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Do People Think Less Deeply When They Size Up Single People?

Unfair treatment is less likely to be seen as wrong when singles are the target.

Key points

  • When told that singles pay more taxes or get fewer benefits, fewer than 4 in 10 think that’s unfair.
  • Prejudicial beliefs about single people have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as beliefs about other devalued groups.
  • The belief that coupled people are superior because they are coupled needs to be challenged as relentlessly as other kinds of prejudices.

Sometimes it is obvious when people are treating others unfairly. Some examples of discrimination are blatant. Consider this example that Wendy Morris, Stacey Sinclair, and I tested in our study of housing discrimination.

We told our participants that a landlord was choosing between two potential tenants, and both had steady jobs and were described very positively by their current landlords. One was Black and the other white. The Black applicant offered to pay a higher rent than the white applicant, but “the landlord prefers to lease houses to white people and decides to accept the white person as the tenant.” We asked the participants why they thought the landlord made that decision.

It was an easy call. The landlord was prejudiced and based their decision on stereotyping. That’s what the participants said in their own words. We also asked them to indicate, on rating scales, the fairness of the decision – how legitimate, prejudiced, justifiable, and reasonable it was.

Again, participants overwhelmingly agreed that the decision was illegitimate. On average, they assigned it a legitimacy rating of 2.6 on a scale ranging from 1 to 9, with 1 indicating the least fair and legitimate decision. Participants who, In their own words, described the decision as based on prejudice and stereotyping were especially likely to rate it as illegitimate.

We did five other versions of our study:

  • The landlord chose a man over a woman even though the woman offered to pay more.
  • The landlord chose a heterosexual over a lesbian or gay person even though the latter offered to pay more.
  • The landlord chose a thin person over an obese person even though the obese person offered to pay more.
  • The landlord chose a young person over an old person even though the old person offered to pay more.
  • The landlord chose a married person over a single person even though the single person offered to pay more.

The results of four of those five decisions were similar to what we found when the landlord chose the white tenant over the Black tenant who offered to pay more. When the landlord favored the man, the heterosexual, the thin person, or the young person, participants often said that was because of prejudice and stereotyping. But when the landlord chose the married person, only 10 percent attributed that decision to prejudice or stereotyping.

Instead, participants' most common answer when asked why the landlord chose the married couple was “because they are married.” If it is not immediately obvious what is wrong with that, imagine if the participants said that the landlord chose the white tenant “because they are white” or the man “because he is a man.” It wouldn’t happen.

When evaluating the single and married tenants, it was as if participants’ thinking got short-circuited. Once they knew that one person was single and the other married, they did not need to think any more deeply. That was enough information to inform their decision as to who deserved the rental.

The ratings of legitimacy told a similar story. Perceptions of legitimacy were very low for the choice of a man, a heterosexual, or a thin person over the other person who offered to pay more – around 3.0 on a scale of 1 to 9. The choice of a young person was seen as a bit more legitimate, 4.8.

The decision considered most legitimate was the selection of the married person over the single one. Participants rated it as above the midpoint (5) of the legitimacy scale, 5.4, indicating they thought the decision was more legitimate than illegitimate.

For all the other groups, saying that the landlord’s decision was based on prejudice and stereotyping correlated with rating that decision as unfair and illegitimate. But not for single people. Whether participants thought the decision was based on prejudice had almost nothing to do with whether they considered the decision unfair. As we said in the article, “Stereotyping singles is not considered objectionable.”

When told that singles pay more taxes or get fewer benefits, fewer than 4 in 10 think that’s unfair.

In a YouGov poll from earlier this year, survey participants were told that “married people sometimes pay less in taxes than they would if they were single.” Asked if that was fair or unfair or whether they were unsure, only 37 percent said that was unfair. Another 36 percent said it was fair, and the other 27 percent were unsure.

Participants were also asked whether it was unfair or fair that “single people can’t get health insurance or Social Security benefits through other people the way married people can through their spouses.” Overall, only 38 percent said that was unfair. Another 36 percent said it was fair. The other 26 percent were unsure.

The YouGov poll did not include hypothetical comparisons with other devalued groups, as Morris, Sinclair, and I did in our study of housing discrimination. You can do the relevant thought experiment and imagine the results.

What if men (or white people or heterosexual people, or thin people) could get access to health insurance or Social Security benefits through another person but women (or Black people or lesbians or gay people, or obese people) could not, or if the men (or members of the other valued groups) paid less in taxes just because they were men? Would fewer than four in 10 think that was unfair? Would about a quarter of the participants say they just don’t know what to think?

What Makes People Think a Decision Was Fair?

In an article just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “What Counts as Discrimination?” New York University social scientists Teodora K. Tomova and L. Taylor Phillips described the results of nine studies designed to answer that question. They were particularly interested in demographic characteristics and when they would be considered fair to use in decisions about hiring.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not include marital status or relationship status as one of the demographic characteristics they studied. They did, though, include 15 others: race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, nationality, religion, political affiliation, caregiving responsibilities, personal network connections, alma mater, family origin (last name), and physical attractiveness.

They found overwhelming evidence that, in judging the perceived fairness of hiring decisions, two factors mattered: whether the characteristic was seen as relevant or controllable.

A relevant factor is one that is related to performance on the job. As the researchers explained, “For instance, someone who is applying for a data scientist position should be judged based on their analytic skills rather than their party planning experience.” People think it is fair to use relevance as a criterion for hiring decisions.

A controllable characteristic is a “status that can be changed or controlled by the individual.” It is considered fair to use controllable characteristics as a basis for hiring decisions but unfair to use characteristics seen as relatively uncontrollable, such as race or gender. Relevance influenced decisions about fairness even more than controllability did.

An interesting implication of their work is that people think it is fair to use uncontrollable characteristics, such as age or caregiving responsibilities if they think they are relevant to performance on the job, even though they are legally protected categories.

It is the perceived controllability factor that is especially disadvantageous to single people. Rather than seeing discrimination against single people as unfair, some people are tempted to instead think, “Well, if they want tax breaks or access to health insurance or Social Security benefits or that great rental place, they should just get married.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to them that no one should have to get married to be treated fairly. Some single people love being single and don’t want to become coupled. Others would love to be coupled, but it is just not happening. To them, marital or relationship status may feel uncontrollable.

Maybe They Are Just Not Thinking at All

Prejudicial beliefs about single people have not been subjected to the same scrutiny as beliefs about other devalued groups. For example, sexism, heterosexism, and racism are part of our cultural conversations. People realize that those kinds of prejudices are unfair, or at least they realize that lots of people see them as unfair. Singlism (the stereotyping and stigmatizing of single people and the discrimination against them) is getting a bit more attention over time, but it is still largely unrecognized.

Instead, what Wendy Morris and I described as “the ideology of marriage and family” still prevails: People just assume that married people are more valuable, important, and worthy than single people. They don’t think critically about that. It is part of conventional wisdom.

Sasha Roseneil and her colleagues found something similar in their study of European nations: the belief that being coupled is “the normal, natural and superior way of being an adult” was pervasive and largely unchallenged. Martin Day and his colleagues showed how those beliefs could sometimes justify the status quo.

The belief that coupled people are superior just because they are coupled needs to be challenged as relentlessly as other kinds of prejudices have been. Until then, people will continue to think less clearly and less deeply when they size up single people. They will continue to say things like, “the landlord chose the married person because they were married,” without realizing anything is wrong with that.

A version of this post is published at Unmarried Equality with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own.

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