At first glance, it’s hard to think of a more frivolous form of culture than the daily soap opera. It’s pure and delicious escapism. And yet, at least in Brazil, soap operas have powerfully influenced family planning, according to a new study:
What are the effects of television, and of role models portrayed in TV programs, on individual behavior? We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior.
Why did watching telenovelas reduce the birthrate? As the researchers note, the families on television tend to be extremely small, with more than seventy percent of leading female characters below the age of 50 living without kids.
What a lovely example of culture influencing a basic human drive! One of my persistent problems with evolutionary psychology is that it tends to disparage culture as nothing but an emanation of our hard-wired, Pleistocene instincts: the arts, for instance, are routinely disparaged as a by-product of sexual selection. (Call it the Picasso effect.) And yet, it’s also clear that culture and human nature exist in a powerful feedback loop, with even trite forms of culture (like the soap opera) able to influence that most Darwinian of decisions: having offspring.
For more on telenovelas and developing nations, check out this article.