People seem to think they know a lot about you if you’re single, but how much of that is based on accurate perception and how much is just cultural prejudice?
Anna Yakimova/123RF Photo
When I first started studying perceptions of single people, it was demoralizing thow easy it was to elicit harsh judgments. In the simplest study of stereotyping I ever conducted, Wendy Morris and I recruited 950 undergraduates and asked half of them to tell us what came to mind when they thought about single people, and the others to tell us their spontaneous thoughts about married people.
Wow, were their descriptions different! Nearly every other person describing married people (49 percent) spontaneously suggested that they were kind, caring, or giving; only 2 percent of those who were describing single people came up with those characteristics.
Every third person describing married people (32 percent) said that they were loving. No one – not one person – said that about single people. Married people were also more often described as happy, secure, loyal, compromising, and reliable. (Single people, though, were more often described as independent.
Stereotypes or Accurate Descriptions?
One possible explanation for these findings is that our participants were not generating stereotypes at all – they were instead describing what single and married people are really like.
At least four approaches have been used to show that the negative perceptions of single people are not factual descriptions.
- Create pairs of brief biographical sketches of people who are identical in every way, except for their marital status. That way, everything about the two people is exactly the same, except that one is said to be single and the other married. Will the single person still be judged more harshly?
In a series of studies, my colleagues and I created pairs of brief biographical sketches. The people in the sketches – I’ll call them targets – were identical in every way (e.g., name, age, hometown, interests, job) except that half of the time, the target was said to be single, and the other half, married. Then we asked participants (sometimes college students, sometimes people from the community) to rate the targets along various dimensions.
Remember, the pairs of targets were described identically, except for their marital status. It didn’t matter – those described as single were still judged harshly. They were viewed as less happy, less secure, more immature, more fearful of rejection, lonelier, more self-centered and more envious. (Single people were, though, also seen as more independent and career-oriented.)
Other researchers from different countries used the same methodology to learn about perceptions of single people and they all found the same thing. Single people are viewed much more negatively than married or coupled people. For example, in a set of studies conducted by Tobias Greitemeyer in Germany, single people were judged as less satisfied with their lives, lower in self-esteem, less attractive, less socially skilled, less satisfied with their relationship status, more interested in changing their relationship status, lonelier, more neurotic, less agreeable, and less conscientious. (They were, however, also viewed as more open-minded.)
In this first approach to the question of whether stereotypes are based on actual differences, we made sure there were no actual differences between the married and single people by describing them in exactly the same way. In the next three approaches, real single and married people are compared to see if they differ.
(As I have explained many times before, if people who are currently married seem better off in some ways than people who are single, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing better because they are married. The currently married people do not include all the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced. Also, even if the people who choose to get married do better in certain ways, that doesn’t mean that single people would do better if they got married. Some single people like their single lives and do best living single.)
- Ask single and married participants to rate themselves.
- Introduce people to each other, give them some time to talk (without revealing anything about their marital or relationship status), and then ask for their impressions of each other. Or, ask the experimenters to rate the participants, again without knowing their marital or relationship status.
Greitemeyer used both of these two approaches (2 and 3). Keeping in mind that these comparisons of currently married (or coupled) people to single people are biased in favor of the married people for the reasons I described above, here are some of the results.
- Single people were just as satisfied with their lives as coupled people.
- Single people’s self-esteem was just as high as coupled people’s.
- Single people were just as attractive as coupled people.
- Single people were just as socially skilled as coupled people.
- Single people were no more neurotic than coupled people.
- Single people were just as agreeable as coupled people.
- Single people were just as conscientious as coupled people.
There were a few ways that single people fared worse than coupled people. For example, they were less satisfied with their relationship status and more interested in changing it. But that makes sense, too, because coupled people who want to change their relationship status can simply walk away; the ones who are still coupled are disproportionately those who are satisfied with their relationships. Single people cannot unilaterally change their relationship status; they need to find a partner.
- Review the vast collection of studies on the differences between married and single people, with a special focus on studies that follow people as they go from being single to getting married.
New studies, when designed and conducted in rigorous ways, are always great. But social scientists interested in the implications of marriage for health, well-being, social ties, social skills, and just about anything else you can think of have other alternatives – datasets that are available and studies that have already been published.
Greitemeyer, again, gets credit for using this approach, too. He analyzed data from the European Social Survey. Representative samples of people from more than 30 nations rated their satisfaction with their lives (on a 0 to 10 scale, with 10 indicating greater satisfaction) and their self-esteem (1 to 5 scale, with lower numbers indicating higher self-esteem). Here’s what he found:
Overall satisfaction with their life:
7.12 lifelong single people
7.10 currently married people
2.13 lifelong single people
2.13 currently married people
Once again, the life satisfaction and self-esteem of single people was essentially identical to that of married people.
For nearly two decades, I have been reading and critiquing studies about marital status. My arguments and conclusions are in my blog posts, articles, and books such as Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, and more recently, Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong. The brief version: Claims that getting married makes people better off (with regard to outcomes such as happiness, health, longevity, interpersonal ties, depression, and self-esteem) are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. In fact, there are important ways in which lifelong single people do better than people who marry.
Bottom Line: When people judge single people more harshly than married people, they are stereotyping them, not just reporting factual differences. So how can we explain stereotyping? Why do single people get stereotyped? I’ll address that in a future article. There is some fascinating research on the topic, and some of it is new.
This article originally appeared in Bella DePaulo’s Living Single column in Psychology Today.
SingularCity member Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard, 1979) is a single lifestyle expert and the author of several books, including “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.” DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been noted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, Atlantic, Business Week and Newsweek. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.