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Why Do Psychologists Study Such Weird Things?

In my most recent blog post, I critiqued a study that was generating misleading headlines about the supposed superiority of people who are married. The (wrong) implication was that if you get married, you will have a stronger grip and a faster walking speed. I examined the original research report in great detail and found that the claims about the findings were grossly exaggerated.

There was only one group of unmarried people who performed worse than the married people across both countries (England and the US) in ways that could not be explained by other factors, such as greater financial security: Widowed men walked more slowly than married men. That means the risk factor wasn’t staying single – it was getting married and then becoming widowed. But only for the men. And only on the measure of walking speed.

Online, lots of people made fun of the study for different reasons. Grip strength? Walking speed? Why are the researchers studying those things? As one clever person quipped, “What’s next – get married and your teeth will be whiter?”

Academic psychology journals are filled with studies measuring qualities that can seem bizarre or trivial. What’s that about?

In the research in question, in which the participants were either 50 and older (for the study of grip strength) or 65 and older (for walking speed) the researchers considered grip strength and walking speed to be measures of physical capabilities. They see them as indications of people’s “capacity to undertake the physical tasks of daily living.”

If the researchers’ true concern was with older people’s ability to do the ordinary tasks involved in daily living, I’m not sure their measures were the most important ones. Consider, for example, how walking speed was measured: Participants were timed as they walked about 8 feet, two times. I don’t think they were told to walk as fast as they could, so this was not a measure of how fast they could walk, but only of how fast they did walk in this very specific and odd context.

But suppose this is a legitimate measure of walking speed. Are people really disadvantaged in accomplishing the tasks of daily living if they walk slowly? What kinds of everyday tasks are 65-year-olds doing on deadline? If it takes one person a few seconds longer than another to walk from the living room to the kitchen to do the dishes, is the first person really disadvantaged in performing the tasks of daily living?

And if the measure is actually about how fast people walk ordinarily, rather than how quickly they are capable of walking, is it really a bad thing to walk more slowly? Leisurely walking may be experienced as more relaxing and enjoyable. If you are walking someplace beautiful or scenic, it can be a way of savoring the experience rather than rushing it.

Grip strength was measured using a device called a “Smedley Dynamometer.” Participants gripped it at least twice with each hand, and their strongest grip on each hand was used as the measure of their strength. They probably got the message that they should try to grip the device tightly even if they were not explicitly instructed to do so.

But here’s the thing about aging in contemporary societies such as the US and England: There are ways to get around your limitations. Can’t open a jar that is sealed tightly? You can buy a very inexpensive jar opener. Having trouble walking? You can get a cane or a scooter.

The researchers, though, think that walking speed and grip strength are about more than whether you can do the ordinary tasks of everyday life. They believe, based on other research (though I don’t know if that research used the same measures), that older people who are less physically strong are less healthy overall, more likely to become disabled, and more likely to enter a long-term care facility in the future. They even think they will die sooner.

That raises a different question: If the researchers are interested in something like overall health, then why don’t they just measure overall health, rather than measuring something specific and indirect like grip strength or walking speed?

Sometimes the answer is that certain kinds of measures are easier, cheaper, or more convenient to collect than others. Getting people to grip a device or walk 8 feet is easy. Getting objective measures that would add up to an assessment of overall health would be a lot harder, more expensive, and less convenient. (The researchers could, though, ask people to describe their overall health. Such a measure, though subjective, can be quite meaningful and important.)

To me, the research seemed like just another misguided attempt to dump on single people. The first warning came in the very first sentence of the abstract, in which the authors repeated the popular but misleading claim that married people are healthier than unmarried people. Comparisons like that are typically based on what I call cheater techniques. They are ways of suggesting that married people are healthier because they are married. But more sophisticated research, that follows the same people as they go from being single to getting married, sometimes shows that people actually become a little less healthy after they marry than they were when they were single.

The authors’ own findings illustrate what’s wrong with pointing to ways that married people look like they are doing better and then saying, “See, you poor single people, if you get married, you will do better, too.” What mattered again and again was not marital status so much as wealth. On the average, married people are wealthier than single people. (For one thing, in the US, they are massively advantaged by laws that favor them. They also get the advantages in everyday life of all the deals and memberships and insurance rates that are cheaper by the couple.) When the authors compared single and married people who had about the same wealth, differences in grip strength or walking speed typically disappeared (though not for the widowed men).

The lesson isn’t to tell single people that they are limp-wristed, slow-walking wimps who are doomed to poor health, institutionalization, and an early death unless they get married. The lesson is that we all need the financial security that allows us to access the health care, healthy foods, and healthy lifestyles that help us stay strong. And when ill-health or some freak catastrophe happens, we all should be able to afford the support devices and the care that we need.

Bonus quiz

If you are single and you like your single life, but your grip is not as strong as you wish, should you:

  1. Get married and hope that magically strengthens your grip
  2. Buy a jar opener for $10
Why Do Psychologists Study Such Weird Things?

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyZysfafOAs. Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.


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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2019). Why Do Psychologists Study Such Weird Things?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 20, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2019/01/why-do-psychologists-study-such-weird-things/

 

Last updated: 29 Jan 2019
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