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Times Reporter Thinks Single Women Fear Intimacy; I’m Afraid He’s Wrong

On mate-poaching, fear of intimacy, and singlism masquerading as science

New York Times reporter John Tierney recently described a study that supposedly showed that "single women are particularly drawn to other people's partners." The main point of this post is to shoot down the interpretation he offers of the results, which is dripping with singlism and - more importantly - is not supported by the relevant data.

First, though, a quick romp through the TierneyLab report as well as the actual study.

Tierney's description of the methodology in this paragraph is fine:

"each of the experimental subjects was told that he or she had been matched by a computer with a like-minded partner, and each was shown a photo of an attractive person of the opposite sex. (All the women saw the same photo, as did all the men.) Half of the subjects were told that their match was already romantically involved with someone else, while the other half were told that their match was unattached. Then the subjects were all asked how interested they were in their match."

I read Tierney's description of the results before I read the original research report. This NY Times reporter claims that when the man in the photo was described as already in a "committed relationship," 90% of the single women were interested in him, but when he was described as not currently in a relationship (Tierney uses the word "unattached"), only 59% were interested in him. [For the men who participated in the study (whether they were currently in a romantic relationship or not) and for the women who were in a romantic relationship, their interest in the person in the photo did not depend much on whether that person was described as in a romantic relationship or not.]

So, Tierney believes, single women are more likely than single men to be interested in "mate poaching." The authors of the journal article offer this interpretation: "an attached man has demonstrated his ability to commit and in some ways his qualities have already been ‘pre-screened' by another woman."

Tierney, though, has his own preferred interpretation: "fear of intimacy." Referring to single women, he asks, "Could their interest in unavailable guys be what was keeping them single in the first place?" He quotes one of the authors as replying that more research is needed, but that Tierney's "explanation seems quite plausible."

Gee, where would we find data relevant to single women's feelings about attachment? Maybe, perhaps, in a study of single women's attachment? Oh yeah, that study has been done, and I described it in two previous posts to this Living Single blog, here and here.

Here is the one word answer to Tierney's question as to whether single women have a special "fear of intimacy": NO. In the attachment study of single women (average age around 40), they were no more likely to have anxiety about attachment nor were they any more likely to be avoidant of attachment than were demographically similar coupled women. Also, there were no significant differences in the number of attachment figures reported by single people (women or men) compared to coupled people.

Here are a few other points:

1. I was startled by the huge differences Tierney described in his article: 90% of single women were interested in a man described as already in a romantic relationship, compared to 59% who said they were interested in the same man described as not currently in a relationship. So of course, I did what I always do even when I have no particular reason to be skeptical: I read the original research report. The results were not reported in percentages in the article. Instead, participants answered a series of questions on a scale ranging from -3 to +3, and those answers were averaged. So, "interest" was measured on a scale ranging from -3 to +3, not as a percentage ranging from 0 to 100. The single women's interest in the man who was in a romantic relationship was 0.75; for the man not in a relationship, it was 0.17. This is still a statistically significant difference, but nothing like what was described in the Times story. (I can't tell how the reporter got the numbers he cited. If you go to his article, you can click on the link in the first paragraph and read the study yourself - it is only 3 pages of text. Let me know if you can figure out where Tierney got his 90% and 59%.)

2. The "single women" in the study? They were college students who were not currently in a romantic relationship. They were compared to college student women who were currently in a romantic relationship.

3. Lots of talk of "mate-poaching" got bandied about. This is from a study in which participants looked at photos and answered questions. The questions were: How appealing is this person? How likely would you show interest in this person? How compatible do you think you are with this person? How likely would you initiate a relationship with this person? [Bad grammar left intact.] How direct would you be in initiating a romantic relationship with this person? So, no one "poached" anyone else. Also, the participants were asked about their interests in advance, and the description of the person in the photo was manipulated so he seemed to have similar interests. I might find a man with similar interests appealing and likely to be compatible, and still have no inclination to "poach" him.

4. In the study, the person in the photo, in the relevant condition, was described as "in a current romantic relationship." Tierney changes a key word in his story. He says that the person in the photo was described as in a "committed" relationship. Unless all college student romantic relationships are committed ones, this was an inappropriate word-switch, making single women seem even more poach-y than they actually were.

All I wanted to do here was write a very brief post saying that there is evidence to undermine Tierney's belief that single women have a fear of intimacy and that's why they're single. His story was very short, as was the original journal article. Readers, if you take a look at the Times story and the article, I bet you could add to my list of reasons for skepticism.

Thanks to Jeanine, the reader who sent me the heads-up about this story.

One more note: Single with Attitude: Not Your Typical Take on Health and Happiness, Love and Money, Marriage and Friendship is now available in paperback on Amazon. There's a Kindle version, too.

[To read other Living Single posts, click here.]

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