On Facebook, a post about the results of a new study was introduced with this: “When do you do your best thinking? If you’re like most people, it’s not at 3 a.m. Here’s what we’ve learned.” I immediately thought to myself, “Well, I guess I’m not like most people.”
I’ve been a late-night person my whole life — all the way back to infancy, according to my beleaguered parents who had a baby who screamed all night. All these decades later, I’m still up every night at 3 a.m., minus the screaming. I think I do a lot of my best thinking then. Fewer people are awake in the middle of the night, so there are fewer emails and fewer of just about every kind of distraction. At 3 a.m., I’m settled in, focused on my work, and thinking.
I write a lot about studies that show that single people are supposedly doing better or worse than married people in various ways. I critique the studies when I think the methodology is flawed or the researchers drew inappropriate conclusions from the findings.
There’s something else I should say more often when I describe the results of studies in psychology: The results are always based on averages. They describe some people to a T, and others not at all.
Consider, for example, studies showing that single people have more friends than married people. That’s based on averages. It means that on the average, single people have more friends than married people do. It does not mean that every single person has more friends than every married person.
As I’ve noted many times, a better kind of study follows the same people over time. Among people who get married, do they pay less attention to their friends than they did when they were single? Research suggests that they do – when couples move in together or get married, they become more insular, something that’s generally true even if they don’t have kids.
Again, though, the results are based on averages. That’s what typically happens. But there will always be exceptions. Some people get married and start spending more time with friends, maybe because they are the more introverted one in the couple, and their partner coaxes them into being more sociable.
Sometimes, what one group is doing seems better than what another group is doing. I like to highlight studies showing all the ways in which single people are more generous and more caring than married people, because that’s what the research really does say, and because I want to push back against the stereotypes that insist that single people are selfish.
Even in these examples, I think the prescriptive message – the implication that you should be behaving in a certain way – needs to be qualified. Spending a lot of time volunteering, for example, isn’t going to be for everyone. If you try to get yourself to do things that just don’t suit you, maybe you won’t do a very good job and won’t be particularly pleasant to be around.
Another example is the research showing that single people are more likely than married people to be there for their parents as they get older and need more help. When that help is totally voluntary and comes from a place of love, it is probably going to be mostly good for everyone. (I say “mostly” because both giving and receiving help are psychologically complex experiences.)
But if single people feel that they have been guilted into doing more of the work by other people who think that because they are single, they have no life, then the greater amount of help that they give may not be such a good thing after all.
I’m not saying any of this to try to get you to distrust science. I love scientific research. When studies are conducted and interpreted in a scientifically rigorous way, we can all learn a lot. But even with the very best studies ever conducted, the results are averages and do not apply to everyone. And they don’t tell you how you should live your life.
That’s for you to decide.