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How Your Beliefs About Single People Can Affect Them

The subtle ways stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Key points

  • Studies confirm that people's expectations of others can be conveyed nonverbally and shape others' behavior.
  • Those who who believe that singles are miserable, lonely, and desperate to find The One can get single people to doubt themselves.
  • For some, being single is their most meaningful, fulfilling, and authentic life.

When I talk about people’s stereotypes about singles, one of the reactions I sometimes get is, “So what?” Why, the skeptics are asking, should I care about what other people think, even if it is negative and wrong.

So suppose I meet someone for the first time, let’s say a man, who believes that single people are miserable and lonely and want nothing more than to become unsingle. He has no particular animus toward me or toward single people in general – he just expects single people to have certain emotions and motivations. Those are his beliefs. Would he behave toward me any differently than if he did not have those beliefs? Specifically, might he somehow get me to behave in ways that are in keeping with his false expectations about what I’m really like?

With regard to this specific question about whether expectations about single people can shape singles’ behavior in ways that confirm those expectations – well, there is no research that tests exactly that. There are, however, hundreds – if not thousands – of studies of the ways that one person’s expectations can shape another person’s behavior.

Early Studies of Expectancy Effects

One of the classic early studies of expectancy effects was conducted by my graduate advisor, Robert Rosenthal. He told elementary school teachers that some of the students had been identified as intellectual bloomers by a test they took. The teachers were told the names of those students and led to expect that those students would do particularly well over the course of the coming academic year.

In fact, the information given to the teachers was bogus. The students identified as bloomers were no different academically from the other students. Their names were selected at random. Only their teachers’ expectations for them differed. Yet, sure enough, the students who were expected to bloom really did do better than the others by the end of the school year.

That study was conducted decades ago. By now, the power of expectations has been demonstrated not just in classrooms, but also in workplaces, courtrooms, doctor-patient interactions, parent-child interactions, psychotherapy, consumer transactions, and more.

After the first 30 or so studies had been published, Rosenthal was able to specify how teachers (and others) behaved differently toward people for whom they had different expectations. For example, when teachers were interacting with students they expected to bloom academically, compared to when they were interacting with their other students:

  • They created a warmer interpersonal environment; they smiled and nodded more, and were more supportive, friendly, and encouraging.
  • They gave those students more specific feedback.
  • They taught those students more material and more difficult material.
  • They gave those students more opportunities to show what they knew – for instance, by waiting longer for an answer before moving on to the next student.

In those ways, and others discovered over subsequent years, teachers convey their expectations without ever having to say directly that they think particular students are particularly smart. Most likely, the teachers were good teachers, trying to be fair and encouraging to all of their students. But their behavior was not the same, and their students’ outcomes were not the same either.

In other contexts (such as medical settings or courtrooms), the particular ways in which expectations are conveyed may differ, but the point gets across and behavior is shaped.

How Might Single People Be Influenced by Other People’s Stereotypes and Expectations?

There are countless factors that influence human behavior; other people’s expectations comprise just one of them. Moreover, some people may be more resistant than their peers to the expectations of others. With those qualifications in mind, how – if at all – do you think your own behavior as a single person might be shaped by other people’s expectations?

Here are a few possibilities:

  • You see someone at a social event whom you haven’t seen for a while. (Let’s assume it is a woman for this example.) The first thing she asks is, “Are you seeing anybody?” Then, when you say no, she gives you the pity-look. Our facial expressions often mirror one another’s in a way that can be nearly automatic. So if someone is giving you that sad-eyed look, you are probably not going to respond with a great big smile – at least not at first. So think about what has happened. Your acquaintance has elicited an unhappy facial expression from you. Maybe you even do feel a little sad at the moment – not because you are not seeing anyone, but because your acquaintance thinks your relationship status is the most interesting thing about you. Moreover, when that acquaintance looks back at the evening, what does she recall? That the first thing the two of you discussed was whether you were seeing anyone. (Never mind that she brought it up.) Maybe she also remembers that unhappy look she pulled out of you. Now she has her expectations confirmed, at least in her own mind – you are unhappy that you are not seeing anyone!
  • When you try to talk about the things that are important, meaningful, or exciting to you, she acts only minimally interested and then changes the subject. Has she gotten you to doubt whether you really do find those aspects of your life fulfilling? I hope not, but even if she hasn’t gotten to you, would a similar conversation undermine the confidence of a less secure single person? And now look at what may happen to the person who changed the subject. Again, she might remember that what the two of you discussed the longest was your status as “not seeing anyone,” again taking this as support for her belief that nothing matters more. Never mind that she is the one who cut off the discussion of what really does matter to you.
  • When you start discussing people you both know, the first thing she asks about each of them is whether they are in a serious romantic relationship. (This is not hypothetical. I saw an acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years, and that’s the first thing she asked about a mutual friend.) Does that make you wonder whether a person’s romantic relationship status really is the most important thing about them? Maybe it doesn’t make you wonder, but what about other people who have not thought about these issues as deeply as you have, or have not lived them?

You can probably generate plenty of your own examples. What they all illustrate is this possibility: Acquaintances, relatives, and other people who believe that singles are miserable, lonely, and desperate to find The One can get single people to doubt themselves. Single people can end up feeling a bit sad and lonely, even if they did not feel that way before the conversation began.

The next important question is how you, a single person, can stand your ground and be the person you really want to be, even if others don’t get it about the life you prefer. One of the reasons I have devoted so much of my attention to people who are Single at Heart is so it will become more widely known that for some people, single life is their very best life – their most meaningful, fulfilling, and authentic life. I want that belief to shape our behavior. It's not a stereotype; it's true.

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