Some results of the 'Nicola Study' for U3A members who responded

A year or two ago, many of you were kind enough to take part in an Internet study in which I asked you to read a short story in which a younger woman (called Nicola) asked an older woman (called Barbara) if she thought she should start a family. You gave me your email address because you said you would like to know the purpose and findings of the study. I warned you that it would take time to collect all the data and analyse it. This is now complete and a paper based on the study has now been accepted in the journal "Evolution and Human Behaviour". It will be published in the next few months but if you would like a copy of the manuscript, let me know and I will send you one as an email attachment.

Perhaps I should have also warned you that, like so many academic studies, its connection to "real life" might seem a bit remote. I would like to present my work and the results of this study to the wider public but find it difficult to explain it in a way that is not long-winded and (perhaps) boring. I'll explain the research as best I can and would be grateful for any feedback. Do you think people will be interested?

Basically, I am interested in the way a culture's values and beliefs change and I am particularly interested the very rapid series of changes that have taken place in people's beliefs about parenting and sexual behaviour. Think about the difference between the attitudes and behaviour in 1850 and today ... or between 1950 and today. Some of these changes have improved our lives and are linked to advances in technology and improved affluence. But others are more mysterious. For example, nowhere in Europe are women having enough children to keep the population stable and this is one of the reasons we need immigrants to fill jobs. Couples often say that they can't afford to raise a large family, yet objectively people today are wealthier than ever before. It would be more accurate to say that people want to spend their time and money on things other than raising children.

Why have people's beliefs about the difficulties and pleasures of raising children changed so drastically over the last century and a half? We can all think of answers to this question but they often come down to "society has changed". The question I am interested in is: why has society changed in the ways that it has? By the way, this attitude change has not just taken place in Europe. All over the world, except Afghanistan and some parts of Africa, birth rates are either very low or falling rapidly. This means the end of worries about the "population explosion" but it does not promise environmental improvements. People are replacing a desire for children with a desire for consumer goods and greater personal comfort. The new smaller families are taking more of the Earth's resources than the old large families. Does a desire for smaller families have to be linked to a growth in consumer demand? No one is in a position to answer this question because no one really knows why people decide to limit the size of their families.

Many years of research in social psychology research has shown that people develop their beliefs and values from the people they interact with. (This can include interactions that are one-way, like our observations of characters on television or in novels.) People's beliefs and values are not concrete and unchanging. We adjust them as we experience life and find out about what people around us think and do.

Until very recently, almost all people spent their lives in small closed communities in which people were identified by the family they belonged to. In these social situations, people tended to have as many children as they could afford. It is only once they begin to connect with a wider social network that they want to have fewer children. Even if the new people they connect with also start out wanting as large a family as they can afford, interactions within these wider social networks cause the people to develop new beliefs about the cost and value of children.

Lots of reasons have been suggested about why the change should happen, including the most obvious idea that children actually do become less valuable - they stop being useful as helpers on the family farm, for example. But none of these suggestions fit the evidence. For example, England became industrialised much earlier than France. But people in France began to stop having large families in the first half of the 19th century while people England kept on having large families until about the end of the 19th century. People in France began to limit their family size about the time of the French revolution. Even though people in France were still farmers, the revolution probably disrupted the closed life of farming communities.

Recently we proposed a new explanation of why people stop having so many children once their social networks open up. Perhaps it's because people in an open social network have less contact with members of their family and more contact with other people. In traditional closed social networks, many of the interactions that take place are between people who are related to one another, either blood relatives, relatives by marriage or both. In modern networks, most interaction is between non-relatives. Maybe we say different things about reproduction when we talk to our relatives than when we talk to our friends or work mates. The children of our relatives are our relatives too. They mean something to us. They are partly our responsibility and partly our joy. So perhaps when the social networks no longer allow much contact between kin, the values and beliefs about children gradually change.

You are probably by now wondering what on Earth this has to do with the study you took part in. I designed the study to find out if people really do say different things about reproduction when they talk to their friends than when they talk to their relatives. The study was large because there were a number of different stories. All the stories were about a younger woman called Nicola asking an older woman called Barbara for advice about having a baby but the details differed. Each person who agreed to take part was randomly linked to one of the 16 different stories. - In half of the stories, Nicola was in a difficult situation for raising a child; she would be raising the child without the help of its father. In the other half, she was happily married to a supportive husband so her situation was easier. - In half of the stories, Nicola was in her early 20s and in the other half she was in her early 30s. - In half of the stories, Nicola and Barbara were mother and daughter. In the other half, they were close friends even though they were about a generation apart in age.

A colleague and I read the advice you wrote on Barbara's behalf and found that for each situation, the written advice was quite similar whether it was written in the role of "the friend" or "the mother". But after you had written the advice, you chose what you yourself really thought Nicola should do. At that point we did see some differences. - First of all, few of you were happy about Nicola deliberately becoming a single mother. Most of those who answered that story felt that if she wanted a child she should wait until the right man came along. There was no difference between "mothers" and "friends". - Many of those who got the story in which Nicola wanted to become pregnant even though her husband was dying, thought she should try to become pregnant, even though she would have to raise the child in difficult circumstances. But those who had played the role of "mother" were much more practical. They were less likely to think she should not get pregnant, especially when Nicola was depicted as being in her 20s. - On the other hand, women who had played the mother role were more likely to think Nicola should start trying to get pregnant when she was in a good situation to raise a baby.

These results suggest that we do think differently about the reproduction of our children than our friends. The differences are not large but they exist. We want our children to have children in good situations but not in bad situations. We may try to choose our words so as not to betray our real opinions but our friends and family can probably work out what we think and this influences what they think and do. It perhaps isn't surprising that we think differently about the pregnancy of a daughter than a friend, but I think most people believe their judgements are based more on logic and values than feelings. I therefore think it was worthwhile doing the study.

So it may be that a society has to become less interested in children when its members spend most of their time around other people's relatives rather than their own. The human brain and social behaviours evolved in an environment in which our ancestors were surrounded by family members. The modern social environment is full of interaction with our work-mates, bosses and advertisers on the television. This gives young adults a lot of encouragement to earn and spend money to increase their enjoyment of life but it gives them little encouragement to settle down and create a family. So it is perhaps hardly surprising that the birth rate is low.

I would be very grateful for any comment you have on this work and these ideas. By the way, the behaviour of men and women participants seemed very similar but I did not get enough male participants to do a good comparison.

Thank you very much again for taking part.


Lesley Newson
University of Exeter School of Psychology


If you would like to know more about my work you can access my scientific papers from my website:

Lesley Newson


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Last update was 11th February 2007