05 August, 2017

Confirmation bias and childlessness

I’ve been thinking about confirmation bias a bit over the last year. Increased access to technology and the internet means that, even more than previously, we are all able to surround ourselves with like-minded views, to read the information we agree with, not that which challenges us. It’s one of the reasons I still get a newspaper delivered. I like the fact that when I read the paper with breakfast, I read articles that I wouldn’t have clicked on if I was on the newspaper’s website, if I even got to the website (Besides, I like the puzzles.) I grew up in the age where we only had one, then two television channels in New Zealand. If we wanted to relax in front of a screen, we had to watch what was on. I learned a lot of new things I wouldn’t have otherwise, if I’d been able to change channels. Even my student exchange was a case of finding joy and discovery and a career path in something I’m not sure I would have chosen. My choices were simple – a US exchange, or an International exchange (which included the US as the last resort). I chose the International option, as I imagined myself on ski slopes in Switzerland, and ended up in Bangkok, Thailand. Students these days get to choose their desired destination, and many predictably go for the countries they know most about. I think this can be a big mistake.

I have to say though that I’m not making an argument against having too much choice, but rather making an argument for being open to other possibilities. We think we know what we need to know, and what we want to know, but we should always remain open, and explore new avenues. Obviously, as a person without children, I want others to be open to what my life is, and to accept it as a legitimate reality, and even as a realistic option.

Many of us have written about how hard it is for those going through infertility to be able to read our blogs. We probably remember this from our own journeys. Those who are trying to conceive find that conception (and carrying to term) becomes the main focus of their lives. They need support, and so read those who are at the same stage, those who are also full of hope, denying any alternative options, determined to reach their goal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Support is important, feeling you’re not alone is helpful, and feeling hope is a good thing. All this is healthy.

But refusing to go beyond that – especially if you’re in this for a long period of time – is less healthy and less helpful, because it also plays to your fears. We all know that our fears pull us down, tell us we’re worthless, and lie to us, but when we’re in the midst of fear, we don’t always see that. Staying within the actively-trying-to-conceive community convinces you that the holy grail of having a child is the answer to happiness, to everything you ever wanted in your life, and can close your mind to any alternatives. Or it can convince you that the alternatives – No Kidding for example – are your worst nightmares. Unfortunately, wider society just emphasises and further confirms those views, amplifies the fears and uncertainty, and paints the No Kidding life as a failure, as the worst case scenario, as a grey life full of sadness. Whereas we here all know that that is simply not the case.

Obviously, though, confirmation bias works both ways. I know that many of us, when we are newly entering the No Kidding community knowing it is for the rest of our lives, read only No Kidding blogs, for the same reasons – for self-protection, knowing we won’t see scan or newborn photos or pregnancy announcements, or hear all the statements that that cut us to the core and diminish us and our experiences. So, it is natural that many of us, especially in these early days, might read only No Kidding blogs for the support, to feel that we’re not alone, and to feel hope that we will be okay. If we only read No Kidding blogs, there is a safety in community that we can’t find elsewhere.

But it can mean that we become focused on our grief, unable to recognise the difficulties and hardships in other journeys, including those who got the holy grail. Long-term, there is a danger that a focus only on the No Kidding experience might stop us developing a wider perspective that could help us heal.

So could our own confirmation bias lead us to perpetuate our feelings of victimisation, and lead to the demonisation of those who are parents?

There is a real risk of this. And I do see it at times, though as I say, usually in the early days of accepting there will never be children. But I’m coming to the conclusion that we – the No Kidding – are perhaps less susceptible to the effects of confirmation bias than those in this community who are pregnant and parenting. We live in this world too, and unless we hide away and only ever communicate with others who don’t have children (which is impossible), we have no choice but to interact with others who have had different outcomes, with different views, and with different challenges.

We know (how could we not?) that the world has different opinions and lifestyles to our own, and once wanted to be part of those communities ourselves. We have friends and family who live differently from us. We are bombarded daily with the message that the way we live is different from, perhaps lesser than, the norm. Whereas so often, confirmation bias reinforces the superiority of a view or a lifestyle to the exclusion of other minorities, in our case, we might use it just to remind ourselves and each other that we are equal, and legitimate, members of wider society and this community.

In our case, is it actually a bias at all? I’m not so sure, and as I have written this post, I’ve found my ideas change. I started this post to make the comment that we must be sure we don't succumb to confirmation bias, become bitter, further isolate ourselves, anger others by not attempting to understand their situations, and make our own position in society harder than it already is. But as I have been writing, I’ve realised that – long-term, at least – there is little chance of that. 

When we do get together as a No Kidding community, we’re looking for and providing support that we don’t get elsewhere in society. Support in context is not a bias. But still, it's worth thinking about from time to time, and just checking that we're being fair and unbiased to both those with and without children. After all, that's really the only way to ever be fair to ourselves.


  1. "we’re looking for and providing support that we don’t get elsewhere in society." Yes. In fact, with this blog post you've once again given me the impetus to write a post that's been kicking around in the back of my head...

  2. Interesting piece. I've noticed a lot of people going through infertility chose to avoid friends who are pregnant or have kids. It's a self protection thing and I totally understand that. But by doing so they can also end up idolizing the idea of children and families even more so. I know that for me it was helpful to meet with my friends who have kids and hear about the fact that their lives aren't so perfect (sick kids, lack of sleep, even relationship conflicts brought on my having children) just to remind me that having kids isn't always this amazing happy after after.

  3. "Long-term, there is a danger that a focus only on the No Kidding experience might stop us developing a wider perspective that could help us heal." I love this examination of perspective, of the dangers of isolating yourself in your own experience from many ends of the spectrum. Thoughtful post, I love it. I know I was afraid to explore more No Kidding blogs when I was in the thick of things, but it actually did exactly what you wrote when I opened myself up to people who had a different ending to their journey -- it helped me to see hope in an alternate reality that isn't as celebrated but should be. It helped me to see light at the end of a dark, dark tunnel and to accept that maybe this quest was costing more than I had to give, and that resolving childfree could be a promising, fulfilling new life. I thank you so much for providing these perspectives and helping people on many paths to see the value of a diverse community.