Today (September 16, 2018) is the first day of Unmarried and Single Americans Week, or Singles Week for short. It is a week for recognizing single people and all that they contribute. It is a celebration of living single, and not of dating or any other attempts to escape single life.
I’ve written before about the many reasons why we need a National Singles Week. It is usually a joyful time. This year, the Census Bureau has left me very disappointed. Since 2006, the Bureau has marked the week by issuing a wonderfully helpful and interesting set of statistics called “Facts for Features” (for example, the number of single people, the number who live alone, number of unmarried people who have never been married, number who are cohabiting, number who have children, and so forth). I keep track of the numbers and see how the trends develop over time (for example, here and here).
This year, though, the Census Bureau demoted us. Instead of issuing their “Facts for Features,” the 110 million unmarried Americans now get only a measly one-paragraph announcement, “Stats for Stories.” I’m signed up for alerts from the Census Bureau and I never got the announcement about this. I think that means they are not even bothering to put it out there as a press release.
To make matters worse, they illustrated their announcement with a stereotype – a picture of a man and a woman on a date. (She’s blond; they’re both white.) Exactly the opposite of what Singles Week is all about.
Does it seem like the image of a romantic couple is just too trivial to matter? Actually, it is not. Something as fleeting as a glance at a romantic image, or overhearing a snippet of a conversation about a date, puts a damper on the scientific interests and aspirations of women who are college students. A series of studies published in 2011 showed that.
Does Matrimania Really Matter? Look What It Does to Young Women and Their Interest in Science and Technology
I like to rant about matrimania – the over-the-top hyping of weddings and couples and all things related to romance and marriage. It is everywhere – in the romantic images that appear even in irrelevant and inappropriate contexts, the chatter about romantic relationships that is the white noise of everyday life, and the stories that dominate novels and magazines, movies and TV. But does it really matter, other than being boring, utterly unimaginative, and annoying?
In a series of studies, Lora Park and her colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that it does – but only for women. The examples of matrimania that they looked at (not that they used that word) were actually fairly mild, but they still had an impact on women’s attitudes and interests. The findings suggest an answer to the question of why more women do not pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) – their pursuit of romance, and the reminders of romance that they see and hear all around them – undermine their interest in science and math.
The Effect of Just Looking at a Few Romantic Pictures
Here are some specifics. In the first study, male and female college students are shown a series of pictures (and given a bogus reason for viewing them). The pictures are either stereotypically romantic ones – beach sunsets, romantic restaurants, candles – or intelligence-related images, such as books, libraries, or eyeglasses. Later they are asked how interested they are in math and science (including computer science, chemistry, physics, engineering, technology, and so forth) and how likely they are to pursue a career in one of those fields. They also rank-order their preference for various academic majors.
The results were clear. Women who saw romantic pictures expressed less interest in STEM fields and said they were less likely to pursue science/math-type academic majors than were the women who saw the pictures or books or libraries or eyeglasses. For the men, the different pictures didn’t matter.
Remember, all it took to undermine women’s expressions of interest in science and math was looking at a few cheesy matrimaniacal pictures!
The Effect of Overhearing a Conversation about a Date
In the second set of studies, the researchers made the matrimania seem incidental. While waiting for a study to start, college men and women accidentally-on-purpose overheard the experimenter and an assistant, just outside the door, discussing the experimenter’s great date s/he just had the night before. In the comparison conditions, the conversation was about the difficult test the experimenter had just taken that s/he had done really well on, or about a great visit the experimenter had just had with a same-sex friend.
Can you predict the results?
Yes, they were the same as before. The women who overheard the conversation about the date expressed less liking for science or math, and less interest in pursuing science- or math-type majors, than women who overheard a conversation about a test or a visit from a same-sex friend. Men weren’t affected.
The exposure to matrimania in these studies, too, seemed utterly trivial. The overheard conversations were very brief – the experimenter cut off each discussion by saying, “I’ll tell you more about it later. I’ve got to get this session started.” Still, just that wisp of an overheard matrimaniacal conversation sent women scurrying away from any professed interest in math or science.
Text Your Boyfriend Today, Forget about Your Math Class Today and Tomorrow
In the last study, only women participated and the only women included in the study were those who had already said they were interested in pursuing degrees or careers in math or science and who were enrolled in a college math class. Theoretically, they should not be so easy to dissuade from their pursuit of STEM fields.
This was a daily diary study. Every day for 21 days, the women kept diaries in which they recorded whether they had called or emailed or texted someone they were romantically interested in, whether they spent time with such a person, whether they paid attention in math class, and whether they spent time on math homework. They were also asked directly, each day, whether they were trying to be romantically desirable and whether they were trying to be academically intelligent. There was even a question about feeling romantically attractive – I’ll call that the “I feel pretty” measure.
The women who said they were trying to be romantically desirable on a particular day, and those who said that they communicated with or spent time with a romantic interest, also paid less attention in math class and spent less time on math homework. What’s more, the effect carried over to the following day as well. So, the matrimaniacally-involved women put less into their math education on the day of their romantic pursuits and the day after. But, they did feel prettier on those days!
Park, L. E., Young, A. F., Troisi, J. D., & Pinkus, R. T. (2011). Effects of everyday romantic goal pursuit on women’s attitudes toward math and science. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1259-1273.