and fatty foods were adaptive for our ancestors because it helped them survive in the face of food shortages. However, they didn't encounter such foods with regularity. But in today's world, such food is produced in mass quantities and is virtually difficult to avoid—and bears large responsibility for the obesity epidemic.

Similarly, the researchers say that materialism in contemporary society may reflect a maladaptive effort to attain social status. In an ancestral village made up of 100 to 150 persons, a display of social status was a more manageable endeavor. However, in today's global village social status is more fleeting, since technology can introduce a never ending wave of material goods that serve as status symbols. Thus, Li et al argue materialism may be like a hamster wheel in which the pursuit of high status through the attainment of material goods isn't really achievable or satisfying. From this perspective, chasing high status in this maladaptive way may be causing lower rates of reproduction in the contemporary world.

Perhaps this study should give us pause and encourage us to reexamine our values. As Douglas Horton put it, “Materialism is the only form of distraction from true bliss.”