In Brief

Planning to have children might protect people from fearing death, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 7). However, men more readily use children as a buffer against existential fear than do women, says study author Arnaud Wisman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Kent at Canterbury in England.

In an initial study, Wisman and his colleagues asked 76 undergraduate students to complete a series of surveys. The researchers prompted half of the students to think about mortality by asking them to report emotions evoked by thoughts of death. The participants also wrote down what they believe will physically happen to them when they die. The control group answered the same questions about watching television: what emotions they experience while watching television and what physically happens as they watch it.

At the end of the questionnaire--which included some filler questions--the participants noted how many children they would like to have.

Male participants who had thought about death reported wanting an average of 0.78 more children than the controls. Conversely, female participants who had been thinking about death reported that they desired slightly fewer children than the controls.

The researchers hypothesized that both men and women buffer against the fear of death by looking for meaning in both children and work. But for women, finding satisfaction in a career can be difficult to do if one also has children, notes Wisman. These conflicting goals for women could negate children's buffering effect against the fear of death, he says.

To test his hypothesis, Wisman and his colleagues ran another study, this time using 80 female undergraduates. The participants filled out the same surveys used in the first study after reading a fake newspaper article. Half of the participants read an article trumpeting a new finding that mothers frequently have as fulfilling careers as other women. The other half read an article reporting that women typically must sacrifice career goals for motherhood.

The women who read that children and careers are easily compatible responded like the men in the first study: Those who also were thinking about death reported they wanted, on average, 0.7 more children than those who were not. The women who read that children interfere with careers acted like the women in the first study: Those who thought about death tended to want fewer children than those who thought about television.

Why might children buffer against a fear of death? According to Wisman, "Children have a promise for symbolic immortality. Your life in a way goes on by having children."

For example, a mother's love of gardening could live on in her children, he notes. Additionally, having children can provide people with a source of meaning in their lives, which can also mitigate the dread of death, he says.