Is There a Bias Against Single People?

New evidence suggests that we view unmarried people unfairly.

Posted Oct 19, 2016

Kuzma/Shutterstock
Source: Kuzma/Shutterstock

When I first began studying perceptions of single people, it was demoralizing to discover how easy it was to elicit harsh judgments of them. In the simplest study of stereotyping I've 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.

Their descriptions were very different: Nearly every other person describing married people, approximately 49 percent, spontaneously suggested that married people are kind, caring, or giving. Only 2 percent of the participants describing single people came up with those same characteristics. Every third person describing married people, around 32 percent, said that they were loving. No one—not one person—described single people this way. 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.

But the following four approaches have been used by researchers to show that the negative perceptions of single people are not just factual descriptions.

1. Create pairs of brief biographical sketches of people that 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.

Remember that the pairs of targets were described identically, except for their marital status, yet the single people 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 also seen as more independent and career-oriented.

Other researchers from different countries using the same methodology to learn about perceptions of single people 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 being 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 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 people who were married, hated it for some reason, 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.)

2. Ask single and married participants to rate themselves.

3. 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 approaches 2 and 3 for his study. Keep 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 describe above. Here are some of the study 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: 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. People who are still coupled are disproportionately those who are also satisfied with their relationships. And single people cannot unilaterally change their relationship status—they need to find a partner to do so.

4. 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.

Greitemeyer, again, gets credit for also using this approach. He analyzed data from the European Social Survey, where representative samples of people from more than 30 nations rated their satisfaction with their lives (on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 indicating greater satisfaction) and their self-esteem (on a scale of 1 to 5, with lower numbers indicating higher self-esteem). Here’s what he found:

Overall satisfaction with their life:

  • Lifelong single people: 7.12
  • Currently married people: 7.10 

Self-esteem:

  • Lifelong single people: 2.13
  • Currently married people: 2.13

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 read and critiqued studies about marital status. My arguments and conclusions are in my blog posts, articles, and books, including 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. These reveal that the idea 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.

When we judge single people more harshly than married people, we are stereotyping them, not just reporting factual differences. How can we explain such stereotyping? Why are single people stereotyped? I’ll address these questions in a future post.