Shame on You, APA!

Professional psychological association gleefully disparages single people

Posted Jan 31, 2010

I just read a paragraph that made me ashamed to have been, for decades, a member of the American Psychological Association (APA). I say this as someone who has been a proud Fellow of its Division 8, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, and who respects and appreciates much of what APA has done.

The shameful paragraph was part of the "In Brief" section of the February 2010 issue (not yet posted online) of the Monitor on Psychology. The Monitor is described by APA as "a source of timely, lively and informative articles on psychologists' innovative work, research findings and association activities." The paragraph, in full, is below. See if you can tell what's wrong with it, because neither the person who wrote it, nor any of the editors, seemed to have a clue.

"While married people generally trounce singles on measures of emotional well-being, highly self-sufficient singles are the exception, suggests new research in November's Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Study author Jamila Bookwala, Ph.D., of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., posits that people who are highly self-sufficient may stay single longer than those who get married, and may avoid marriage specifically because they value their independence."

Part 1

Here's my list of some of the things from this one paragraph that made me cringe:

1. It is factually inaccurate. Married people do not generally "trounce" singles on measures of emotional well-being. Studies published in APA's own journals show as much. (I'll elaborate on the factual inaccuracy of the claim below.)

2. The paragraph is reporting a study of good news about singles. (I reviewed it here: Men and women who have always been single are doing fine.) Yet the reporter introduces it with that first sentence slamming singles, and ends by again undermining the choices of those who stay single (explained below). This is what happens when media sources are loathe to acknowledge that single people are just fine. Even when they report something objectively good, they make the overall message sound bad.

Sadly, even scholars do this sometimes. Previously, I reviewed a study of long-term single people that showed that they did not differ in their attachment from coupled people. The singles were no more likely than the coupled people to feel anxious about rejection or abandonment; they were no more likely to avoid intimacy; and they had about the same number of "attachment figures" in their lives as coupled people did. Yet, over and over again, in the journal article reporting their singles-friendly findings, the authors undermined their own empirically-grounded good news.

3. The Monitor, a publication of a professional society, the huge American Psychological Association, actually seems to delight in its inaccurate claim that married people are better than single people. Look again at those first few words: "While married people generally trounce singles..." If you are not sure what's wrong with that, imagine if the findings concerned different racial groups. Would a publication of APA say that "whites generally trounce blacks"? I don't think so. Our consciousness has been raised about certain forms of prejudice. But when it comes to singles, prejudice, stereotyping, stigmatizing, discrimination, and related forms of singlism are all fair game.

4. This last point is the most subtle, so kudos to anyone who picked up on it. First some background: The study in question showed that, in a nationally representative sample, people who had always been single were no different from the currently married in personal mastery - a sense that you can do just about anything you set your mind to, or in self-sufficiency - preferring to handle things on your own. (Comparing single people only to those who are currently married is not a fair comparison, as I've explained many times before, but that just makes the singles-positive findings even more impressive.) What's more, for the single people (but not the married), the more self-sufficient they were, the less likely they were to experience negative emotions. My sense is that these are people who LIKE their single life. Maybe many of them have CHOSEN to be single. But look again at those last few words of the paragraph in the Monitor. The claim is that these single people are AVOIDING marriage. Funny how marriage is so often framed as something people approach, while singlehood - even in the context of reporting positive findings about singles - is described as a matter of avoiding marriage.

Part 2

No, APA, Married People Don't "Trounce" Singles in Emotional Well-Being

In Chapter 2 of Singled Out, I reviewed the literature of the implications of marital status for happiness, health, longevity, and other outcomes supposedly favoring people who got married. I still haven't found even one study in which single people were "trounced." If you look at people at one point in time, it is the previously married who tend to look worse than the currently married. Those who have always been single often look very similar to those who are currently married. In some studies, in some ways, they do better. (I critiqued the claims about health in this previous PT post, "The health hazards of having been married.")

The implication of claims that married people "trounce" singles is - sometimes explicitly, sometimes just implicitly - that if only single people would get married, then they too could become happier and healthier, thereby trouncing their previously single self, and standing superior to all those currently single people. That's bull.

Take, for example, a study published in one of the premier journals of the very association (APA) making the specious, singlist, nasty claim that married people "trounce" singles. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Richard Lucas and his colleagues reported the results of a longitudinal study of thousands of adults that by now has been ongoing for decades. On the average, people who got married and stayed married showed just a small increase in happiness around the time of the marriage; then they went back to being about as happy as they were when they were single. It was getting married and then divorced (rather than staying single) that resulted in a marked dip in happiness. Even for divorced people, though, happiness recovers some over time. (An updated version of the Lucas research can be found here, starting on p. 75.)

Another version of "emotional well-being" is the downside. Do people become less depressed when they marry? A longitudinal study published in 2007 addressed that. I reviewed it in detail previously. Here's my conclusion:

"If you get married, you may end up less depressed if you start out among the 20% most depressed people to begin with, if you don't get divorced, if you end up in a marriage that is happier than most, and if no one asks how you feel after the first few years, and no one compares the marital relationship to any other relationship that offers companionship and emotional support."

Part 3

Singlism Everywhere

Unfortunately, a regressive attitude toward singles is not just characteristic of APA. It is rampant throughout society, as so many of my posts to this blog have documented. Universities are also far behind. Rachel Moran and Kay Trimberger and I made that argument in an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a special issue on diversity. It was called "Make room for singles in teaching and research." (The link is the 5th from the top.) I hope the editors and reporters at the Monitor will read it.

In sum: I do want to applaud APA for acknowledging a study showing, in a nationally representative sample, that the psychological resources of people who have always been single are strong. Next time, maybe the Monitor can report the other findings about marital status accurately. As for its gleeful practice of singlism, it is unprofessional, and it's humiliating.

Want to contact the editor of the Monitor to let her know what you think of this story? Her name is Sara Martin, and you can reach her at smartin [at]