Have you seen the headlines about the “Singles in America” survey? Match.com is oh-so-proud of it. The company boasts of the intellectual firepower behind their study. The survey is touted as “comprehensive” and the Match.com CEO brags that, “Since its inception, Singles in America has proven to be an unprecedented source of insight into the ideologies and lifestyle choices of today’s singles.”
Of course, the fact that the survey comes from Match.com should set off our scientific alarm bells. But Match.com points to their scholars in charge, and notes that the results are based on a representative sample of 5,000 American singles and 1,000 married people. Plus, sadly enough, many media outlets take the findings reported in the press release and run with them, as though they were ferrying precious cargo. So I think it is important to take a close look from a scientific perspective, and offer a less credulous perspective than you might find elsewhere.
My first objection to the survey is that it caricatures and diminishes people who are single, reducing them to little more than an array of penises, vaginas, and online profiles. To read Match.com’s description of the survey topics is to be treated to still another example of the myth that what single people want, more than anything else, is to become unsingle.
The first year that Match.com conducted this survey (this year is the third), I was able to obtain a copy of the questionnaire items. You can find my overview of the content of the survey in What’s missing from the recent ‘comprehensive’ survey about singles? Here’s the thumbnail version:
“Except for that one question (out of 128) about the most empowering aspect about being single (with a limited and stereotypical set of response options), the survey omitted every aspect of single life that is not about dating, mating, or procreating.”
Most single people live full, happy, meaningful lives. No organization or scholar should ever claim to be offering a “comprehensive” view of single life, or “an unprecedented source of insight into the ideologies and lifestyle choices of today’s singles” if they never ask about any of the sources of meaning and value in single people’s lives beyond dating, mating, and baby-making. What about friends and family and all of the other important people in our lives? What about our passions and our work? What about our valuing of solitude or of sociability?
Suppose, though, that we were to accept that Match.com, being in the online dating business, is not about to acknowledge the depth and complexity and meaningfulness of single life, despite all its claims about comprehensiveness and its “world-renowned” scholars. Can we then accept the report of the findings of the survey in the limited domain of topics that it covers?
Again, the answer is unfortunate. The report appears to be just another act of cheerleading for marriage. Here are just a few examples of the ways in which the report stacks the deck in favor of marriage and coupling, in scientifically indefensible ways.
In support of the claim that “romantic love survives long-term,” the Match.com report offers this methodologically laughable factoid: “Over 80% of married men and women would marry the same person again.” What’s so funny about that? Check out this post, where I spelled it out. That lapse of logic, right there, should make you wonder about the company’s supposedly esteemed researchers.
If a difference between married and single people favors married people (at least by Match.com’s standards of what is valuable), then that’s a real difference. If it favors single people, then the married and single people are basically the same.
Case in point: The Match.com people are all about sex, so thinking about sex more often seems to be something they value. Here’s their claim: “…married people think about sex more frequently than singles do; 76% of married couples vs. 72% of singles think about sex at least once a week or more.”
Social life is a good thing, so Match.com does not want to acknowledge that single people might have the edge there. So whereas a 4-point difference favoring married people thinking about sex is a real difference, a 6-point difference favoring single people with regard to social life is described as: “Singles and married people have considerably similar social lives.” Specifically, 52% of singles and 46% of married people go out between one and three times a week.
(To the statistically inclined, what we really want is significance testing, or estimates of the size of the effects, but don’t look for any of that in the Match.com report.)
See if you can figure out what’s wobbly about this claim:
“A sex perk of marriage: more orgasms. 47% of married people achieve orgasm 91-100% of the time vs. 38% of singles.”
Notice the cherry-picking. Participants in the survey were likely offered a set of responses to choose from to describe the frequency of their orgasms. One option was 91-100% of the time. Only the results from the people who choose that option were reported. What about all of the other options?
More significant is the impression that could be conveyed to readers who have not been trained in research methods or statistics. Some, I suspect, will mistakenly draw this conclusion: Gee, if I get married, I’ll have more orgasms.
The Match.com researchers compared the answers of survey respondents who were currently married to those who were single. Their write-up of the results has a “marrieds-win” vibe about it. But this sort of study can never tell us anything definitive about the implications of marrying. It is not a longitudinal study, in which the same people are studied year after year, so we can see how their experiences change (if at all) as they transition from being single to married and then maybe single again.
Even worse, the currently married people are a very select subset of all people who ever married. The currently married do not include the 40-some percent who got married, hated it, and got divorced. Wonder how many orgasms they were experiencing. (This point about the pervasive methodological flaws in research on marital status is tremendously important. I explain it in greater detail, and with reference to many more examples of published and publicized research, in Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.)
If the results for single people are especially positive, then don’t mention the analogous results for married people at all. Case in point: “In the bedroom, singles put you first. 97% of singles say it’s more important to satisfy their partners sexually than be satisfied themselves.”
The article about the Match.com findings over at the Huffington Post takes this a step further. The heading corresponding to the finding about singles putting their partners first was “People are putting a partner’s satisfaction first.” Because if the news is good, let’s pretend it is about all people and not just single people.
I’m going to stop at four examples. This is just too easy. And too discouraging.
The “Singles in America” survey results, when taken uncritically at face value, inspire insipid and misleading but click-attracting posts such as the one at Huffington with the title, 10 things you didn’t know about single people. (That was the title that appeared on the home page on February 6, 2013. On an inside page, it was, “Match.com Singles in America Study: 10 Things You Didn’t Know about Single Americans.”)
The 10 things included such topics as sexting, sex, more sex, snooping in a partner’s Facebook or email account, hiding things online, dating, and more dating.
Real single people live bigger, more interesting, and more meaningful lives than those very circumscribed topics would suggest. So take a look at my next post, “Beyond Sex Organs: 11 Meaningful Facts about Single People.”
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You can get Dr. DePaulo's book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After in paperback here or as an ebook here. Her other books on singlism, single life, and the psychology of deceiving and detecting deceit are here. Dr. DePaulo writes the "Living Single" blog for Psychology Today, and the Single at Heart blog for Psych Central. Her website is BellaDePaulo.com.