Diverging Family Structure and 'Rational' Behavior: The Decline in Marriage as a Disorder of Choice

96 Pages Posted: 19 Apr 2010 Last revised: 25 Jun 2010

See all articles by Amy L. Wax

Amy L. Wax

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: May 17, 2010


The past fifty years have witnessed a growing divergence in family structure by social class, income, education, and race. The goal is to explain why significant segments of the population are moving away from the traditional patterns of family and reproduction. Most demographers acknowledge that external and material constraints fail to account for most of the present dispersion by class and race in marriage, divorce, and patterns of childbearing. Nor do these factors explain the widening of disparities over time. In attempting to improve on prior theories, this paper proposes a different explanation for these developments. It argues that demographic trends can best be explained as the product of growing differences in styles of thinking about partner choice and reproductive behavior. Drawing on the work of psychologists Richard Herrnstein and Gene Heyman, the paper presents a model that contrasts two distinct types of “rational” choice: “global” and “local.” It then demonstrates that average disparities by race and class in the adoption of local or global decisionmaking methods can account for the significant demographic variations now observed in rates of marriage, divorce, and out of wedlock childbearing. The paper then suggests that this diversity emerged in the wake of the normative deregulation of the sexual revolution. The demise of strong heuristic mores and institutional constraints, and the rise of individualism, facilitated the development of contrasting decisionmaking styles in intimate relations.

Keywords: Decline of Matrimony, Social Change and Deterioration, Family Structure, Reproductive Choice and Behavior, Demographic Change in Families, Childbearing out of Wedlock, Childrearing, Rational Choice, Sexual Norms, Normative Deregulation of Sex, Birth Control, Individualistic Behavior

Suggested Citation

Wax, Amy L., Diverging Family Structure and 'Rational' Behavior: The Decline in Marriage as a Disorder of Choice (May 17, 2010). Penn Law Public Law Research Paper No. 10-17, U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 10-11, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1592424 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1592424

Amy L. Wax (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-5638 (Phone)
215-573-2025 (Fax)

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