I know that people consistently deny that there is such a thing as singlism (the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) or dismiss its significance, and that even single people engage in this act of psychological resistance. Still, after observing the phenomenon for all these years, I can still be startled when I see it anew. That’s especially so when the nature of the discrimination is utterly serious, as when single people are disproportionately impoverished.

In my last post, I critiqued a very popular article in the Atlantic magazine that claimed that “Finns have incredible equality and very little poverty.” I noted that the article overlooked a big segment of Finnish society that was at high risk for poverty – people living in 1-person households.

I added this comment to the discussion section of the Atlantic piece, with a link to my post: “There is one big group of Finns left out of this celebration of equality and protection from poverty. The rate of poverty among people in 1-person households in Finland is very high -- higher, in fact, than every European country in a recent assessment except Bulgaria.”

I expected Atlantic readers to agree that this was a problem that merited attention. They did not – or at least the ones who responded to my comment did not. Instead, each person who commented added their own layer of denial and dismissal. The most popular reaction was that it did not matter that the numbers looked bad for 1-person households because it was probably the very young adults, such as students, as well as the older people, who were affected.

The Finnish scholar who has been helping me track down numbers asked the person at the Finnish equivalent of the Census Bureau for more details. The critics were wrong: the middle group of people were also at risk of poverty. Of the 35- to 64-year olds people in 1-person households in Finland, 26.5 percent of them were impoverished or at risk of being impoverished. (And why would it be okay even if it were only the young and the old who were disproportionately impoverished?)

Another criticism was that it is fine if households with children are doing better economically than those without. But the data I included in my previous post, as well as the new data, show that the presence of children is not the key factor predicting protection from poverty. In households comprised of couples with no children, the rate of poverty among the 35- to 64-year old was just 3.9 percent!

There were other arguments, too, as well as some emotional dismissals (“total bullsh*t”), but the overriding issue, to me, is the nature of the response of all of the people who commented on my point at the Atlantic: Every one of them tried to deny the discrimination, minimize it, or explain it away.

I don’t think the reaction would be so dismissive if it were the coupled households who had the poverty rates of 26.5 percent among the 35- to 64-year olds and the single-person households who had poverty rates of just 3.9 percent. Nor do I think the findings would be poo-pooed if it had been the married-with-children households who had lower relative rates of poverty than every European nation other than Bulgaria.

I’m not saying the points that were raised were unworthy of consideration. Some were good points. But why were denial and explaining-away the only responses?

As the reactions to the George Zimmerman acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin have demonstrated, it is not only in the realm of singlism that any claims of prejudice or discrimination are intensely disputed. Importantly, it is not just those who sow divisiveness and hatefulness for a living, nor only those who are white, who deny, dismiss, or explain away the possibility that racism has occurred. Even targets of discrimination sometimes insist that nothing untoward has occurred.

Social science research has much to say about the motivations behind the denial and dismissal of discrimination. Here I will mention just two of the most important factors.

#1 People who say that they have experienced discrimination really do have something to fear

In a series of laboratory experiments replicated in multiple universities, a situation is created in which prejudice and discrimination are clearly implicated. In one example, African-American candidates are turned down for a job by an evaluator who makes statements such as “Black people are just not as smart as white people.” In the studies, some white participants were told that the Black candidates attributed their rejection to discrimination; others learned that the candidates attributed their rejection to other factors, such as their own performance.

The Black candidates who attributed their rejection to discrimination were derogated. They were more likely to be called complainers and troublemakers than those who attributed their rejection to other factors. They were liked less, too.

There was one positive outcome to claiming discrimination when discrimination was evident: Those who attributed their rejection to discrimination were seen as more competent than those who did not.

Outside of the laboratory, people who have experienced discrimination and not reported it or admitted it publicly have described other reasons for their reluctance. They worry about not being believed. They fear retaliation. Some are also reluctant to cause harm to the reputation of the person who discriminated against them.

#2 Our worldviews may be much more important to us than we realize

We all have ways of viewing the world. Many of us are very invested in our worldviews or ideologies. We care about them and we defend them – especially when they are threatened.

In the U.S., the belief in meritocracy is especially pervasive. Many Americans are invested in the belief that the people who do well are those who deserve to do well – they are smarter or harder-working, for example. You get a job or get into a school based on your merits.

In a system that is truly based on merit, there is no place for discrimination. People who claim that they have been targets of discrimination are not just saying something about their own experiences – they are disrupting other people’s cherished views of the world and how it works. That’s not taken lightly. As Cheryl Kaiser and Brenda Major have noted:

“…the motivation to justify the status hierarchy is so pervasive that low-status group members are motivated to do this even when these hierarchies are disadvantageous to themselves and their social groups.”

Previously, I described the results of 7 studies relevant to the question of why people cling to mythologies that maintain that married people are superior to single people (here, here, and here). In that research, the motivation to see the prevailing system as a just one was paramount.

What I am arguing here is that system justification is a motivation not just for matrimania (the over-hyping of marriage and coupling) but also for singlism (the derogation of singles and discrimination against them).

Most of the research on denial of discrimination is about the more familiar isms such as racism and sexism. There is a more limited body of work on the denial of singlism. I’ll discuss that in another post.

[Note: Thanks again to the Finnish scholar for finding answers to questions about rates of poverty in different age groups and household types.]

Reference: Kaiser, C. R., & Major, B. (2006). A social psychological perspective on perceiving and reporting discrimination. Law & Social Inquiry, 31, 801-830.

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