People are put down for being single. We know this not just from our own personal experiences and observations but from numerous scientific studies showing that single people are indeed relentlessly stereotyped.
But who is stereotyped more? Are single men or single women judged more harshly?
When people first learn that I study single people, they immediately want to talk about this. Usually, they have a favorite example all lined up: Single women are judged more harshly because the words used to refer to them, such as “spinster,” are so demeaning. In contrast, “bachelor” sounds pretty good.
Or they offer the observation that single men seem more welcome at dinner parties than single women. Or they note that a single man in his 30s or 40s or even beyond may continue to be regarded in positive ways while single women who are past their young adult years are not viewed so kindly.
In my own informal conversations, other people rarely suggest that single men have it worse in terms of how other people judge them. But I see plenty of indications that single men – especially the young ones – come in for more than their fair share of mocking. When pundits and comedians and people in everyday life talk smugly about basement-dwellers, slackers, and people obsessed with video games and porn, they are usually talking about young single men. Sadly, as I spelled out previously, serious authors who should be above such mindless stigmatizing engage in the same sort of stereotyping, sometimes over the course of entire books. They do so despite the fact that young men are far less racist, sexist, and homophobic than they were in the past, and they are less likely than young men of earlier generations to have drinking problems or criminal records or to engage in unprotected sex.
Over the past decade or so, science has marched on, and we no longer need to rely on anecdotes and guesses to know whether single men are judged more or less harshly than single women. Here I will tell you about several sets of studies, from my own lab and another lab in Germany. If you don’t mind the spoiler of hearing the results of all of these studies before I tell you the details of how they were conducted, here’s the surprising conclusion: There are no sex differences. Single women and single men are almost always judged more harshly than married women and married men, but the single women and single men are viewed equally negatively.
Here are brief descriptions of the stereotyping studies my colleagues and I conducted:
Studies 1 and 2: Participants read brief biographical sketches of people. The sketches were all identical, except that the person in the sketch was sometimes described as single and sometimes married, sometimes male and sometimes female, sometimes 25 years old and sometimes 40 years old.
Study 3: Participants read brief biographical sketches of college students. The sketches were all identical, except that sometimes the person in the sketch was described as single and other times as coupled (in a romantic relationship), sometimes male and sometimes female.
Study 4: Participants read brief biographical sketches of college students. The sketches were all identical, except that sometimes the person in the sketch was described as someone who has never had a romantic relationship and sometimes described as someone who has had a romantic relationship. Sometimes the person in the sketch was described as currently in a romantic relationship, and sometimes as not currently in a romantic relationship. The person was sometimes described as male and sometimes female.
We asked participants to judge the people in the sketches along many dimensions. Here are the sets of perceptions that clustered together:
- happy, secure, fond of children, likes emotional closeness, fun-loving, spends time with friends, attractive
- immature, fearful of rejection, shy, lonely
- interesting, adventurous, spontaneous
- self-centered, envious
- independent, career-oriented
Across all four studies, the single people were viewed more negatively than the married (or currently coupled or previously coupled) people in every way, except that the single people were seen as more independent and career-oriented. But, compared to the married or coupled people, the single men and single women were viewed equally harshly.
We did find a different kind of sex difference: Single people viewed singles of their own sex more positively than singles of the other sex. So single women were less critical of other single women than of single men, and single men were less critical of other single men than of single women.
Now here are brief descriptions of studies conducted in Germany by Tobias Greitemeyer:
Study 1: Participants read brief biographical sketches of people. The sketches were all identical, except that the person in the sketch was sometimes described as single and sometimes partnered, sometimes male and sometimes female, sometimes 25 years old and sometimes 40 years old.
Study 2: Same as Study 1, except that the people in the sketches were described as either single or dating or married (instead of single or partnered).
Study 3: Same as Study 1, except that the sketches did not mention the age of the person being described.
The participants judged the people in the sketches along many dimensions. (Not all of the dimensions were rated in all of the studies.)
- openness to new experiences
- physical attractiveness
- life satisfaction
- satisfaction with relationship status
- desire to change relationship status
- social ability
As in my own research, results showed that single people were rated more negatively than married or partnered people in every way, except that single people were viewed as more open to new ideas. And again, compared to the married or partnered people in the sketches, the single men and single women were viewed equally harshly.
So when you think about all of these studies and how they were conducted, do you agree that, all things considered, single men and single women are viewed equally harshly? Do you now believe that the sex differences that may have seemed so intuitively obvious, really aren’t there at all? Or is there some other study that still needs to be done, or some other kind of question that still needs to be asked?