The Study of Why Men Stay Single: What No One Is Telling You
The recent study of why men stay single is massively flawed.
Posted Aug 12, 2018
Suppose you came across a Reddit thread in which users with names such as “grilled_tits,” “McFeely_Smackup,” “novelty_bone,” bsickandlikeit, brocksampsonspenis, and Brexitmypants answered the question, “Guys, why are you single?”
If you are not familiar with Reddit, take a look at Andrew Marantz’s New Yorker article. He notes, for example, that on Google, three of the top auto-completions for Reddit are “toxic,” “cancer,” and “hot garbage.” Presumably not all the Reddit threads are terrible, but the one in which users answered the question, “Guys, why are you single?” drew comments [edited here] such as:
- “Jesus titty-f---ing Christ, this whole thread is depressing as f---. If you like being single you can stop reading.”
- “This thread is Reddit at it's finest.” [sic]
Reddit threads can be quite misogynistic. The question about men staying single attracted plenty of comments that were free of bigotry but also pulled in nuggets like these:
- “I just don't want to date somebody that still gives a shit how many likes their duckface selfie gets and thinks they're hot shit for drinking infinite starbucks.”
- “Some bitch "claimed" my free hugs shirt and you can't get other bitches without no free hugs.”
- “Our tinder is a shit show filled with single moms wearing a camo hoodie.”
So back to my question. What would you do if you came across this thread? Find it amusing and keep reading? Leave immediately? Professor Menelaos Apostolou of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus thought the Reddit thread provided serious scientific evidence relevant to the question of why men stay single.
The answer he expected to find came from his evolutionary perspective: In the past, marriages were arranged, so men did not have to have any social skills to have a mate. Now, however, “men who have difficulty flirting or are unable to impress the opposite sex may remain single because their social skills have not evolved to meet today’s societal demands.” Also important to Apostolou’s perspective is the assumption that men generally do not want to be single.
The entire empirical test of those ideas was that one Reddit thread.
In what strikes me as a very poor decision, the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science published Apostolou’s article. The title is, “Why men stay single? Evidence from Reddit.” (Yes, the scholarly journal put a question mark after a statement.) Springer, the publisher, was so proud of the article that they put out a press release, “Top 43 reasons why men remain single – according to Reddit.” (The press release was so misleading – largely because the study was so terrible – I could write a separate critique just of that.)
That was it. Reporters were off and running, giving us headlines such as “Deficient social skills may hamper single men” and (from Newsweek) “…men think they are too awkward and ugly for love.” A Google search for the key terms turned up so many media reports of this study that I had to walk away momentarily to regain my composure.
Suppose we were to take the Reddit responses seriously, along with the author’s coding of them. Did the results really show that men generally do not want to be single?
To come up with his 43 categories of reasons for being single, the author and his research team imposed their own order on the Reddit responses. Apostolou did not use any statistical techniques to try to determine objectively how many separate categories he really did have.
Here are the four most popular categories of reasons for staying single, according to Apostolou’s coding, and the number of responses coded in each of those categories:
- Poor looks: 662 responses
- Low self-esteem, confidence: 544 responses
- Low effort: 514 responses
- Not interested in relationships: 424 responses
Looking a bit more closely at the list of reasons, I noticed other categories indicating that some men want to be single. One of them, #17, is called “enjoying being single.” It has 217 responses.
Adding those 217 to the 424 who said they were not interested in relationships gives us a total of 641 comments from men who seem to want to be single. That comes in a close second to the 662 who cited poor looks.
I kept looking at the list. Another category is “different priorities,” meaning that the men cared more about other goals such as establishing their career or getting good grades. At least for the moment, they are not trying to become unsingle. If we add them to the 662, we would have 858 responses, and all of a sudden, the Number 1 reason for being single would be that the men want to be single.
I’m not saying that’s the best way to code the responses. Other categories could have been combined, too, leading to still other conclusions. What I am saying is that the author’s insistence that single men are single mostly because of all their flaws and deficits, and not because they want to be, is not supported by the data as unambiguously as he seems to suggest.
Are these the real reasons single men stay single?
Apostolou sees the 43 reasons he describes as the real reasons single men stay single. There are two problems with this: (1) They may not be the real reasons. (2) They may not even be what men think are the reasons.
In serious scientific research, participants provide answers independently of everyone else, so that they are providing their answers, uninfluenced by what other people think. Even in the best online forums, free of misogyny or singlism or any other bigotry, it is impossible for anyone but the very first person to participate without seeing what others are thinking.
Reddit, of course, is not the best of forums. As The New Yorker noted, some people are expressing their true beliefs but others “are treating it more like a game – If I post this ridiculous or offensive thing, can I get people to upvote it?”
When I checked out the thread, the very first answer to “Guys, why are you single?”—which probably set the tone for many more to come—was: “I don't try. That might just be me in denial, but I legitimately don't try. I make no efforts to not be single.” (In Apostolou’s coding, “low effort” was the #2 reason men gave for why they were single.)
Another answer close to the top was: “being fat and shy surely isn't helping me out.” (“Poor looks” ranked #1 in the author’s coding of the reasons, and “introversion” ranked #6 out of the 43 reasons.)
Farther down, another man said, “Because I suck dick at text communication.” (I don’t know where sucking dick at text communication fits in the author’s coding scheme.)
We just can’t know from this Reddit thread whether the men were telling us what they really did think about why they were single, or whether they were just trying to make a particular impression. If some were serious about their answers, we don’t know how many were. And even if they all tried to be serious and tried not to be influenced by the other people, it is extraordinarily unlikely that they succeeded. More than a half-century of research on social influence demonstrates that people can be influenced even by very subtle psychological dynamics. Often, they don’t even realize it.
Even if the men really were reporting the reasons they honestly thought they were single, and even if the answers they gave on Reddit are exactly the same as the answers they would have given alone in a room without being able to see what anyone else said first, we still can’t say – as Apostolou does – that these are the real reasons why men are single. Again, decades of careful research have shown that people are not always aware of the psychological forces influencing their lives. Much of psychotherapy would be wiped off the map if people could always answer, completely accurately, questions about themselves such as “why are you single.”
Apostolou waves away that concern. Against the monumental force of research and practice, he offers as a counterpoint his personal opinion (using the royal we): “We think however that most people have an accurate understanding of what drives them to be single, so this is not a major bias.”
The study found that plenty of men want to be single.
But I don’t think the author wants you to notice that. Noting the large number of people all around the world who are single, he concedes that there could be many reasons, including “by choice or because they face difficulties in attracting a partner.” He doesn’t seem to like the choice idea, though. Even though substantial numbers of men said that they wanted to be single (as documented above), Apostolou doesn’t seem to want his readers to notice that.
In the abstract (summary) of his article, which for many scholars and laypersons is the only part they will ever read, Apostolou writes, “Among the most frequent reasons that men indicated for being single included poor flirting skills, low self-confidence, poor looks, shyness, low effort, and bad experiences from previous relationships.”
The first reason the author mentioned in that sentence was “poor flirting skills.” That seems to be his favorite explanation. By his own coding, that comes in at 5th place. “Not interested in relationships” was mentioned more often than poor flirting skills, more often than shyness, and more often than bad experiences from previous relationships. Apostolou mentioned all those other factors in his summary; he omitted the more important factor of a lack of interest in relationships.
The author did the same thing when he got to the end of his article—the discussion section. He opened with a one-paragraph summary of the 43 reasons why men are single. He mentioned poor looks, bad flirting skills, and low effort. He also mentioned a variety of other factors, including the one that ranked #42, dead last except for a miscellaneous category. He also mentioned the 40th most-popular reason. He did not mention the #4 reason, “not interested in relationships” and he did not mention the #17 reason, “enjoying being single.” The author found that plenty of men are single because they want to be. My guess is that he does not want to believe his own data and he doesn’t want you to even notice this finding.
The author’s view of single men is harsh and unsupported by other studies of singles.
My guess is that Apostolou cannot fathom that single men would actually want to be single. He talks about “the negative emotional impact” that singlehood can have. He uses the language of illness to refer to single life, as, for example, when he talks about “prolonged spells of singlehood.”
Never once does he acknowledge what makes single life so meaningful to so many people. For example, he does not mention that single people do more to maintain their bonds with friends, neighbors, parents, and siblings than married people do. He doesn’t have anything to say about the meaningfulness of the work or the passions they pursue. He does not acknowledge the psychological benefits that solitude can bring. He is not going to tell you that when people marry, they typically do not become lastingly happier, and he certainly is not going to let you know that the most recent, most sophisticated studies show that people who marry in some ways become less healthy than they were when they were single.
If you are thinking that if too many people stayed single, the human species would be wiped out, that’s okay. It is a common misunderstanding. I reviewed some of the problems with that way of thinking, and you can find a few of them exemplified in Apostolou’s article. In my discussion, I draw heavily from a sophisticated consideration of the issue by Elizabeth Pillsworth and Martie Haselton.
Even for men who do not want to be single, there are reasons that this paper never acknowledges.
Apostolou seems to be pointing a finger of blame at single men, using their own words to suggest things like: You’re fat. You’re bald. You have a tiny penis. You don’t know how to flirt. You have no social skills.
This is what social psychologists call a “personal attribution.”
But sometimes the cause of things, including staying single, is not personal, it’s situational. Or it is structural. Except for mentioning in passing (and not until the last section of the article) that some men said that “they lived in small villages with no available women, or that they were employed in a male-dominated sector,” Apostolou never acknowledges many of the kinds of factors that are out of a man’s personal control (such as sex ratios and other relevant demographics of the place where they live). They are factors that can make it challenging even for the most attractive, socially skilled man who is good at flirting to find a mate.
[The author also takes penis size very, very seriously. He has an entire paragraph, complete with references, about its varying importance over time. For example, citing his own study of penis size, he argues that penis size did not matter in pre-industrial societies where men did not get to choose their mates. “Selection forces” were weak, and so now, when it matters, men are stuck with penises that are too small.]
To the extent that single men who want to be coupled are hindered by factors that are out of their control, the emphasis in the author’s discussion of singlehood on factors such as “poor looks,” “low effort,” and “poor social skills” smacks of victim-blaming. If singlehood is men’s own fault, then they need to deal with their issues—and that’s just what Apostolou suggests in the last paragraph of his article. (He thinks there is no research on “ways that would enable individual [sic] to address the issues that prevent them from entering in a relationship.” My guess is that tens of thousands of clinical psychologists would disagree.)
The author is proud that commenters offered answers “at their own initiative.” Methodologically, that’s called selection bias, and it is a serious flaw.
Ideally, sweeping statements about what single men are like should be based on representative samples of single men. Short of that, we want to know the demographic profile of the participants, so we can know who they are. Apostolou’s study offers none of that.
The author considers it a “major strength” of his research that people “indicated the reasons for staying single at their own initiative.” That’s called self-selection. People decided for themselves whether they wanted to add a comment to the Reddit thread. We don’t know who they are, or whether they are in any way a representative sample of single men. They could be a wildly weird group of people; we just don’t know. That’s not a strength, it’s a flaw. (Also, Apostolou never acknowledges the issues with Reddit that I described in the first section of this post.)
I don’t doubt that there are single men who do not want to be single, and who are hindered in their efforts to attract a mate by factors such as poor social skills or having the kinds of looks that are not valued. But Apostolou’s approach to answering the question of why men stay single is not a good one. As a social scientist, I am embarrassed that Evolutionary Psychological Science published the study.
As a single person, and as someone who has been trying for decades to push back, with good data, against the demeaning of single people that I call singlism, I am livid. The publication of this study, along with the press release, has given countless reporters permission to write articles putting down single men, under the cover of science. And so we see headlines and articles describing single men as ugly, awkward, fat, bald, deficient, and sad.
We are not told that this “science” of single men comes from people such as “grilled_tits,” “brocksampsonspenis,” and “Brexitmypants.” And we are most certainly not told that single life in the 21st century is a respectable, meaningful, and—to many men—desirable option.
The study, with all the attention it is getting, is poisoning our cultural narratives. It is getting noticed by real single people, who are at risk of internalizing it as scientific evidence that being single means that there is something wrong with them. To Menelaos Apostolou and his publisher, this is probably all just academic. To real-life single people, it is not. It is about their lives.
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