Last month, a psychology professor made a big splash with a finding he reported, only to discover that he had gotten it wrong. The question remains: What is the actual answer to the question he asked?
Here’s the claim Professor Paul Dolan made at a festival in Wales:
“Married people are happier than other population subgroups, but only when their spouse is in the room when they’re asked how happy they are. When the spouse is not present: f***ing miserable!”
Apparently, he got a big reaction. The crowd thought it was hilarious.
The problem was, Professor Dolan was using data collected by others, and he misinterpreted one of the labels. He thought that “spouse absent” meant that the spouse was not in the room when the questions were asked. In fact, it meant that the spouse was not living in the same household. For example, the spouse could be in the military, or working far away, or institutionalized. What the results really showed was that married people living with their spouse were typically happier than married people whose spouse was living somewhere else.
I’ve addressed the question of whether people who marry get happier many times before. (They don’t, except sometimes very early on in the marriage – but then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.) I’ve also discussed previously another claim that Dolan made – that single women with no kids are happier than everyone else.
But what about the other question that Dolan thought he had answered? Is it true that married people say they are happy if their spouse is around to hear their answer, but report much lower happiness if their spouse is not around?
I don’t know of any research that really did address that question. So what I can offer you here are some possibilities.
Maybe Spouses Who Really Are Unhappy Are Most Likely to Lie About Their Feelings in Front of Their Spouse
To understand the psychology of reporting different levels of happiness depending on whether your spouse is around, the key question to ask is “why?”: Why would married people do that? One possibility is that they really are miserable, but they are not ready or willing to say so to their spouse.
Before I started studying single people, I used to do research on lying. My colleagues and I found that people more often lie to cover up bad things than good ones. For example, people more often lie about people they dislike than people they like, and they more often lie when they dislike another person’s outfit or hair cut or artwork. They lie more often to cover up bad things about themselves, too. For instance, they are more likely to lie when they performed poorly at work or at school than when they performed well.
Maybe Happy Spouses Lie About Their Feelings, Too
We found that people also lie about positive things, even though that occurs less often. For example, college students who did well on a test sometimes told friends they had done poorly, especially if they thought their friends really had gotten bad grades.
Married women sometimes assume that single women are envious of them. Maybe some of those wives tell single women that they are “f***ing miserable,” even though they are happy, and will say they are happy in front of their spouse.
When married women tell those kinds of lies, they are trying to be kind. Of course, if they are misreading the single women, and those women are not at all envious of them, then they have told a rather pointless lie.
Maybe People Who Feel Controlled by Their Spouse Are Most Likely to Lie About Their Feelings When Their Spouse Is Around
I’m reading a terrific new anthology, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate. In one of the chapters, Cathi Hanauer describes her father’s insistence on being part of every conversation with her mother. If she called home and her mother answered, her father would get on the line. If she asked to have a private conversation with her mother, he would say, “Whatever you tell her, you can tell me.” If she asked her mother a question about herself, her father would answer that, too. Her parents shared an email address until they were in their early seventies, when Hanauer’s mother got her own email account without telling her husband.
When I started reading that chapter, I thought I had found, in Hanauer’s mother, exactly the sort of person who would have said she was happy when her husband around, only to announce that she was “f***ing miserable” when he wasn’t. Toward the end of the chapter, Cathi Hanauer described the private conversations she eventually did manage to have with her mother, and her attempts to question her about how she really felt. Her mother was not happy about a lot of what had transpired with her husband, but Cathi had to coax her to talk about it. Cathi concluded that her “mother deals with life’s frustrations and devastations mostly by waiting them out.”
So What’s the Answer?
We don’t know the answer to the question of whether married people say they are happy when their spouse is around, only to say something very different when their spouse can’t hear them. What strikes me as intriguing is how much that possibility resonated. The audience loved the idea, then when the media picked up the story, it circulated round and round until it was finally felled by the discovery of the error.
Someone should do the research that tells us the real answer.
Oh, Wait – There Is an Answer!
Just as I was about to publish this blog post, I got an email letting me know that Professor Dolan had responded to the controversy about the claims he made in his talk. Most relevant is his mention of a study that actually did measure how married people respond to survey questions when their spouse is or is not present. I haven’t read the entire article yet since I just learned about it, so for now I’ll just tell you what the abstract (summary) says: “When spouses were present during the interview, subjective assessments of the utility of marriage were more positive, higher estimates of spouse contributions to housework were obtained, and men gave lower estimates of the likelihood of marital dissolution.” This seems to suggest that married people do report happier marital experiences if their spouse is present when they are asked these questions, though the summary also notes that when their spouse was present, married people admitted to higher levels of marital conflict.