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What Singlism? An Experimental Study of Obliviousness to Discrimination Against Singles

A study of singlism denial

In my previous post, I described four studies showing housing discrimination against people who are single, including single men, single women, and unmarried couples. My co-authors (Wendy Morris and Stacey Sinclair) were stunned by the reasons people generated for why they preferred to rent to the married couple over every variety of single person or persons - they mostly said they chose to rent to the married person because the person was married. They didn't seem to realize there was anything wrong with that.

So in the final study, we took our investigation a step further. We described an example of blatant discrimination against a single person. Participants (undergraduates) read about a landlord who is renting a house and deciding between two applicants:

"Both of the applicants have steady jobs and their current landlords described them as very good tenants. One of the applicants has offered to pay a slightly higher rent each month. The tenant who has offered to pay higher rent is single. The landlord prefers to lease houses to married people and decides to accept the married person as the tenant."

Participants reported their reactions to the scenario. For example, in their own words, they described why they thought the landlord made the particular decision they had read about. Then they rated the degree to which they thought the landlord's decision was legitimate, prejudiced, justifiable, reasonable, etc. (Those were averaged to create one measure of perceived legitimacy.)

Showing that people do not recognize the illegitimacy of discrimination against singles was just part of what we wanted to do. We also wanted to see whether people DO recognize the exact same discrimination when perpetrated against other more widely acknowledged targets of unfair practices. So we included five other scenarios. In those, the landlord accepts a Caucasian person over an African-American who has offered to pay more rent; a man over a woman; a straight person over a homosexual; a thin person over an obese person; and a younger person over an elderly person.

So which of the 6 discriminatory decisions did the participants regard as most legitimate? Of course, you know the answer - the preference for the married tenant over the single person who offered to pay more. Ratings were made on 1 to 9 scales, with higher numbers indicating greater perceptions of legitimacy. Here are the results:

Perceptions of legitimacy

  • 5.37 single person denied, even though they offered to pay more
  • 4.75 elderly person denied, even though they offered to pay more
  • 3.10 woman denied, even though she offered to pay more
  • 2.97 gay or lesbian denied, even though they offered to pay more
  • 2.74 obese person denied, even though they offered to pay more
  • 2.60 African American denied, even though they offered to pay more

(The mean for the singles differed significantly from each of the other means, except the elderly.)

When participants were asked to explain, in their own words, why the landlord made the decision they read about, what do you think they said? A very common answer was that the landlord was prejudiced and practicing discrimination - but not when the person denied the housing was single. Only 10% of the participants who read about that example spontaneously called it what it was - discrimination. About four times as many did so across the other conditions. The highest percentage was for those who read about the preference for the White person over the Black person who had offered to pay more - 71% called that discrimination.