Beliefs in myths about marriage aren't like any old beliefs—we care about our mythologies and ideologies. We want to believe that they are not myths, they are truths. Not everyone is invested in all of the prevailing myths, but among those who are, the defense of them can be tenacious.

In my last post, I explained the thinking behind systems justification theory, which is based on the premise that people are motivated to justify and defend the status quo. From that perspective, defending the prevailing myths about marriage and married people is one way of defending the status quo. Take a look at that previous post if you haven't already, then come back here to see what the researchers found.

The authors (full reference is below) conducted six experiments in Canada. For a seventh study, they analyzed data collected from more than 33,000 people from 29 other nations. Here, I'll tell you about the 29-nation study and 4 of the experiments.

Studies 1, 2 and 3

If you believe in the myths about marriage and coupling, then you are not going to want to hear about research that undermines those myths. Suppose, then, you read an article purporting to show that adults in a committed romantic relationship are not any better off than single people. Will you be more critical of that article than of an article purporting to show that coupled people are doing better than singles? Actually, the authors predicted that there would be no overall differences in how critical people would be of the two articles unless one of their other basic beliefs about fairness was threatened.

So in the first two studies, the researchers threatened participants' beliefs about the fairness of their own society. In the key condition, participants read that Arab-Canadians are targets of systematic discrimination (in one study) or that Canadian society is currently "suffering economically, politically and socially relative to other countries" (in another study). There was always a parallel non-threatening condition in which participants read that Arab-Canadians are treated fairly or that Canadian society was functioning well.

If system justification theory is correct, then the participants who had their fairness belief threatened are going to want to cling more strongly to another set of prevailing myths - for example, that everyone wants to marry, that getting married makes you happier and healthier, and that married people are better than single people because they are married.

One way of clinging to those beliefs is to criticize any challenges to them. Participants read an article that either threatened or supported their beliefs in the myths about marriage and coupling. The myth-supporting article said that coupled people are better off than singles in many ways; the myth-threatening article said that couples are no better off, and in some ways are worse off than singles. The participants then wrote out their evaluations and criticisms of the article.

If participants were reassured about the fairness of their society, then they were no more critical of the article that challenged the marriage mythology than they were of the article that supported that mythology. But when their sense of fairness was shaken, then they listed many more criticisms of the article saying that singles were doing as well or better than couples. That's what makes the criticisms seem defensive—they only show up when the participants' beliefs in the fairness of their own society are threatened.

The same results were found in both studies—with one big exception. Only the men reacted to the threat by criticizing the study that challenged the mythology of coupling. The women did not evaluate the studies any differently depending on what they had just read about the fairness of their society.

The third study showed that the psychology works in the reverse direction as well—if you threaten people's beliefs in the marital mythology (by reminding them, for example, of the high rate of divorce and the growing number of people staying single), then they are even more insistent about the fairness of their own society than if they did not have their marital mythologies threatened. Again, though, the predicted results only occurred for men.

Study 4

According to system justification theory, one of the reasons people defend the status quo is because it gives them a sense of orderliness and control and stability. If that function of the marriage and coupling mythology is emphasized, then people should cling to the mythology even more.

To make the point that romantic relationships deliver the goods of orderliness and control, some participants read that "people's sense of stability and order depends on the quality of their relationship." They also read that happiness depends more on the quality of their relationship than on their work or leisure pursuits. In the other condition, participants instead read that happiness is not linked to romantic relationship quality but to other domains such as work and leisure.

The participants then indicated their agreement with a series of statements of the marital mythology. For example, "Single people are missing out" and "Becoming involved in a committed relationship is the right thing to do."

Sure enough, participants who read that high-quality romantic relationships contribute to people's sense of stability and control, and to their happiness, were more likely to agree with the marital mythologies than were people who read that romantic relationship quality does not contribute to happiness or a sense of security. You know there's a qualifier coming: The predicted results occurred only for the men.

The Study of 33,000 People from 29 Additional Nations

According to system justification theory, believing in the fairness of your own country and believing in mythologies of marriage and coupling can both be ways of defending and justifying the status quo. The two sets of beliefs might go together, since they satisfy the same motivation to believe that the prevailing systems are legitimate ones. The first few studies showed that if you threaten one of these beliefs, people cling more strongly to the other, if they are feeling threatened—and if they are men.

The authors had access to an extraordinary dataset that allowed them to test for a correlation between endorsement of the political status quo (saying that things are going well in terms of the system for governing your country) and endorsement of the marriage mythology (disagreeing with the statement, "Marriage is an outdated institution.") Endorsing your country's system and endorsing the marriage mythology should go together under conditions of threat. But when we are talking about nations, what might count as a threat to the marriage mythology?

The authors suggested that threat would be greater in countries in which there was greater gender equality than in those in which men maintained more of their advantage over women. The data from the 29 nations included measures of equality such as the percentage of women in that country's political body (such as Parliament) and women's share of the country's earned income.

Tens of thousands of people from Middle Eastern, Western, Eastern European, and South American countries took part in the World Values Survey between 2000 and 2004. In countries in which there was not much equality between the genders, there was no link between endorsing the political system and endorsing the marriage mythology. But in countries in which women had made greater strides toward equality with men, then those who rated their political system positively were also more likely to defend marriage. The results were especially strong for men.

But What about the Women?

Back in my previous post, I promised to tell you about 7 studies, but here I've only described 5. In the last two studies, the authors tried to figure out if there were conditions in which women cling more strongly to the marriage and coupling ideology than they do ordinarily. I'll tell you about those results in my next post on this topic. [Here it is.]


Day, M. V., Kay, A. C., Holmes, J. C., & Napier, J. L. (in press). System justification and the defense of committed relationship ideology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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