Conspicuous consumption may drive fertility down

March 28, 2016 by Carol Clark, Emory University
"As competition becomes more focused on social climbing, as opposed to just putting food on the table, people invest more in material goods and achieving social status, and that affects how many children they have," says anthropologist Paul Hooper.

Competition for social status may be an important driver of lower fertility in the modern world, suggests a new study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

"The areas were we see the greatest declines in fertility are areas with modern labor markets that have intense competition for jobs and an overwhelming diversity of consumer goods available to signal well-being and ," says senior author Paul Hooper, an anthropologist at Emory University. "The fact that many countries today have so much social inequality - which makes status competition more intense - may be an important part of the explanation."

The study authors developed a mathematical model showing that their argument is plausible from a biological point of view.

Across the globe, from the United States to the United Kingdom to India, fertility has gone down as inequality and the cost of achieving social status has gone up. "Our model shows that as competition becomes more focused on social climbing, as opposed to just putting food on the table, people invest more in material goods and achieving social status, and that affects how many children they have," Hooper says.

Factors such as lower , more access to birth control and the choice to delay childbirth to get a higher education are also associated with declining fertility. "While these factors are very important they are insufficient to explain the drops in family sizes that we are seeing," Hooper says.

In addition to Hooper, the study authors include anthropologists Mary Shenk, from the University of Missouri, and Hillard Kaplan, from the University of New Mexico. They are pioneers in an emerging field of "computational anthropology," which blends methods from biology, economics, computer science and physics to answer fundamental questions about human behavior.

The study is featured in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, devoted to how evolutionary approaches can help solve the puzzle of why human fertility varies substantially.

Hooper first became intrigued by variability in human fertility while researching the Tsimane indigenous people of Bolivian Amazonia. The Tsimane (pronounced chee-mahn-AY in Spanish) are foragers and horticulturalists who live in small, isolated communities along the Maniqui River in the Amazonian rainforest.

"In a hunter-gatherer society, parents have a limited number of things available to invest in: Food, clothing and shelter," Hooper says. "The average Tsimane family has nine children and they can provide these basic needs for all of them."

Hooper noticed a pattern, however, when Tsimane families leave the rainforest and move closer to Spanish-speaking towns where they come into contact with market economies and industrialized goods. "When they start getting earnings for the first time, they spend money on things you wouldn't really expect, like an expensive wristwatch or a nylon backpack for a child attending school, instead of sending them with a traditional woven bag," Hooper says. "I got the impression that these things were largely symbolic of their social status and competence."

The Tsimane family size also tends to drop when they move closer to town: From eight or nine children in remote villages, to five or six in villages near town, to three to four in the town itself, he adds.

Hooper hypothesizes that a similar pattern plays out as societies develop from mainly agrarian to more urban and affluent. "In my grandparents day, it took a lot less investment to be respectable," he says. "It was important to have a set of good clothes for church on Sunday but you could let the kids run around barefoot for the rest of the week."

Today, however, keeping up with the Jones has become much more complicated - and expensive.

"The human species is highly social and, as a result, we appear to have an ingrained desire for social standing," Hooper says. "The problem is that our brains evolved in a radically different environment from that of the modern world. Evolution didn't necessarily train us very well for the almost infinite size of our communities, the anonymity of many of our interactions and the vast numbers of goods that we can use to signal our status. Our evolved psychology may be misfiring and causing us to overinvest in social standing."

Explore further: Amazonian study quantifies key role of grandparents in family nutrition

More information: Status competition, inequality, and fertility: implications for the demographic transition, Published 28 March 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2015.0150,

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4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 28, 2016
Our evolved psychology may be misfiring and causing us to overinvest in social standing

On the contrary.

Overpopulation is one of the biggest threats to survival in the modern society, because the proportion of producers to consumers diminishes as people move into cities. In the rural countryside more children means higher living standards for everybody. The more hands you have to work the farm or trade, the more wealth you generate.

Not so in the city: kids are nothing but a drain on your resources, and you actually need high social standing to be able to afford children. The cities themselves don't produce anything - they draw in resources from the surrounding countryside and simply consume it, so the more people in the city the less wealth there is to share per citizen.

That's why concentrating on social status and status symbols makes sense: the individual is showing they're able to secure enough of the limited resources to themselves to reproduce.
3 / 5 (4) Mar 28, 2016
As a corollary, attempts to eliminate social differences between people by wealth redistribution, quotas and positive discrimination shifts the reproductive strategy back towards large families.

It produces a situation where again more hands means more income for the family, but not for the reason of producing more resources out of the land, but by capturing a larger share of the social redistribution scheme. The urban society itself becomes the "farm" for the family, and compounds the problem of too many princes and not enough peasants.

The most productive form of social aid even in this modern age would be to divvy up plots of land to the poor and teach them how to farm it. The big paradox today is, that people choose to flock to cities to live in abject poverty in places where they have no real hope of making a living, instead of moving away from cities to where the resources are.
5 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
Problem with conspicuous consumption is that the people that DO reproduce are exactly the ones that shouldn't, those who are wasting resources and contributing zilch to society.
1 / 5 (1) Mar 28, 2016
Evolution didn't necessarily train us very well for the almost infinite size of our communities, the anonymity of many of our interactions and the vast numbers of goods that we can use to signal our status.

That's a rather ignorant statement, since evolution cannot train you. Evolution ultimately is about survival and nothing observed in this study belies that, especially investing in a higher social standing. Doubt me, then just take a look at the response above.
5 / 5 (2) Mar 28, 2016
Perhaps the problem is that the modern city is a poverty trap. All the productive opportunities are in the specialist fields where the number of positions is limited and highly competed, where half of the population has no business because you need a fairly high level of intelligence to succeed.

The rest of the business is in retail services, entertainment and marketing - all of which are consumptive fields that exist on the surplus of the rest of society without contributing to it. Most people end up here whether they want it or not, and so most people end up as a net loss of resources.

So new people come in, take huge student loans, and end up doing telemarketing or web ads with 200k in debt. They can't afford to get out because they've become like the company town miners who are in perpetual debt to the company for everything they depend on. They become pool boys for the rich, or feng-shui experts and hairdressers because there's nothing else to do for them.
not rated yet Mar 28, 2016
In USA now thugs are paid $1000 to not kill
"But what's really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work, and it's definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems."
not rated yet Mar 29, 2016
Out in the Country, such as for a farmer, rancher or the old Loggers and Millmen, trappers etc, it was easy enough for them to show possible mates their skills, and survival type skills of hunting, fishing and gardening were also high on the list. Essentially, if a man could provide for and build a home THAT was plenty of social status, along with known history in the area.
In Cities, this is all diluted, too many people and too many of them do not know all the people that live on their own building, let alone their block. Survival skills are not generally known having been traded for social skill in crowded areas, people tend to need something to show their worth as a provider, and so conspicuous consumption is a way to earn social status towards getting a mate. It does, however, limit the money for family raising.
Cities are also full of unscrupulous users and abusers of other people and would happily make others into slave labor for their OWN profit. Most Inequality is artificial.
not rated yet Apr 03, 2016
I wonder if this study has compensated for the off-gassing of hormone-like vapours from the plastics so often found in said consumer goods. ?

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