In my previous post, I reviewed the methods and results of a series of studies that have been in the media lately. The authors claim to have shown that when men are scarce, single women – especially the unattractive ones – lose confidence in their ability to land a man and therefore pursue careers instead.
In this post, I’ll tell you what the authors said about their own research, then point to a few ways that the results have been represented in the media. I’ll end with a link to my own critique.
Usually, I’m proud to be a social psychologist. It is a great field. Today, though, I am ashamed. The most prestigious journal for the publication of empirical research on social psychology just published a paper addressing a question about the sex ratio and women’s career choices: “Does a scarcity of men lead women to choose briefcase over baby?”
I bet you can guess what their answer is – Yes.
It gets worse. There are particular women who are especially likely to pursue a career when there is a scarcity of men – those with “low mate-value.” Can you decode that evolutionary-psychology-speak? You don’t have to. The authors translate for you: “higher mate-value women (e.g., women who are more physically attractive).”
My objection is not that the authors conducted the research, offered their evolutionary psychology interpretation, and published the results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is that they did so little of what is typically mandatory in the very best academic writings: (1) seriously consider alternative interpretations, and (2) acknowledge the major limitations of your work.
Much as Americans cherish rugged individualists in movies and novels and the lore of the pioneers, it has been a different story when it comes to everyday people living ordinary lives. Real people who live alone, and people who are single (regardless of whether they live on their own), are more often suspected than celebrated.
When I was researching Singled Out, I found that one of the most dogged myths about single people is that they are selfish and self-centered. It’s not true – that’s why I call it a myth – but it persists. How could single people, or solo dwellers, know how to sustain any kind of a relationship? How could they feel anything but loneliness? That’s the old story.
Happily, a new perspective is emerging.
If you are a single person and you like to travel – or even if you are not single, but you enjoy vacationing on your own – you know what you are up against. Earlier this year, an article in the New York Times about vacationing “single in the Caribbean” captured the essence of the problem for the solo traveler:
“…the travel industry is just not that into you. Singles typically have to pay supplement fees on cruise ships and endure hotels where the Jacuzzi is little more than a kiddie pool. Sure, there are singles tours, fitness boot camps and other adventures that facilitate mingling. But if you’re like me — not looking for romance, but simply yearning for a lazy Caribbean escape — the options are few. At most places you’ll feel as if you’re on someone else’s family vacation or, worse, honeymoon.”
One problem, it seems, is that the travel industry has not entirely awakened to the new demographic reality: “Most travel companies think of singles as college students or as elderly.”
Think about your own marital and parental status – say, single with no kids – and imagine writing 20 life lessons for people who share your status. Make your lessons raw, honest, funny, and brief. That’s what Eleanore Wells did in her new book, The Spinsterlicious Life: 20 Life Lessons for Living Happily Single and Childfree.
I am also single and have no kids, yet many of my own 20 life lessons would be different from Eleanore Wells’s. (Not that I’ve actually managed to spell mine out.) That’s the joy of these kinds of imaginative exercises – there are so many ways of being single with no kids (or married with kids, or any other combination).
Eleanore Wells has always been single and she is absolutely not “looking.” Apparently, she never has been. I got a kick out of this reaction of hers that she described, because it is so unexpected (by conventional standards) but I could also totally relate to it:
The popularity of Eric Klinenberg’s book, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, has made living alone a hot topic. I can’t claim to have read all of the reviews and discussions of the book that have been popping up everywhere, nor have I seen even a fraction of the author’s media appearances.
From what I have observed, though, one topic seems to be missing from the discussion: Wanting to live alone means many different things to many different people. I’m not even talking about the emotional meanings of living alone – obviously, there are many varieties of those. The geography itself varies enormously.
I have long been intrigued by the finding that people who are single are in some ways even more connected to their communities than are people who are married. So when I learned that the eminent personality and social psychologist Mark Snyder was coming to town to give a talk, I was there.
Mark Snyder has spent more than a decade studying the psychology of volunteering. I learned so much from his talk. I want to share what, to me, was his most intriguing discovery.
Volunteering takes lots of different forms, from the Big-Brother/Big-Sister programs to caring for people who need help to reading to kids to passing out flyers for your favorite candidate or cause and so much more. There is a paradox to volunteering, as Snyder noted at the outset of his talk. Volunteering takes time, it takes you away from other things you could be doing instead, sometimes there are hassles involved and even emotional costs; there can even be financial costs.
On top of all that, you don’t get paid. And yet, Americans do volunteer, in very high numbers. Perhaps as many as 43% do something that counts as volunteering.
So why do they do it? What motivates volunteers to do what they do, despite the costs involved and the absence of any financial reward?
When I do research on single life, I sometimes ask large numbers of people to report on their experiences using rating scales that I provide, then I analyze the results statistically. Sometimes, though, I want to hear from single people directly, in their own words.
When Wendy Morris did her doctoral dissertation on stigma awareness among single people, she used a variety of methodologies across the four studies she conducted. As part of one of those studies, she asked 38 single adults (including widowed, divorced and always single) to describe a time when they had been treated a particular way because they were single. The participants ranged in age from 30 to 73 and included whites, African-Americans, and people of mixed races.
Here are some examples of the experiences the participants shared:
“The second year was harder than the first.” That’s what Jane Brody, New York Times writer and author of Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond, had to say in her moving story of the two years after the death of her husband. They had been together for 44 years.
I have never been married, but I had the same experience after my father died more than two decades ago. That first year, every new marker was freshly painful – his birthday, the holidays, even my birthday and my mother’s. There were also those trips “home” to visit; unlike all of the other visits in the past, now he was no longer there. I worried about my mom, too. She and my dad had been married for 42 years and now she was living on her own for the first time.
As Jane Brody noted, though, that first year, other people recognize your grief and they are there for you. By year two, they seem to assume you are over it and everything is pretty much back to normal. To me, though, Year 2 seemed astonishingly unfair. After making it through an entire year, with all of those difficult events, I thought I deserved a reward. I thought I should get my dad back. Instead, there would be just endless additional years of not having him.
It does get better eventually – at least it did for me. The end of Year 1, though, offered no magical ending of the pain.