Stereotypes of Singles? Robust. Actual Differences Between Singles and Couples? Not So Much

Singles report the same self-esteem as couples, but stereotypes persist

Posted Oct 13, 2010

My colleagues and I have been studying stereotypes of single people for years. In one of the methodologies we use, we create brief biographical sketches of people (with information about their interests, hometown, and so forth), and vary whether the person in the sketch is described as single or married. Then we ask people to read the profiles and record their impressions. Some people read the version of a profile in which the person is described as single, and others read the version in which the person is described as married. What's important about that approach is that the single and married people are described identically (except for their marital status), so when participants rate the singles more negatively than the marrieds (as they typically do), that's evidence for stereotyping.

In a series of studies, Tobias Greitemeyer has taken that methodology an important step forward. He recruited single and coupled people to rate the profiles, then he also looked at whether those single and coupled raters actually did differ in their own personalities and satisfaction with their lives. (My colleagues and I typically compare single and married profiles; Greitemeyer compares singles to couples - people currently in a romantic relationship, regardless of whether they are married.)

The short version of the results is this: In every study, on almost every dimension, people rated the single people more negatively than the coupled people. When it came to actual differences between real single and the coupled people, though, there were very few of them.

Stereotypes of Single People

First, the stereotypes. Here are some of the ways in which single people were perceived more negatively than coupled people in Greitemeyer's studies. Singles were viewed as

  • Lower in self-esteem
  • Lower in life satisfaction
  • Less agreeable
  • Less conscientious
  • Less physically attractive
  • More neurotic
  • Less satisfied with their relationship status
  • More interested in changing their relationship status
  • More lonely
  • Less socially skilled

There was one way in which singles were viewed more positively: They were rated as more open to new experiences.

Actual Differences Between Singles and Couples

The people who participated in Greitemeyer's four studies were middle-aged Germans. They did not constitute nationally representative samples (which would have been better) but the participants were older and more diverse than the typical college student samples used in so much research. Also, in each study, the single and coupled participants were compared at one point in time, so the usual interpretive cautions apply. For example, the coupled group included only those people who were currently coupled; anyone who became coupled, disliked the partner or the relationship and then became uncoupled, would not be included. These were not longitudinal studies in which the same people were followed as they became coupled, became uncoupled, or stayed single.

Across the four studies, there were three ways that Greitemeyer assessed the actual differences between the single and the coupled participants. First, the single and coupled people rated themselves on the exact same scales they used to rate the people in the profiles. So, they described their own self-esteem, life satisfaction, agreeableness, and all the rest. Second, the experimenters who conducted the research rated their impressions of each person's characteristics, without knowing whether the persons they were rating were single or coupled. Finally, in one of the studies, participants first spent some time interacting, then rated one another on the various characteristics (again, without knowing who was single or coupled). (A good addition, as Greitemeyer acknowledges, would have been to ask long-time friends of the participants to rate them. That did not happen.)

Here are all the ways in which the single people did NOT differ from the couples:

Here are the ways the singles did differ from the coupled people (findings from one study): Singles were less satisfied with their relationship status, more interested in changing their relationship status, and lonelier.

It is not so surprising that single people would, on the average, be more interested in changing their relationship status than coupled people are. Coupled people who were dissatisfied with their relationship status probably already changed it.

Now look at how Greitemeyer discussed his own loneliness findings. I think it is a model of careful reporting, and I would say that even if he hadn't cited my work:

"Note that these findings do not indicate that singles feel miserable about being single: all single self-ratings were close to the midpoint of the scale. The reader should also be well aware that - because marital status was not experimentally manipulated - one couldn't conclude that married people are less lonely because they are married. In addition, it should be noted that other studies of loneliness do not always show a difference between single and partnered people (for an overview, DePaulo, 2006)."

(He's referring to my Singled Out book. I wrote about research published since then in my chapter in this book. The conclusion is the same: There are no compelling data to indicate that getting married results in becoming less lonely.)

More on Actual (Non)-Differences Between Single and Married People: Results from More Than 30 Nations

In a final flourish, Greitemeyer accessed the 2006 database from the European Social Survey. The survey reaches a representative sample from more than 30 nations. Greitemeyer compared those who were currently married with those who had always been single (and had never been in a civil partnership).

The singles and married people were surveyed at just one point in time, and the married group includes just those who are currently married (and not those who got married and then divorced). So again, the study gives an advantage to the married people, since only a select subgroup of people who ever got married is included.

On a 0 to 10 scale, survey respondents indicated how satisfied they were with their life as a whole. Higher numbers indicate greater satisfaction:

7.12   Always single and never in a civil partnership
7.10   Currently married

The measure of self-esteem asked the participants how positively they felt about themselves. This time, the scale was from 1 to 5, and lower numbers indicated more positive feelings.

2.13    Always single and never in a civil partnership
2.13    Currently married

In their self-esteem and satisfaction with their lives, people who have always been single (and have never been in a civil partnership, either) are essentially identical to people who are currently married.