Myth-Busting About Singles: The Meat on the Bones

Questions of evidence and bias in myths about singles

Posted Feb 25, 2011

In a course I just taught, my course evaluations included one of the most exciting comments a professor can imagine. No, it wasn't "You are the most awesome teacher in the entire world." Instead, it was this: "Tell me more. Where can I find more references, more to read and think about?"

My last 3 posts on the 10 myths about single people (here and here and here) have attracted a lot of commentary, questions, and requests. Among those was the same request for more information. Where are the references to studies that debunk the myths about singles? In my posts, I only mentioned some of the available research. Where's the rest?

I also love a related question that was posed, because the answer is so different than the person who asked the question seemed to anticipate. Paraphrasing, the question to me was, "In the studies you mention, you're biased, aren't you?" I'll take that one first.

Am I biased in the studies I mention on this blog and elsewhere?

The answer is yes! The studies that I describe on this blog and elsewhere are overwhelmingly biased in ways that advantage married people! (An aside: I have never heard anyone, at a conference or in a classroom or on a blog or anywhere else, ask a scholar of marriage if they are biased toward married people.)

Before I started studying singles, I had an entirely different area of expertise: the psychology of deceiving and detecting deceit. I knew nothing about the science of the implications of marital status for happiness, health, or anything else. So at first I figured the headlines were probably right - getting married probably does make a positive difference in most people's lives. I set out to see if there were some nuances - for example, are there particular subgroups for whom single life was especially challenging or fulfilling? Once I started reading the original journal articles, though, I was stunned to find how often claims about the purported benefits of marrying were exaggerated, misrepresentative of the actual research, or just plain wrong.

One of the easiest ways to create a biased narrative is simply to choose those studies that support your preferred position and ignore the rest. In the research on marital status, the possibilities for doing that are tremendous, since there are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies of the links between marital status and qualities such as happiness, health, longevity, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and so much more.

Once I realized that the actual results of the scientific studies were a far cry from what I had been led to believe, I wanted to set a high standard for myself for the criticisms I was about to make of other people's claims. So here's what I did: I let them decide which studies counted. Seriously. I found claims made by people who were either respected scholars and/or who were getting a lot of attention for their claims, then I went back and read the original research reports of the studies they cited in support of their claims.

In a paper Wendy Morris and I published in Psychological Inquiry, "Singles in society and in science," we traced the claim that getting married is linked with happiness, as made by the Martin Seligman in a book he wrote, Authentic Happiness, that was getting a lot of press. The studies he chose to cite in support of his claim did not in fact demonstrate what he said they did.

In parts of my book, Singled Out, I also followed that strategy. I scrutinized the studies cited in the book, The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially. The 'case' the authors supposedly made was not even supported by the particular studies they chose to cite. There was, though, one exception: Getting married does indeed bring greater financial rewards (or as I like to call them: married people's welfare benefits, as subsidized by the discrimination against single people).

There is another reason why the studies I mention are overwhelmingly biased in favor of married people: There is a huge scientific literature on marriage, dating back for decades. The flagship Journal of Marriage and Family, for example, has been in print (sometimes under slightly different names) since 1939! There are vast amounts of research funding available for scholars interested in married people. There are conferences - and there have been for eons. There are courses and degree programs. There are lobbyists and think tanks. It is a marriage-industrial-complex.

Now just because scholars come to the study of marital status from their interest in married people and not in singles does not, in and of itself, mean that their research is biased or lacking in rigor. But it probably does shape the kinds of questions they ask and the sorts of assumptions they make (see, for example, the article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in this collection). They are more likely to ask, for instance, why it is that getting married (supposedly) brings benefits, than to wonder why so many single people are living meaningful and productive lives.

Scholars who have dedicated their careers to the study of marriage and its purported advantages may be especially unlikely to notice or to critique fundamental flaws in that research. It still amazes and disturbs me that so many people compare those who are currently married to those who are single and see that as a valid indication of the implications of getting married. How can they count only those who got married and stayed that way (setting aside, for example, everyone who got married and then divorced) in their got-married group and call that good science?

The kinds of studies that are conducted, and the assumptions behind them, also shape the sorts of headlines we see in the media. Many of my writings, here and in my books, are critiques of claims that getting married makes you better in some way or another. Those are the studies that are out there.

Sure, if there is a study that is specifically about single people, by authors who actually set out to understand singles and do not just include singles as a group to whom they can compare the married people who actually interest them, I'll tell you about it. (Some examples are here and here.) But as you will notice, I will also tell you about the shortcomings of such studies. Studies by scholars interested in single life, though, cannot possibly dominate a blog such as this one, to which I contribute so frequently. There just aren't enough of them. Singles scholars do not have the funding, the programs, or any of the other resources that make for a discipline as developed as the study of marriage.

Where Are the Original Research Articles that Debunk the Myths about Single People?

Singled Out includes among its 15 chapters 10 on the myths about single people. There is also an 18-page bibliography with hundreds of relevant references. I also included a lengthy note, on pages 271-272, describing my criteria for the studies I selected to review in detail. (I can republish that note on this blog if enough readers are interested in seeing it.) There are also 27 pages of notes - you can use them to see which references are relevant to which topics.

Of course, science marches on, and many studies have been published since Singled Out first appeared in print. I've reviewed many of them on this blog and in my collection, Single with Attitude, published in 2009. I've written about so many more since then that I'm now putting together another collection. (I'll let you know when it is available.)

In most of my posts to this blog, up until very recently, I linked to the original studies online. However, I find it annoying when those links do not always continue to work when I return to them in the future. So I have just started to include the full references at the end of some of my blog posts, and I hope to do that more routinely in the future.

I also wrote a chapter, Living single: Lightening up those dark, dopey myths, in this 2010 book. (Unfortunately, the book is pricey because it is an academic collection. I like to think that my chapter is readable, though.)

The best is yet to come. Recently, I wrote an annotated bibliography of more than 100 studies relevant to the health, happiness, personality, psychological resources, and interpersonal connections of single people - and so much more about their lives. In September, it will be available as part of the Oxford Bibliographies Online, in their new category of topics in psychology. The reason I especially like this bibliography is that it is annotated. Readers get to see not just the complete reference, but also a brief description of what each book or paper tells us about singles and why it is important. (Of course, I'll let you know when the bibliography is posted.)

I'll end this with the same invitation I try to remember to extend in every talk I give about singles: If you know of a study that seems at odds with the claims I have made in any of my writings, please send me the full reference and I'll check it out. (And, of course, feel free to recommend others as well.)


DePaulo, B. M., & Morris, W. L. (2005). Singles in society and in science. Psychological Inquiry, 16, 57-83.