The “biological clock” is a well-known metaphor that refers to women’s age-limited time for childbearing.
But can just hearing a gentle “tick tock” while thinking about marriage and babies make a difference in people’s plans?
A new study from Florida State University (FSU) finds that some women are indeed affected — and sped up their plans to marry and have a child.
“The subtle sound of a ticking clock” led some women to “reduce the age at which they sought to get married and have their first child,” said the study by Justin H. Moss, a doctoral student in social psychology, and FSU psychology professor Jon K. Maner. The study appeared in Human Nature, a journal published by Springer.
The effect was only seen among women who experienced low-income conditions during their childhoods. Women raised in higher-income homes were not affected; men were unaffected as well.
Why did some women accelerate their family plans while others hit the “snooze button” on their biological clocks?
The researchers theorized that a ticking clock represented “a very subtle sign of reproductive threat,” which triggered a response in women who had already struggled with uncertainty by growing up in low-income families.
“Although most people like to think that personal decisions are a matter of their own free will, sometimes they are instead influenced by a person’s unconscious mind,” said Mr. Maner. “Very subtle things going on around us can affect very personal decisions — like when to have children — without us even realizing it.”
The FSU experiment asked 41 women and 18 men, aged 18 to 21, to sit in a room and answer a few questions like “How old do you think you’ll be when you get married?” and “How old do you think you’ll be when you have your first child?”
They were also asked to provide information about their childhood, including worries about money and household income during childhood.
The big difference was that in one room, participants answered questions while a white kitchen timer “ticked” nearby; participants in the other room worked in silence.
The researchers hypothesized that men didn’t react to the ticking clock because their reproductive potential is relatively unlimited and they “should be less threatened by environmental cues that signal the passage of time.”
In a second part of their study, the FSU researchers asked another group of 74 adults, aged 18 to 32, to consider attributes in a potential mate. Again, some answered questions with a clock ticking nearby while some sat in silence.
In that experiment, women from low-income childhoods responded to the ticking clock by lowering their expectation in finding a man with “social status” as a mate. Conversely, women from high-income childhoods who heard the clock raised their interest in that characteristic.
The sound of a ticking clock “changed the timing with which women sought to have children and the traits they sought in [a] potential partner — both central aspects of women’s mating-related psychology,” concluded Mr. Moss.
“The findings suggest that a woman’s childhood years can interact with subtle environmental stimuli to affect her reproductive timing during adulthood,” said Mr. Maner.