In my previous post, I took on headlines claiming that married men are better men (or at least better behaved, or nicer, or less likely to be psychopaths) in my favorite way - by looking at the original journal article to see what the results really were. Take a look at the details if you haven't already; the short version is that saying "married men are better men" is at best a stretch; in fact, if we had more information, it is possible that we would conclude that the results suggest something entirely different.
What Do the Study Results Really Mean?
First, let me reiterate that we don't know whether there would be any difference at all between the antisocial behaviors of married and single men if the item about a 1-year monogamous relationship were set aside. It is even possible that the married men would average more antisocial behaviors than the single men (since the average difference between the two groups was less than half of one behavior).
What if the results were the same even if that one item were set aside? Why would the men who average just over 1 antisocial behavior at age 17 be more likely to stay single than those who average just under 1 antisocial behavior? And why would the difference in antisocial behaviors become even greater by the time 59% of the men had married, at age 29? (Again, by a "greater" difference, we mean that the 17-year olds who would stay single averaged 0.33 more antisocial behaviors than those who would marry; by 29, the difference would be 0.46 antisocial behaviors.)
The authors speculate that the (slightly) more antisocial men are less likely to marry because they are less attractive as marriage partners or they find marriage less attractive themselves. More interesting were the speculations as to why marriage seems to be associated with a decrease in antisocial behaviors. From the press release:
"...it's unlikely that marriage inhibits men's antisocial behavior directly, but rather than marriage is a marker for other factors such as social bonding or less time spent with delinquent peers. Another factor that seems to be important is marriage quality..."
From reading the original research report, I know what they mean by "social bonding" - cohabiting or being engaged, rather than just being married. They do NOT seem to be saying that having important people in your life is what matters - instead they are saying that having a romantic partner is what matters. They are also setting up a good vs. bad contrast: romantic partner = good; friends = bad, delinquent. It is true that friends can egg one another into bad behaviors but they can also be a powerful force for good. (Remember who provided the most difficult and emotionally wrenching help during the height of the AIDS crisis?) The evidence for the potential benefits of friendship, even during ordinary times, is growing.
The qualifier about marriage quality is significant, too. The research article about antisocial behavior begins with the proclamation that "there is now convincing evidence that the state of marriage is associated with lower crime rates." I looked at the papers cited in support of that, and recognized one that I had already critiqued in Singled Out. Here's what I said about it:
"Did the delinquent boys who married become less lawless? Actually, they did, gradually. But only if their marriages were good ones, meaning that their relationship 'evolves into a strong attachment.' The delinquents whose marriages were not as good often got into even more trouble than they had when they were bachelors."
So Who Is Really 'Nicer' or 'Better," Single Men Or Married Men?
Seems to me that if you are going to print a broad, damning headline, indicating that married men are "better" or "nicer" than single men, you had better be referring to something more than one type of behavior that (happily) occurs at a very low rate in the population, and that separates married and single men by less than one "symptom."
That, of course, would mean looking at a much wider range of ways that getting married may or may not matter in the lives of men. In a previous post and in Singled Out, I looked closely at the results of a study of marriage in men's lives. The study included an assessment of how often married and single men gave gifts of more than $200. Here's the short version of the answer:
"In sum, men who are single give no less to relatives than men who are married, despite drawing from one (rather than two) incomes and getting paid less to boot. And, they give more to friends than married men do."
How does that square with married men being "nicer"?
What about devoting time to service-oriented groups or organizations? Here's another excerpt from the same sources:
"One of the cliches about marriage is that it takes self-centered singles and turns them into concerned citizens. By marrying, the story goes, adults begin to feel that they have a stake in the fate of the nation that they did not have as self-absorbed singles. If this were true, then married people might be expected to put their time where their values are. They may, for example, devote more time to just those organizations billed as providing service to the community and to society. They might also become more involved in political groups. Nock looked into these possibilities, too. But he found no differences. Men who married spent no more time in service clubs, political groups, or fraternal organizations than they had when they were single." They actually spent less time in groups such as professional societies, unions, and farm organizations.
Check out this post, too, "Does marriage civilize men," for more examples of the debunking of false claims about the transformative power of marriage in men's lives.
UPDATE: Here's a New York Times column on the study, by Pamela Paul, that includes part of my point.
[Thanks again to Deb, Lauren, and Natalya for the heads-up about these stories in the press. Thanks, too, for the great comments already posted in response to the Part 1.]