Here's Why Couples Without Kids Are Stigmatized

couple, guilty, pointing fingers
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A person's decision to not have children can spark "moral outrage" in others, even total strangers, a new study finds.

Moral outrage is an emotion of anger and disgust that people feel toward someone they think committed a moral transgression, rather than anger that results from a perceived insult or injury.  

The study comes as more adults in the U.S. are deciding to delay having children, or to forgo having children entirely.

Previous research has found that people who choose not to have children often face stigmatization; however, it wasn't clear what drove such stigmatization, the study said. [Top 10 Stigmatized Health Disorders]

In the new study, which was published March 1 in the journal Sex Roles, participants reported feeling morally outraged toward hypothetical couples who decided to not have children.

"What's remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children," study author Leslie Ashburn-Nardo, an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said in a statement.

The findings suggest that some people view parenthood as a moral imperative, Ashburn-Nardo said. "Not having children is seen not only as atypical, but also as morally wrong," she said.

In the study, nearly 200 college students were asked to read one of several descriptions of a married adult and then rate their perceptions of how psychologically fulfilled they thought the person was. They were also asked to note if they felt any moral outrage toward the person. The only differences in the descriptions were the person's gender and whether he or she had chosen to have children, according to the study.

However, the study participants didn't know that they were ultimately being asked about how they viewed a person's decision to have children. Rather, they were told that the study was focused on making predictions about a person's future.

Ashburn-Nardo found that the participants perceived the people described as choosing not to have children as significantly less psychologically fulfilled than the people described as having children. The study participants also reported significantly more moral outrage at these childless individuals, Ashburn-Nardo found.

In addition, the participants showed no difference in their perception of child-free men vs. child-free women; the two were stigmatized equally, Ashburn-Nardo wrote in the report.

"Participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children," Ashburn-Nardo said. "This effect was driven primarily by feelings of moral outrage — anger, disapproval and disgust — toward the voluntarily child-free people," she said.

The new findings may have some troubling implications for how people transition to adulthood, Ashburn-Nardo wrote in the study. For example, the study suggested that "many young people may view children as a necessary ingredient for fulfilling lives," and as a result, may feel "tremendous pressure" to have children, she wrote.

"Ironically, these perceptions have absolutely no basis in reality," Ashburn-Nardo wrote. Rather, existing research suggests that parents report significantly less marital satisfaction than nonparents and that dissatisfaction increases as couples have more children, the study said.

The research had several limitations, including a largely homogenous sample that consisted primarily of white women in their early 20s, Ashburn-Nardo noted. In addition, although there was a statistically significant difference in the levels of moral outrage people felt towards childless couples compared with couples that had children, the average increases in moral outrage were not very large, she wrote.

It's possible, however, that moral outrage could be stronger if the people in the study were evaluating people they actually knew, Ashburn-Nardo wrote.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.