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Assessing the Predictive Value of Fertility Expectations Through a Cognitive–Social Model

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This paper grounds its analysis in a novel model (Bachrach and Morgan in Popul Dev Rev, 39:459–485, 2013) that suggests that responses to questions about fertility intentions may reflect distinct phenomena at distinct points in the life course. The model suggests that women form "true" intentions when their circumstances make the issue of childbearing salient and urgent enough to draw the cognitive resources needed to make a conscious plan; before this, women report intentions based on cognitive images of family and self. We test the implications of this model for reported fertility expectations using NLSY79 data that measure expectations throughout the life course. We find that early in the life course, before marriage and parenthood, women’s fertility expectations are associated with family background and cognitive images of family and future self. Later in the life course, as women experience life course transitions that confer statuses normatively associated with childbearing—such as marriage—and parenthood itself, their reported expectations are better predictors of their fertility than before they passed these life course milestones. Our empirical results provide support for a model which has important implications for both the measurement and conceptualization of women’s intended and expected fertility.

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  1. An earlier version of this theory, the Theory of Reasoned Action, was proposed by Fishbein and Ajzen in 1975.

  2. For example, the international Generations and Gender Programme, begun in 2004, extensively draws on the TPB in its conceptualization and in the operationalization of its measurement instruments (Vikat et al. 2007). A 2010 conference focused entirely on TPB as a model for studying fertility behavior.

  3. An exception is Miller (1994) who has advanced a traits-desires-intentions-behavior or T-D-I-B framework that outlines the sequence of motivational dispositions and conscious states that lead humans to behave to have or avoid having children.

  4. Even the TPB’s author, Icek Ajzen, challenged demographers to modify the theory to more accurately describe fertility during the 2010 conference (Morgan and Bachrach 2011).

  5. The Theory of Planned Behavior (Fishbein and Ajzen 2010) also views intentions as shaped by attitudes and norms, but does not specify how intentions may develop over the life course.

  6. In the cognitive–social model, a person’s experience of different structures (as influenced by family background, education, religion, ethnicity, etc.) also shapes the representations and emotional meanings of self and family life constructed in the brain, creating another path for influencing fertility intentions.

  7. Demographers have tended to treat intentions and expectations as interchangeable, and indeed, evidence suggests that when these questions are posed to survey respondents, they tend to elicit very similar answers (Morgan 2001; Ryder and Westoff 1965).

  8. For the reasoning behind this, see Bachrach (2014).

  9. As discussed in the introduction, Morgan and Rackin (2010) addressed a related question, but did not examine changes in the accuracy of expectations across life course transitions.

  10. Final parity was the total number of children reported in the last available wave after the 40th birthday.

  11. The transition to completing education was not as crisply defined as the transition to marriage and first birth (the dates of first marriage and birth were recorded) because women may return to education as their life course proceeds, and this transition may be triggered by the occurrence or nonoccurrence of marriage and birth. We have explored other measures of completion of education and find generally similar results.

  12. First cohabitation was based on the household roster and measured the first time a respondent reported living with a person of the opposite sex who was not their spouse. The first cohabitation, however, may have not been recorded because it occurred before the first survey or between waves. Nevertheless, this is the only measure available across all waves.

  13. Of women in our sample, 68 % had information in every interval, 16 % were missing information in one interval, 11 % were missing information in two intervals, and the remaining 6 % were missing in more than two intervals. The number of years between each interval range between 1 and 3 years with the majority being two years (only the 1979–1982 interval was three years and the 1982–1986 intervals were 1 year).


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Correspondence to Heather M. Rackin.

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Rackin, H.M., Bachrach, C.A. Assessing the Predictive Value of Fertility Expectations Through a Cognitive–Social Model. Popul Res Policy Rev 35, 527–551 (2016).

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