Cafe argument
Married couples who decide not to have children face anger and disgust in social backlash. iStock

The conscious choice not to have children is seen commonly as a violation of social norms and morally wrong among US university students, a psychological study has found.

Married heterosexual couples who make this choice face a social backlash for it in the form of outrage and stigma, according to a study published in the journal Sex Roles.

The study surveyed 197 students at a Midwestern university, giving them a short description of a married adult. They were only given information about whether the fictional person was male or female and whether they had decided to have two children or none. The study participants rated how psychologically fulfilled they thought the imagined adult was and their gut reactions to them.

The descriptions of the child-free adults led to higher scores for moral outrage among the university students than the adults who were parents. On top of that, the child-free adults were judged to be less fulfilled than the parents. There was no measured gender difference between outrage generated by the fictional child-free men and women.

Outrage from strangers

"Consistent with many personal anecdotes, participants rated voluntarily child-free men and women as significantly less fulfilled than men and women with children," said study author Leslie Ashburn-Nardo of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in a statement. "This effect was driven by feelings of moral outrage – anger, disapproval and disgust – toward the voluntarily child-free people."

The survey was structured around social backlash theory and research on retributive justice,
where someone viewed as deviating from norms is punished through social mechanisms such as stigma. The findings suggest that parenthood is commonly viewed as a moral imperative among young US adults.

"What's remarkable about our findings is the moral outrage participants reported feeling toward a stranger who decided to not have children," said Ashburn-Nardo. "Our data suggests that not having children is seen not only as atypical, or surprising, but also as morally wrong."

Previous studies have found that women with higher intelligence more frequently opt to be child-free. The choice to be child-free is becoming less atypical in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. There are similar trends in the US, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Other research has linked moral outrage to discrimination and interpersonal mistreatment," Ashburn-Nardo said. "It's possible that, to the extent they evoke moral outrage, voluntarily child-free people suffer similar consequences, such as in the workplace or in health care."