Is There a Bridget Jones Effect?

New research explores how popular media affects the fear of being single

Posted Jan 18, 2018

“Come on, let's get you a drink. How's your love life, anyway?   Oh God. Why can't married people understand that this is no longer a polite question to ask? We wouldn't rush up to them and roar, "How's your marriage going? Still have sex?”   Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones' Diary

In an era in which the choice to put off marriage or even forgo it altogether is becoming more popular,  more adults than ever are single and content to stay that way for a large part of their lives. According to the latest World Marriage Data, for example, the proportion of people who are married has dropped sharply over the past four decades in many Western countries, including the United States and Canada.  This is especially true for adults aged 18 to 25 who can be considered "emerging adults."   

While marriage for this age group was far more common back in 1970, more young adults are choosing to put off marriage while they pursue other life goals.These can include finishing school, devoting themselves to a career, or "playing the field" with numerous romantic relationships rather than committing themselves to one person exclusively. Still, while the pressure to marry at an early age is not as great as it once was (at least in Western countries), surveys of emerging adults, both male and female, indicate that most of them express the hope of being in a committed relationship eventually.  

Ironically enough, single adults often find themselves having to justify their choice to be single, not just to friends or family, but even to total strangers they might happen to meet.  There is also a certain stigma attached to singles, especially as they grow older. Surveys suggest that singles are often viewed as being lonelier and less mature than their married counterparts. They can also be considered less warm and caring as well.  Despite research showing that well-adjusted singles are often healthier, more socially active, and more involved in the community than married couples, the stereotype of the "desperate, lonely, single" still persists.  

While being single confers many advantages, including providing greater control over financial and activities, less financial pressure, and more freedom to pursue recreational or vocational interests, the desire to be in a committed relationship remains strong.  Women under the age of 35 typically report facing active discrimination, especially if they are sexually active, something that single men are often able to avoid (aside from speculation about their sexual orientation).   Still, for both men and women, the fear of being single is often very real. 

When this fear is especially strong, it can lead to people lowering their relationship standards by "settling" for partners who might not be suitable for them. Even when they do form relationships, they can often be more emotionally dependent and "clingy" and, as a result, may be extremely reluctant to have that relationship end.  

And the stigma surrounding single people seems deeply rooted in our society.   Along with cultural and family expectations, stereotypes about desperate, lonely singles are frequently found in movies and television shows.   According to the cultivation theory first developed by media researcher George Gebner, all forms of mass media, especially television, provide a "“common symbolic environment” that can shape the way people view the world.   

For heavy TV viewers in particular, the way the world is presented in movies and television can often be interpreted as reflecting real life. When it comes to how romance is portrayed in different movies and television shows, for example, this can lead to a biased view of relationship. For the most part, long-term relationships  are often presented as the ideal state for everyone with singles (particularly female singles) being portrayed as desperate, lonely, and unhappy. 

 Movies such as Bridget Jones' Diary and television shows such as Ally McBeal and Sex and the City often convey this message even when (supposedly) pushing female empowerment.  It's hardly surprising that many of these shows provide the usual "happy ending" in which the woman in question ends up with her "soulmate" since this is presumably the only way women can be truly happy.  It's probably a sign of progress (of sorts) that movies and television shows in recent years have been pushing an equivalent message for single men as well though most of the focus is still on females.   

But what kind of impact does these idealized portrayals of romantic relationships have on watchers?  To nobody's surprise, media research indicates that people in relationships report feeling more satisfied with their partners after seeing romantic movies or television shows.  As for singles however, there seems to be the opposite effect and a reinforced fear of being single. 

With this in mind, a new research study recently published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture provides new evidence for the "Bridget Jones effect" (part of the actual title of the study). Conducted by a team of  researchers led by Elisabeth Timmermans of the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research in Belgium, the study examined how cultivation theory could be applied in predicting the way romantic media content influences relationship fears in single men and women.   

For the research,  a cross-sectional sample of 821 adults, aged 18 to 25,  were recruited online through Facebook and other social media platforms,  Of these, 72.5 percent were women more than half were full-time students.  Participants completed a series of survey items collecting background information as well as information about past or present relationships.  They were also questioned about their parents' marital status, sexual orientation, and the current length of their relationships. 

The majority of participants identified themselves as heterosexual (93.1 percent) while two-thirds were in a committed relationship.  Nearly three-quarters of the participants had parents who were either still married or cohabiting.   Along with relationship survey data, participants also completed questionnaires measuring fear of being single, neuroticism, need for belonging, and television viewing habits.   Focusing on romantic media watching, participants were asked how often they watched romantic comedy or drama series as well as romantic comedy or drama movies.   

Results showed that women between the age of 18 to 25 had a stronger fear of being single than men and also scored higher in need for social belonging. In looking at overall media exposure, average viewing time was about the same for men and women though women reported being more exposed to romantic media content than men.   

In looking at the link between exposure to romantic media content and fear of being single, single women appeared particularly vulnerable with no equivalent findings for single men.   Still, even for single women, the effect sizes, while significant, tended to be fairly small. As for men and women who were already in a committed relationship, exposure to romantic media content didn't appear to have any noticeable effect in terms of relationship fears.

Though these results appear to contradict previous studies looking at the effects of cultivation theory on how people think and behave, Elizabeth Timmermans and her colleagues point out that film studios have been making more of an effort in recent years to present singles in a more balanced way.  While single men and women may still be presented as desperate for the purposes of comic relief, this seems to have become less common than it was in previous generations. 

Also, more people than ever are embracing singlehood  and, as a result, may be less likely to be affected by the idealized romantic situations they may see on TV or at the movies. One potential drawback for this study is that it focused exclusively on younger adults so more research is needed to see whether fear of being single becomes more of an issue as people grow older.

So, does this research confirm the "Bridget Jones effect"?  It does to some extent, though the link between romantic media watching and fear of being single seems modest at best, even for single women.  As the single option becomes more popular and the proportion of married people continues to decline,  the way society as a whole views singlehood is likely to change as well.   

References

Timmermans, E., Coenen, L., & Van den Bulck, J. (2017, December 7). The Bridget Jones Effect: The Relationship Between Exposure to Romantic Media Contents and Fear of Being Single Among Emerging Adults. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000175

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