Reply To Caplan on Kids

In general, those who can send better signals should put more effort into signaling. In particular, those with a better shot at them should work harder to gain status markers. So women with better relative endowments should delay and reduce kid raising efforts; their fewer high status kids would make for more great-grand kids. And since farmer status inequalities were bigger than forager inequities, this effect was stronger for farmers.

Monday I described Bill & my suggestion that this effect might explain the demographic transition, if our subconscious minds neglect the possibility that whole societies could get and long stay rich. That is, we see that by ancient standards we live like kings, we might be fooled into thinking we have a chance at king-like status and relative reproduction success, if only we work extra hard to achieve status markers. But in fact, we can’t all reproduce like kings.

Tuesday Bryan objected:

Unless I’m deeply misunderstanding it, this “excellent” theory doesn’t even get off the ground. Like Feyrer and Sacerdote’s theory, Dickens-Hanson implies gender conflict: In the modern world, men should want more children than women, and this gap should get larger as people get richer. But in reality, men and women around the world see eye-to-eye on this question – see the World Values Survey, question D017. But doesn’t the Dickens-Hanson mechanisms work for men, too? Robin thinks it does, but admits that it doesn’t work as strongly:

I just don’t see that our theory implies gender conflict on family size. By “[the theory] doesn’t work as strongly [for men]”, I meant and said:

So men should work even harder to gain status markers. But even so, raising overt kids will less distract men from pursuing high status, and a man’s delay in starting kids will less reduce his fertility. Thus excess male status efforts probably do less to reduce overall fertility.

Since men are even more eager than women to gain status, and stay fertile longer, if men shared kid raising efforts equally they might well want to delay kids even longer than women want. But if women bear most of the kid-raising burden, that should make men more eager to have kids earlier. The net effect of these factors isn’t clear.  So I see no clear net prediction of our theory about how people should answer a survey question about “optimal family size.” (And I’m inclined to pay more attention to how many kids people actually have, relative to survey responses.)

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  • A dude

    This theory is compelling, but relies on the females failing to detect their relative wealth vs other femailes around them (easily seen), while acting on the basis of their wealth relative to poorer ancestors, which they can’t even observe directly.

    The alpha male theory is much more realistic. Females are motivated to only mate with the alpha male of the pack. Mass media expanded the size of the pack to pretty much the whole rich population (from 50-60 people). Now females are motivated to only mate with the few global alphas (movie/sports/business stars). The illusion of proximity to them is much more subtle, so more likely to fool the females than illusion that they are wealthier in relative terms.

  • Challenge

    This theory triggers my evolutionary “just-so” story alarms, looking for an ancient reason why we are the way we are today. How could you test this theory?

    An alternate proposal:

    1. Men and women chase status.

    2. We will mimic those we see as high status, in order to increase our own status.

    3. Having children is costly and reduces the time and ability to chase status.

    4. Those who’ve gone without children or with fewer numbers of children have consistently demonstrated higher status.

    5. In an effort to mimic the high status life choices, we forgo children.


    1. In previous generations, the counteracting force against this trend was innate sex drive coupled with a lack of contraceptive options.

    2. Modern views see kids as a decision that must be balanced against a career, lifestyle, and other status-seeking activities.

    3. Our current society still provides a temporary influx of status to new mothers, and grants status to older mothers (and grandmothers) more than women who’ve gone without children and haven’t achieved high status by other means. Children are still a viable status choice.

    4. There is still some psychological and perhaps physiological drive to have children; it’s unclear how much of the “ticking clock” syndrome that affects women is psychological or hormonally driven.

    How to test this theory:

    1. Identify subcultures that grant high status to having children; compare fertility rates to our culture.

    2. Identify subcultures that avoid the use of contraceptives; compare fertility rates to our culture.

    3. Create a promotional campaign suggesting that having children or being a parent provides a status boost. Localize it to one geographic area. Observe any change in fertility rates.

  • A dude

    I was pretty sure that the alpha male theory above came or originated from reading Robin’s blog. Tried to find it and couldn’t though.

    Robin, if you are reading this, this question bugs me: in courtship, the primary objectives (him: sex, her: ???) are never really discussed. Instead the discussions and bargaining are centered on tangential issues. As the simplest example the wording “want to go up to my place” is used instead of “want to have sex”. Why is that?

    This pertinent to a lot of other issues, eg in international politics where the real elephants in the room are never discussed directly.

    I sense this is all due to some kind of bargaining strategy, what’s your take?

  • Psychohistorian

    “Kids are a hassle, and we have birth control, which wealthier and more educated people are more inclined to use.”

    Positing complex status relationships to explain a rather simple phenomenon seems inappropriate. Kids have become an expense, when in earlier agricultural society they were principally an asset. Since social standards for wealthier people demand higher per-kid investment, and child rearing infringes on other material desires, they don’t have that many kids. Some people who are not future-time oriented enough to use birth control, or who have extremely low investment/kid, do not follow this same pattern. Viewing number of kids as some form of complex mating strategy to maximize status per child contingent on a hard-wired objective concept of individual well-being seems like building an office building to keep the sun out of your eyes.

    • Jayson Virissimo

      “Kids have become an expense, when in earlier agricultural society they were principally an asset.”

      I’d like to see some evidence for this claim. When were children ever an asset?

      • Yes, measured in terms of calories the older generation throughout time sent resources toward the younger generation. As their ability to produce declined, so did their consumption. The old have an interest in their genes spreading, which explains their willingness to support the young.

      • Gil

        Babies weren’t assets per se but the potential to become assets. Historically children went to work as soon as they were able thus minimising the costs of childrearing. However there’s something to said about ye olde parents not being obliged to raise their own children at all. In other words, child abandonment was quite acceptable until the modern era even if though the child would most likely perish. Then again, I heard an anecdote where some time in Ancient Rome a child had no expectation to their parent’s assets and adults would choose any child (who showed promise) from the general populance and groom them to take over their business dealings.

  • dude, its is only failing to react to the wealth of very *distant females. For most of our ancestors, even having many nearby rich shouldn’t change their optimal status investment much. The illusion of proximity just isn’t correlated in time very well with falling fertility. Speaking directly looks bad when the stupid or desperate tend to do it more.

    challenge, your theory is constant across time, and so doesn’t predict fertility falling at any particular time.

    Psycho, the demographic transition started well before modern birth control.

  • A dude

    The big drop in fertility happened between 1960 and 1975 (3.5 to 2.0) in the US. This the period when media penetration (TV, pop music via records and radios) exploded.

    (Those confident or with power tend to speak more directly, so can’t explain not speaking directly by signalling that one is not stupid or desperate. This is probably related to your far/near framework though, sorry for off-topic.)

  • gwern

    Does anyone else remember the Brazilian study showing fertility drops in just a few years after the introduction of TV soap operas featuring high-status low-fertility women characters?

    > In the modern world, men should want more children than women, and this gap should get larger as people get richer.

    I wonder if the ‘values’ survey really disproves this. This prediction seems perfectly borne out by some cultures – Saudis are famous for their ridiculous numbers of children, no? And it’s done by multiple women, not individual women reproducing a lot.