Watch Out, Singles! Once Again, You Are Doomed to an Early Grave by Cheater Technique

Set aside the marrieds who hated marriage, then marriage wins!

Posted Aug 18, 2011

Ready yourselves, single people! A just-published article claims that people who stay single are headed straight to the grave - and fast. Faster than people who are currently married. The media is already on it, as with today's MSNBC headline, "Single people may die younger, new study finds."

If you are a regular reader of Living Single, or if you read Singled Out or Single with Attitude, you will recognize something in that very first paragraph that tells you all you need to know about why this latest scare story is bogus. See what it is?

A vast academic literature is often drawn upon to make one simple proclamation - Married People Win! The claim is based on the typical cheater technique in which a group comprised of everyone who stays single - whether they want to be single or not - is compared to the group of people currently married. So the comparison group is not all of the people who ever got married. That's the appropriate group to use if you want somewhat respectable scientific grounds for saying to single people that if they get married, they will live longer. No, that's not the comparison group. Instead, all of the people who got married, hated it, and then divorced (and all of the people who got married and became widowed) are removed from the comparison group. That's not good science - it's a set-up.

If it is still yet clear what's wrong with that sort of comparison (all people who stay single vs. only those people who got married and are still married), I'll give you the short version here. The more detailed explanations are in Chapter 2 of Singled Out and the section of Single with Attitude called, "If Marriage Were a Drug, the FDA Would Not Approve It." There is also a less detailed version in this post.

I typically use the example of the hypothetical new drug, Shamster, but it's summer, so I'll try a cruise line variation. Festival Cruise Lines is in competition with Royal Treatment Cruises. Festival has access to satisfaction ratings from all of the people who ever cruised on either line. Some people tried Festival, hated it, and never cruised with them again. Maybe they, along with most of the other people onboard, got sick. Maybe the service was lousy or the food was disappointing or the rooms were tiny. Whatever. So Festival decides to include in their analyses only those people who rated their Festival experiences positively and continue to book cruises with Festival. They compare those satisfaction ratings with the ratings of everyone who ever cruised on Royal Treatment, whether they liked their experiences or not. What's more, the number of people who hated their Festival experiences was close to 50%! Knowing all that, what would you make of the claim that people who currently cruise with Festival are happier cruisers than Royal Treatment customers? Would you assume that you should cruise with Festival, too? I didn't think so.

Don't expect social scientists to get all apologetic about the bogus comparison. It's their standard practice, and has been for as long as this sort of research has been conducted. Their defense might be that they are clear about who is in each group - all people who stayed single vs. those who are currently married. Their claim is that people who are currently married are happier (or live longer, or whatever today's bogus story may be) than those who are single and always have been. Technically true, perhaps. But again, what would you make of the comparable claim that the current customers of Festival are happier than all of the customers of Royal Treatment? (I know, my drug example works better, but I just wanted to do something different for once.)

In scientific papers, there is almost always a section in which the authors are made to fess up about the limitations of their study. If the authors recognized the cheater technique I have described so often, or if they were willing to admit it, you would find that concession in the limitations section. It is not in the review paper on mortality that I'm discussing, and it is hardly ever in any other paper. That concession would not sit well with the ruling narrative that Married People Win.

It is interesting in a way, because there are two popular "explanations" for the bogus claim that Married People Win that should nudge at least some social scientists into realizing what's wrong with their comparison. Those explanations are "selection" and "protection." The selection argument says that you can't compare currently married people to single people at one point in time and say that marriage made people happier, because perhaps the married people were happier (or healthier or whatever) than the single people even before they married. The protection explanation says that married people win because their spouse protects them from unhappiness, ill health, an early demise, or any other bad outcome. The fact that those same social scientists don't realize that there is also selection out of marriage (divorce, widowhood), and that selection out could potentially be even more important than selection in, continues to astound me. 

Some Details of the Meta-Analysis

The article on mortality is a meta-analysis, which is a quantitative summary of all of the available studies on a particular topic. The article reports on 90 studies for the most relevant analyses, and the total number of people who participated in those 90 studies was about 500 million. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? I'll come back to that in the "Bottom Line" section, below.

The studies that were included compared mortality from all causes for currently married people and people who had always been single. Studies of death from just one cause or set of causes (e.g., heart disease) were excluded. Each study includes a baseline age - the age of the participants when the study started. So if you started a study of 40-year olds right now, the baseline age would be 40 and the baseline year would be 2011. (You don't need to pick just one age.) You would find out who was currently married and who had always been single, then sometime in the future (say, 10 years later, but it can be any number, or you can follow them repeatedly), you see who's still standing.

The results are presented in what are called "hazard ratios." (Appropriate enough - it is hazardous to die.) They are relative risks of dying for the two groups. If the ratio is 1, then currently-married and always-single people have the same risk of dying within the time period of the study.  The data were coded so that numbers greater than 1 meant that more of the always-single people died. The average result across all of the studies was 1.30, meaning that the always-singles had a 30% greater risk of dying. Some of the studies had serious flaws even beyond the one I've been describing here. When those particularly bad studies were set aside, the ratio decreased to 1.24, meaning that always-singles had a 24% greater risk of dying than those who got married and were currently married.

Considering that the number of people who married but got tossed out of the currently-married group (because they divorced or became widowed) may have approached 50% even without the widowed group, I'm not impressed. I think I'll hold off a bit before giving away all of my worldly goods.

All of the other analyses were based on all of the studies, not just the less-bad ones. That means that the reported death rates for singles are probably lower than the numbers suggest. Here are a few of the more specific findings:

  • The relative risk of death was higher for single men (1.32) than single women (1.23).
  • By region, singles relative mortality risk (hazard ratio) was highest for China, Japan, and Taiwan (1.94) and lowest for the British Commonwealth (1.14) and Bangladesh and Lebanon (1.12). For the U.S., it was 1.23.
  • Singles' relative mortality risk was highest in studies of 30-39 year-olds (2.28), and decreased every decade thereafter. So, it was 1.80 for people in their 40s, 1.55 for people in their 50s, 1.28 for those in their 60s, and 1.16 for the 70-somethings. (Of course, in the very young groups, the overall death rates are very low.)
  • "The relative mortality risk for singles has increased over the last few decades." Those are the authors' words. Looking at the results reported for each decade, though, what I see is this: For studies that started in 1950 or earlier, the relative mortality risk was not significantly different for the currently married compared to the always-single. In fact, for studies that started between 1940 and 1949, the always-singles lived non-significantly longer than those who were currently married when the study began. It is only in the studies that started in 1960 or later that singles have higher relative mortality ratios than the currently married. I have an idea about this finding that I'll come back to later.

When the authors get to the Discussion section, which is where authors are supposed to speculate about what it all means, they do make one point that does not amount to a whole lot of singlism and matrimania. They suggest that higher risk of health problems and early death may be tied to meager health benefits, stingy levels of public assistance, and shrinking wages. These kinds of financial challenges are likely to be even greater for singles than for the currently married (who, for example, may have access to health care through a spouse's plan if they don't have their own, and who may have two salaries to pay for one set of utility bills and one rent or mortgage).

As for the other explanations, hold your nose. Here's just one example of an idea they float for why the relative risk of mortality decreases with age: "it may be that as people age, they acclimate to being single, finding ways to compensate for the lack of instrumental and social support that are associated with being married." Yes, singles, let's all learn to "compensate" for the supposed voids in our lives.  You will not be surprised to hear that the authors cite, uncritically, the Marriage Mafia's favorite source, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's book that I took apart claim by claim in Singled Out. They do not cite the national surveys showing that always-single people are more likely than the currently married to visit, support, and maintain ties with their parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors.

In talking to the MSNBC reporter, the lead author of the "singles are doomed" study reiterates Waite and Gallagher's fantasies about married people eating better because they are married. (I mocked that here, with some dissenting data.) Of course, he doesn't mention the research on how getting married is also linked with getting fatter, which does not seem all that compatible with eating better.

There is so much to say about the results of this meta-analysis and the matrimaniacal interpretations offered by the authors, but I still think the most important point is that the always-single group includes all singles, whereas the currently-married group sets aside everyone who got married and then divorced. What we really need is a comparison between all people who stayed single and all of the people who ever got married. You won't find that comparison in this mortality meta-analysis.

So what's the closest thing you can find? Is there a group of people especially likely to stay married even if they are very unhappily married and perhaps, under other circumstances, would prefer to divorce? Here's my guess: That was the situation before the 1960s. For many people, divorce was just considered way too shameful, so miserable married couples just toughed it out. Remember the findings from the studies conducted before 1960? There were not that many of them, so caution is in order. Still, there were no significant differences in relative mortality rates for the currently married compared to the always-single.

Bottom Line

The meta-analysis showed that married people live longer than people who stay single, as long as you include everyone in the group of singles (whether they want to be single or not) but exclude from the group of people who got married anyone who hated their marriage and got divorced (as well as anyone who became widowed). This, of course, is the familiar cheater technique. It does not show that if you get married, you will live longer. It just pretends to do so when it is reported in sensationalized media scare stories.

So what about the fact that this meta-analysis was based on 90 studies and about 500 million people? Those are the sorts of numbers that are catnip for the practitioners of singlism. To those who care about good science and rigorous conclusions, they should be irrelevant. As long as the studies are based on the cheater technique of skimming off the top of the married group only those who stayed married, it doesn't matter if there were 90 studies or 900, 500 million people or 5 billion people. If you add one flawed study to another, you just get two flawed studies.

Suppose the research had been done in a way that did not give the married group a great big advantage over the single group. Say the researchers had compared all of the people who had ever married to all of the people who stayed single, and still found that the single group had a higher risk of mortality than the married group. Would that mean that the prediction of your premature demise was accurate?

It would be a stronger case, but I still would not jump off the nearest cliff to get this early death thing over with as soon as possible. The results of studies are about averages, not about specific individuals. There are always exceptions. Also, remember that people choose for themselves whether to marry. (In scientific studies where it is ethically feasible, you randomly assign people to different conditions - for example, the drug group vs. the placebo. You can't do that with marriage, single life, widowhood, and divorce.)  

The kinds of people who choose to marry (or at least some of them) may be the kinds of people who do better as married people than they would as singles. Some of the people who choose to stay single may have healthier and longer lives than if they married. There is no research on the topic, but my guess is that for people who are single at heart, getting married would do them no good at all.

[In my next post for All Things Single (and More), I'm going to ask for your help in explaining the problem with all of this bogus Marrieds-Win research more clearly. The flaw seems so very basic to me, yet others just are not getting it. I'll add a link here when that blog post is published. Here it is.]

For more myth-busting of the many bogus claims about people who are single, check out these previous posts:

[UPDATE: Best headline so far about this whole bogus episode if from Jezebel:

"A gentle reminder that being single will kill you" ]