What George Costanza Can Teach Us About Male Fertility
A study finds that personality traits, including neuroticism in men and conscientiousness in women, may influence childbearing.
He was arguably the most neurotic fictional character in the history of television, and he never had kids. George Costanza predicted his childless fate in the final season of the hit sitcom “Seinfeld.”
“I’m never going to have a child,” Costanza said as he explained his obsession with an arcade game. “If I lose this Frogger high score, that’s it for me.”
A new European study suggests Costanza may have good company on the childless front — if not necessarily among fellow Frogger aficionados, then at least among real-life neurotics.
Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria used comprehensive survey and birth registry information from Norway to examine how personality traits affected the fertility of some 7,000 men and women. They looked specifically at whether their subjects had children and, if so, how many.
They found that for men born after 1956, there was ” a clear negative effect of neuroticism on men’s fertility.” (Neuroticism was defined as “a tendency to be worried, touchy, nervous and emotionally unstable” — George to a tee.)
Neurotic men, according to a report on the study published in the European Journal of Personality, have “a higher risk of childlessness and to a less extent a lower probability of being partnered.”
The correlation between fertility and neuroticism for men born before 1956 was weaker or nonexistent. Researchers hypothesized that personality traits were less critical in determining childbearing in older generations — both men and women — because they were “more economically constrained and more prone to social expectations about marriage and reproduction.”
Younger generations, meanwhile, the study authors said, “are freer to live without a partner or children.”
Exactly why the youngest cohort of neurotic men were more likely than non-neurotic men to eschew children could be a subject for further research, but researchers did posit two theories: That neurotic men are increasingly avoiding the “long-term commitment” of having kids, or that their partners don’t want to commit to raising children with them.
Returning to our favorite fictional neurotic male, the theories only hold half-true. George was, indeed, notoriously commitment-phobic, notably plotting to end an engagement and displaying relief when his fiancée accidentally died. Still, when his wedding was imminent, George and his would-be wife both indicated that they’d want at least one child (whom George intended to name “Seven.”)
There are also plenty of real-world examples of neurotics wanting and having kids…and then, of course, worrying about them. Bob, a New Jersey dad in his 30s who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, admitted to having “neurotic tendencies” which manifest themselves when he’s with his two children.
“Every time I’m with them, I think they’re going to die,” he said.
Still, he added, he’d love to have a third child.
“I looked forward to having the first and the second,” he said. “I want kids.”
Steve, the father of a two-year-old boy, also in New Jersey, had a troubled adolescence and now worries about what sort of mischief his son could get into as a teen, from smoking marijuana to running away.
That notwithstanding, “I would definitely like to have another child,” he said.
In a twist worthy of “Seinfeld,” the study may prompt neurotic, childless men to worry about their fertility when they hadn’t given it much thought before.
“I definitely worry a lot,” said Tim, a childless man in New York. “Don’t make me worry about that!”
The study’s other findings include:
- Extraverts are more likely to have higher fertility, particularly men.
- “Openness” — defined as ” a tendency to be imaginative, creative and unconventional” — is associated with lower fertility for men.
- Being more conscientious — that is, goal-oriented — is correlated with lower fertility for women.
Researchers explain the lattermost finding as the potential result of a greater career focus among women and the “significant role-incompatibility between work and childbearing” — a conclusion especially pertinent to today’s ongoing debates and discussions on women’s struggles to balance work and family, particularly here in the U.S.
Can the childbearing patterns revealed by the Norwegian data also be found in this country?
Study leader Vegard Skirbekk suggested that, based on historical precedent, it’s possible that his findings are applicable in other places.
“Norway is a leader country in terms of family dynamics,” he said. “Many trends that have been observed first in Norway—increasing cohabitation, divorce rates, and later marriage, for example—have then been observed later in many other parts of the world.”
Publicity image via Wikipedia.
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