Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Actual Newspaper Headline: “Married Men Better Men”

A sweeping and dubious claim about married men

Readers have been sending me reports of a study published in December. A few newspaper articles (for example, this one and this one) appeared under the headline, "Married men better men." Seriously. If you don't see anything wrong with that, consider this: Imagine that you were the editor of a major newspaper. Under what conditions would you allow the publication of a headline such as "White People Better People"?  Right - you wouldn't.

Suppose, though, that there was a newly published study suggesting that white people are better than black people. Would that be enough to persuade you, as editor, to go with the headline, "White people better people"? Would it matter what the white people were better at, or would you allow a headline, "White people better people," even if the study was about just one aspect of people? And what about the strength of the findings - would you want the difference to be really big before you would print such a headline? Or again, would you just not print such a headline under any circumstances?

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Going back to the actual study of married and single men, the headline of the press release was a bit less sweeping. It said, "Why married men tend to behave better." That's still a broad generalization but at least there's a qualifier ("tend to"). Another version that got a lot of attention was a Reuters report. The headline of that one was, "Married men are nicer, and here's why."

First Glance at the Study and the Results

Lots of people read no more than a press release, or media stories based on that quick summary, so here's some of what you would learn if that's all you read:

  • Antisocial behavior was assessed in 289 pairs of male twins (188 were identical twins) when they were 17, 20, 24, and 29 years old. (Most were born between 1973 and 1978.)
  • None were married at age 17; by age 29, 59% were married.
  • "men with lower levels of antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 20 were more likely to have married by age 29"
  • "Once the men were married, rates of antisocial behavior declined even more"

 The methodology sounded promising, and I continued to be impressed even after reading the original research report. The authors had access to hundreds of pairs of twins, and followed the same men over time. A twin study, and a longitudinal one at that, is about as good as it gets with regard to figuring out the implications of marital status.

But of course, I still had questions after reading the press release, including one that still wasn't answered after I had  read the study:

  • What exactly counted as antisocial behavior?
  • How big were the differences between the single and the married men?
  • What were the results for the divorced men?
  • What happens after age 29?

Eventually, of course, I'd want to get to the question of what it all means (apart from what might be claimed about the meaning).

What Do They Mean by "Better" or "Better Behaved"? Here Are the Actual Criteria

So what did count as antisocial behavior? In the original journal article, only a few of the relevant behaviors were mentioned. I wanted to see the whole list, and I found it in this article by Robert Hare. (It is available other places as well.) Here are all 10 criteria:

1.      Has never sustained a monogamous relationship for more than one year

2.      Unable to sustain consistent work behavior

3.      Fails to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behavior

4.      Irritable and aggressive

5.      Fails to honor financial obligations

6.      Fails to plan ahead, or is impulsive

7.      Has no regard for the truth

8.      Reckless

9.      Lacks ability to function as a parent

10.   Lacks remorse

You read #1 correctly. If you are a man who is single at heart, and you have not had a monogamous (they mean romantic) relationship that has lasted more than a year (hey, you're single at heart - you LIKE being single - maybe you don't typically pursue romantic relationships), then that alone is considered just as symptomatic of antisocial behavior as having no feelings of remorse. Or no regard for the truth. Or breaking the law. Or being a flake in the workplace. Or having no ability to function as a parent.

I can see how some versions of "has never sustained a monogamous relationship for more than one year" could be problematic. If, for instance, you pledge your undying love and devotion to another person, only to be gone in months, and you do that over and over again, then that could plausibly be consistent with, say, an inability to sustain consistent work behavior. In fact, when psychopathy expert Robert Hare constructed his revised Psychopathy Checklist, he included a criterion of "many short-term marital relationships."

In the study we are considering, though, the criterion is different - "has never sustained a monogamous relationship for more than one year." If you've been contentedly single and have not pursued romantic relationships, that's one strike against you on the antisocial behavior scale.

Still, that's only one item. If the difference between single and married men is a big one, it might not matter. Or maybe the researchers set aside that item in their analyses.

How Big Were the Differences Between the Married Men and the Single Men?

In Table 1, the authors reported the AVERAGE NUMBER OF SYMPTOMS of antisocial behavior according to whether the men were single or married men at age 29. The rows for the earlier ages (17, 20, and 24) show the average number of symptoms for the same men when they were younger. (Remember that at age 17, none of them were married yet, but 59% would be by age 29.)

Age 17: SINGLE = 1.08, Married = 0.75 (Difference = .33)

Age 20: SINGLE = 1.48, Married = 1.18 (Difference = .30)

Age 24: SINGLE = 1.42, Married = 1.04 (Difference = .40)

Age 29: SINGLE = 1.29, Married = 0.83 (Difference = .46)

These are some of the data the authors present to make their two points: (1) Those men who would stay single through age 29 already showed more antisocial behavior at age 17 than those who would marry, even though at age 17 no one was married yet. (2) Once married, the difference in antisocial behavior between singles and marrieds is even greater.

All of that is true. But look at the actual numbers! The biggest number of symptoms for any group at any age is 1.48. Now most of those antisocial behaviors are pretty bad behaviors, so having one or two of them (depending on what they are) may be no small thing. But now look at the numbers that are even more important - the DIFFERENCES in the number of antisocial behaviors between the married and the single men. Every difference is an average of less than half a symptom.

So these are the findings behind the headlines, "Married men better men." At age 29, single men report just over 1 anti-social behavior, and married men report just under 1 anti-social behavior. As far as I can tell, that one behavior could include "has never sustained a monogamous relationship for more than one year." If the authors set that item aside, they didn't say so.

Engaging in just 1 anti-social behavior does not mean that you have antisocial personality disorder. For that, you would have to engage in at least 3 of them (plus meet some other criteria). So how many of the men in the study engaged in 3 or more of the antisocial behaviors? The authors told us: 3.9%. They also estimated that marriage resulted in a 30% reduction in antisocial behaviors. All of this is tentative and qualified but let's go with it to get a hint about the actual differences between the single and the married men. Solving the equations, I come up with 13 single men with antisocial behavior disorder and 9 married men. That's a difference of 4 men (out of 289 singles and 289 marrieds). That, too, gives you a sense of what is behind the headlines claiming that married men are better men.

What Were the Results for the Divorced Men? What Happened After Age 29?

The results for the divorced men matter because in studies of other implications of marital status, such as health or happiness, divorced people sometimes fare worse than people who have always been single. When that happens, then the risk is not staying single, it is getting married and then unmarried. You can't say that getting married makes your life better if that's only true for people who get married and stay married.

There were only 18 divorced men out of the 289 twin pairs, and the authors coded them as single, rather than analyzing them separately. They also tried leaving them out entirely, and said it made no difference. The divorced men would be worth revisiting in future years, when there are likely to be more of them. The relevant question is: Does the rate of antisocial behavior change when men transition from being married to being divorced, and how does that rate compare to that of the men who stayed single?

We don't know what happens after age 29, because the data collection (as reported in this study) ended at that age. That's important, though. As the authors note, "antisocial behavior is more common in early adulthood." So the highest rate the authors found for either of the groups at any of the ages was 1.48 behaviors. The biggest difference between married and single men was 0.46 behaviors. Looking past age 29, the overall rate is likely to decrease. Perhaps the difference will, too.

In my next post (here it is), I'll address the questions of what these study results really mean, and who is really nicer, married men or single men.

UPDATE: Here's a New York Times column, by Pamela Paul, that includes part of my point.

[Thanks to Natalya, Lauren, and Deb for the heads-up about the reports of this study.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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