I had the great honor of being invited to give the Invited Presidential Keynote Address at the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA) in Philadelphia, PA on March 3, 2018. However, the Nor’Easter also decided to visit Philly around the same time. My flight scheduled for the day before my talk got canceled, then I rebooked and that flight got canceled. (That was after I had a flat tire on the way to the airport.)

So I gave the first part of my talk from home (in Summerland, CA) by Skype, then the call got dropped and I gave the rest of it by phone. The audio quality wasn’t so great, at least during the Skype part, and I don’t even want to know what the video looked like in the room.

In case anyone is interested, here is the entire talk. I was asked to address “ways in which psychology can be used outside of traditional academic conferences,” keeping in mind that many of the people at my talk would be undergraduate psychology majors.

Thanks to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, EPA president, for the wonderful introduction and for dealing with the PowerPoint part of my presentation, since I couldn’t control that myself.

 Psychology Is Your Secret Weapon:

What You Have that Other People Need and Want

 Bella DePaulo

Eastern Psychological Association

March 3, 2018

 

I’ve always loved psychology. I went to Vassar College at a time when the cool thing was to give students almost unlimited opportunities to take whatever courses they wanted. There were very few requirements. So I took 19 psychology courses!

When I took my very first course in social psychology as an undergraduate, the professor sat at a desk in front of the class and read from a textbook. Word for word. Not the textbook we were assigned but an entirely different one. My classmates were furious. They thought that was no way to teach. Not me. I was mesmerized. The book she was reading from was Roger Brown’s textbook simply called Social Psychology. It was like nothing you see today in textbooks. There were no pictures, no tables, no charts, no boxes highlighting intriguing findings or summarizing the important points. Nothing but text. But Roger Brown was a beautiful writer. He was thoughtful and wise. I loved that class.

When it was almost time to graduate and move on to the next thing, I knew I wanted to do something with psychology, but I didn’t know what I could do. So I started knocking on the doors of the professors who had taught those 19 psychology courses, and I asked them all the same thing: What can I do with my undergraduate degree in psychology?

I stopped after the 3rd or 4th person because they all reacted the same way. They’d think about it for a minute, and then they’d say, “Well, you could go to graduate school.”

So, I went to graduate school. And one of the people I worked with in graduate school was Roger Brown.

At Harvard, it was pretty much expected at the time that all of us grad students would go on to teach at universities, and that’s what I did. I taught at the University of Virginia and developed a whole program of research on the psychology of lying and detecting lies.

Once I got tenure, I thought I would stay there for the rest of my career. It was conceivable that I would go to another university at some point, but it was unimaginable that I would do anything professionally except to have a career doing research and teaching at a university.

Then, in the year 2000, after 21 years of teaching at UVA, I went to Santa Barbara for what was supposed to be a 1-year sabbatical at UCSB.

Well, I just loved it there. It is spectacularly beautiful. It is sunny almost all year round. For walking, there are endless hiking trails and beaches and bluffs. It is a progressive, open-minded place with a great university and wonderful colleagues.

A few months before I was supposed to go back to UVA, I was walking the beach with a friend who had also taught at UVA but was now at UCSB. I was going on and on about how much I loved Santa Barbara and did not want to go back East. And she said, “so don’t.”

It was a radical thought. There was no regular full-time faculty position for me at UCSB. My whole family was on the East Coast, as well as the people who had become my friends. I owned a home in Charlottesville – that wasn’t going to happen in Santa Barbara.

So at first, I just extended my stay by one year. By the end of that year, I was ready to make my stay on the West Coast permanent. Although I would miss the people I cared about on the East Coast, I learned in my 2 years away that it is not at all difficult to persuade people to visit you when you live in Santa Barbara.

There was one big catch, though: I didn’t have a job. There was no position for me at UCSB. I was a visiting professor at first and taught a few classes here and there. But that wasn’t going to be enough to pay the bills.

That’s the first time I discovered that my training in psychology was my secret weapon, even outside the world of academia. It is when I found out that my undergraduate psychology professors maybe could have come up with answers to my question about what I could do with my degree in psychology other than go to graduate school and teach at a university.

Down the road 100 miles or so from where I was living in southern California was RAND, a think-tank that does a lot of research relevant to policy. They address many issues that have important psychological components, such as health, education, and national security.

They invited me to give a talk there on my deception research, and afterwards, someone asked if I might be interested in applying for a job. I didn’t want to work full-time for them, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, but I was very interested in another offer that came my way, and that was to work as a consultant on grants that were relevant to the detection of deception.

By then, it was after 9/11, and suddenly the government was very interested in identifying people who might be lying about some nefarious acts they might be plotting. There was lots of grant money available for relevant research. My main contact at RAND was applying for those grants and often getting them.

As a consultant on those grants, I usually worked from home. Every day, 6 or 7 days a week, as soon as I got up, the first thing I would do is spend several hours on my consulting work to pay the bills, so I was then free to pursue the new work that was becoming my passion.

This new research interest was personal. It was about single people and single life. I’ve been single my whole life. I will continue to be single for the rest of my life. I love living single. It’s not something I’m stuck with – it is something I embrace. It is the way I live my best, most authentic, and most meaningful life. I even coined a term for people like me – we are “single at heart.” [SLIDE]

At first, I kept my interest in this new topic a secret. I would write notes and slip them into a folder. [SLIDE]

I told you that I loved living single, and that’s mostly true. But there were certain things I did not like.

For example, it seemed to me that people felt free to make dismissive and derogatory comments about single people that they would never make about members of other groups. I found examples in the conversations all around me and in the media.

  • I don’t mean just the tabloids that love to pity the celebrities who are so beautiful and successful but still aren’t married. For years, it was “Oh, poor Jennifer Aniston – she’s single.” Now it’s, “Oh, no, she’s single again!”
  • I also mean the most prestigious publications, that are supposed to be the intellectual vanguard. For example, a New York Times story on the demographic juggernaut that has resulted in more women living without a spouse than with one, opened by going straight to stereotypes. The news of the growing number of single women, said the Times, “might be enough to make you want to invest in cat futures.” And if it is not clear what’s wrong with that, imagine a hypothetical New York Times story about an increase in the number of African Americans that opened by saying that the news “might be enough to make you want to invest in watermelon futures.” It would never happen.

I put all those examples in my folder.

I also noticed all sorts of ways that couples got better deals than single people did. For example, married people often pay less per person for car insurance, health club memberships, vacation packages, and tickets to lectures and concerts.

(Only much later would I realize that this is just the small stuff. In the U.S., there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married, creating enormous economic disadvantages for people who stay single.)

All those examples went into my folder.

I also wondered about some of the ways I was treated. For example, when I first got to UVA, my colleagues and I went out to lunch almost every day. But then when the weekends came around, the couples socialized with the other couples and I was left out. So that made me wonder: were the couples socializing with each other and not inviting me because they were coupled and I was single? Or was it something else? Maybe they just didn’t like me, but during the week, they felt obligated to include me in lunch outings since they were leaving from work.

In another work example, the person who organized the teaching schedule asked me if I would teach at night. She said it would be harder for the married professors to come in after dinner. That was even before any of those couples had kids. (I said no thanks.)

After maybe about a year of writing notes that only I would ever see, I finally got the nerve to start talking to other people about this.

The first time I did this, I was at a social event. I went up to a woman who was single and asked her if she thought she had ever been treated unfairly or just differently because she was single. Did she ever! She started telling me her stories. Someone else heard our conversation and joined in. Then another person chimed in. And another.

We talked for a long time. When I came home, I wrote notes for 2 hours. The next morning, when I opened my email, I had messages from several of the people from the night before. “And another thing…” they said.

A few weeks later, I was invited to give a talk at another university, and they had a reception for me afterwards. I did the same thing. I went up to someone who was single and asked her if she had any relevant stories. The exact same thing happened. More people joined us, both men and women, and they all had stories about what it meant to be single.

That’s when I realized that this topic was hitting a nerve. I wasn’t the only person who had these experiences, and I wasn’t the only one who cared about them. It was time to start doing some serious research and writing.

I had already published stacks of studies about the psychology of lying. This was going to be something different. I didn’t want to write only for fellow academics anymore.

In this new life I was creating, in which I moved from one end of the country to the other and gave up my tenured full-professorship to stay in California, I was going to do what I cared about with a passion. I was going to study single people and write about what I found for all sorts of people who might never see an academic journal.

One of the big reasons I could do all that is because I had psychology as my secret weapon. The power of psychology is that people love it. [SLIDE] They love hearing about the latest research. They crave new and deeper understandings of the people around them and, of course, themselves.

If you want to get an idea of what people want to know about, what they will spend their time learning even when they don’t have to as part of any course requirement or work obligation, look at the TED talks that they watch.

When I was preparing this talk, I thought I’d go to the list of the most popular TED talks of all time, to see if I could find a few to mention that were about psychology. TED talks, you probably know, can be about anything at all. Of the academic disciplines, they cover everything from anthropology and architecture and astronomy in the As to zoology in the Zs.

Let me show you what I found. Here’s the list of the 25 most popular TED talks of all time. Each of them has been viewed millions of times. [SLIDE]

  1. Do schools kill creativity? [That includes psychology]
  2. Your body language may shape who you are [Psychology!]
  3. How great leaders inspire action [Psychology!]
  4. The power of vulnerability [Psychology!]
  5. 10 things you didn’t know about orgasm [there’s some psychology there]
  6. How to speak so that people want to listen [Psychology!]
  7. My stroke of insight [Psychology!]
  8. Why we do what we do [Psychology!]
  9. This is what happens when you reply to spam email [includes some psychology]
  10. Looks aren’t everything. Believe me, I’m a model. [Psychology!]
  11. The puzzle of motivation [Psychology!]
  12. The power of introverts [Psychology!]
  13. How to spot a liar [Psychology!]
  14. What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness [Psychology!]
  15. The happy secret to better work [Psychology!]
  16. The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology [includes some psychology]
  17. How I held my breath for 17 minutes [Psychology!]
  18. The art of misdirection [Psychology!]
  19. The surprising science of happiness [Psychology!]
  20. Inside the mind of a master procrastinator [Psychology!]
  21. How to make stress your friend [Psychology!]
  22. Underwater astonishments [Oh, no – not psychology! But look, it took until number 22 to get to a wildly popular TED talk that had nothing to do with psychology.] [The last 3 of the top 25 are also about psychology.]
  23. Brain magic [Psychology]
  24. The danger of a single story [Psychology]
  25. Your elusive creative genius [Psychology]

This list of TED talks is my favorite example of the popularity of psychology. But it is hardly the only one. For example, every month, the Psychology Today site attracts nearly 9 million visitors.

Now here I will admit that as much as I love psychology and so many other people do, too, there are those who look down on us. When I taught a big lecture class for the first time – 300 students in a Psych 101 course – a group of premed students filed into the second row of the lecture hall every day, and they just waited for their chance to pounce. They loved to challenge me. They liked to slip into their questions a mention of the fact that their other courses were in physics and chemistry – you know, the “hard” sciences.

They did succeed in rattling me a little. I had never taught a huge class before, so I was insecure. But they never shook my confidence in the value, or the challenge, of psychology. My response to them was that if they wanted to study something that was really hard, they should study psychology. Physics, chemistry – in a way, that’s the easy stuff. When you study an atom or a molecule, it doesn’t try to study you back. It doesn’t try to psych you out. It doesn’t try to impress you. It doesn’t try to hide how it really feels. So I told them that if they wanted a real challenge, they should try to understand other humans.

When I was at UVA, I spent a few years on the university committee that makes decisions about promotions and tenure. We took our work very seriously. To make a recommendation about whether a colleague should get tenure, we would read almost all their work, even if it was in an entirely different field from our own. And that’s when I realized that I felt smug about psychology not only in comparison to the supposedly hard sciences, but also in comparison to the humanities, such as philosophy and literature and religion. I’m not putting them down. Scholars in the humanities are often beautiful writers and impressive thinkers. I always wanted to get assigned their cases when I was on that committee.

But think about what a journal article looks like when it is written by a researcher from psychology. Psychology professors do empirical studies. They come up with hypotheses, and then they collect data to test those hypotheses. In their journal articles, there will be an introduction, where they explain what they are predicting and why, a methods section where they explain how they tested their hypothesis, a results section in which they present their findings, and a discussion section in which they talk about whether they were right about their hypothesis and what it all means.

Scholars in the humanities don’t typically collect data the way psychology professors do. So on the tenure and promotion committee, I’d read their papers, and then when I got to the end, I’d think: Hey, they only had to write an introduction and a discussion! Then they got to go home.

The quality and impact of their scholarship depends on the power of the arguments they make. In psychology, you can write an introduction that is amazing. You can use your writing and your reasoning and your wisdom to persuade everyone that your hypothesis is surely correct. But that’s not enough. You then have to go out and collect data. And lots of times, no matter how smart you sounded in your introduction, you are just wrong.

That might sound demoralizing, and sometimes, for me, it was. But more often, it was exciting. Sometimes the data told a much more interesting story than the one I set out to tell. Real life was a lot more intriguing than my limited imagination.

So far, I’ve been saying that psychology is your secret weapon because by studying it, you are learning things that other people would love to know. Those courses you take in personality and abnormal psychology and social psychology are teeming with intriguing nuggets about what makes people behave the way they do.

But I think the courses that are your most powerful – and most under-rated – secret weapons are the ones that lots of students dread: the courses on research methods and statistics.

When you learn about research methods, you are learning about more than just what we know about our fellow humans and ourselves. You are also learning how we know what we know. And in learning how we know things, you are also learning how to evaluate the different claims you hear in the media and in the conversations all around you in everyday life. [SLIDE]

When I took what I learned about research methods in psychology and applied it to the claims I had been hearing about married people and single people, it was a revelation.

Let me tell you that story.

In 2004, when I was working on my Singled Out book, the New York Times published an op-ed that included this claim: [SLIDE]

“Social science research has established beyond reasonable doubt that marriage, on average, makes people happier and healthier.”

There was nothing special about that claim. You could find something like it everywhere – in the popular media, in scholarly articles, in textbooks, and even in some of the most influential court rulings. It was the conventional wisdom of our time. For the most part, it still is.

As someone who loves living single. I never thought that I would be any happier or healthier if I got married. But before I started reading the original research reports that were supposed to be the basis for those claims, I had no reason to doubt them. I figured that sure, most people who get married get happier and healthier. That’s not what I would experience, but I just thought I was the exception.

Then I started reading all those studies, and I could not believe what I was finding.

To show you what’s wrong with the relevant research, let me tell you first about a hypothetical study that would never be published because it is way too flawed. As I describe it, you will probably recognize the flaws right away. [SLIDE]

This study I’m making up is conducted by a pharmaceutical company with a new drug. They want to do a study to show that their drug is great.

So they recruit people for their study, and they let them decide whether to take the drug or not. Already, you can see that they’ve made a big methodological mistake. In true experiments, you don’t let people decide which condition they are going to be in – you randomly assign them to conditions. In drug studies, half the people get the real drug and the others get a placebo and no one knows which one they are getting.

Even if you’ve only taken a few psychology courses, you probably know why random assignment is important. If you find, in your study, that the people who took the drug did better than the people who didn’t take the drug, you want to be able to say that they did better because they took the drug.

But if you let people decide for themselves whether to take the drug or not, then the people who decide to take the drug may be different from the other people in important ways. For example, maybe they are healthier to begin with. So if they end up healthier at the end of the study, it is not because they got helped by the drug, but because they were already healthier.

If instead, you randomly assign people to take the drug or not take it, and you have enough people in your study, then the people who take the drug and the people who do not take it should be as similar to each other in every possible way except for the one that counts – whether they got the drug or not. They should start the study just as healthy and just as happy. They should be similar in their backgrounds. They should be similar in their personalities.

Failing to randomly assign people was just the first big problem in this make-believe drug study. Another big problem happened along the way. Lots of people hated the drug! In fact, 43% of the people who tried the drug hated it so much that they refused to continue taking it. They were not being helped by the drug.

Now let me show you their findings. [SLIDE] The people in the study rated their health on a scale of 1 to 4, with higher numbers indicating better health.

Here are the results for all the people who took the drug:

  • People who are currently on the drug have an average overall health rating of 3.3. These are the people who took the drug and stayed on it.
  • The people who took the drug, hated it, and refused to keep taking it rate their health as 2.9. So they are not doing as well as the people who stayed on the drug.
  • There was another group in this made-up study I didn’t mention: They started taking the drug, but after a while they couldn’t get it anymore (maybe because the local pharmacy ran out). They also rate their health as 2.9, on the average.
  • If you average across all the people who took the drug, you get a health score of 3.0.
  • Now compare that to the health score of the people who never did take the drug. They get health scores of 3.2. They are doing better than the people who took the drug. And that’s not the story the drug company wants to tell.

THE SLIDE:

What did they find?

  • 4-point scale: 1 = least healthy; 4 = healthiest

People who took the drug:

3.3 currently on the drug (took it, stayed on it)

2.9 took the drug, hated it, refused to continue

2.9 started taking the drug, but then couldn’t get it anymore (local pharmacy ran out)

3.0 average of all the people who ever took the drug

People who never did take the drug

3.2

So the drug company decides to describe their results a different way. [SLIDE]

  • They take all the people who started taking the drug, hated it, and refused to keep taking it, and just set them aside! That’s 43% of all the people who started taking the drug. (Remember, their ratings of their health were 2.9)
  • They also set aside all the people who took the drug for a while but then couldn’t get it anymore. (They also rated their health as 2.9, on the average.)
  • They only look at the people who are currently on the drug (health ratings were 3.3) and compare them to the people who never took the drug. (Their ratings were 3.2.)

THE SLIDE:

How are they going to describe their results?

They set aside the people who hated the drug and the people who took it for a while, then stopped

3.3 currently on the drug (took it, stayed on it)

2.9 took the drug, hated it, refused to continue

2.9 started taking the drug, but couldn’t continue

3.2 never took the drug

These are the results they describe:

3.3 currently on the drug (took it, stayed on it)

3.2 never took the drug

 

The drug company is happy! [SLIDE]

  • They make a TV ad saying: Research shows that our drug makes people healthier. Everyone should take our drug!
  • But would you take a drug if you knew that nearly half the people who took it hated it, and ended up less healthy (2.9) than the people who never did take the drug (3.2)?
  • No medical journal in the world would publish this study, with this claim about what the results show

Sometimes it’s even worse. [SLIDE] Instead of just setting aside the people who hated the drug and refused to keep taking it, and the ones who took the drug for a while but then couldn’t get it anymore, they put those people in with the people who never took the drug in the first place. Their reasoning is, well, these are all people who are not on the drug anymore. So the drug company argues – let’s compare only the people who are currently taking the drug with the people who are not taking the drug. The people not taking the drug include the ones who never took it and those who started taking it but didn’t continue.

THE SLIDE:

Sometimes it’s even worse

Instead of setting aside the people who hated the drug and the ones who took the drug for a while and then stopped:

3.3 currently on the drug (took it, stayed on it)

2.9 took the drug, hated it, refused to continue

2.9 started taking the drug, but then couldn’t get it anymore (local pharmacy ran out)

3.2 never took the drug

They put those people who did take the drug for a while in with the people who never took the drug

3.3currently on the drug (took it, stayed on it)

2.9 took the drug, hated it, refused to continue

2.9 started taking the drug, but then couldn’t get it anymore (local pharmacy ran out)

3.2 never took the drug

3.0 everyone not currently on the drug

 

The drug company is trying to get you to think that it doesn’t matter that the reason lots of people aren’t taking the drug is because it did not work for them. But of course that matters.

So now they say, look, people currently on the drug are healthier (3.3) than people not currently on the drug (3.0). Our drug makes people healthier! If you take the drug, you will get healthier, too.

As you probably guessed, I’m talking about a real study [SLIDE], and that study is about marriage.

  • The participants were 2,200 adults from 48 states in the U.S.
  • They rated their happiness, not their health: 1 = least happy, 4 = happiest

The results were the ones I showed you:

  • 3.3 The group I was describing as currently on the drug is actually the group of people who are currently married
  • 2.9 The people who took the drug, hated it, and refused to keep taking it, are, of course, divorced people
  • 2.9 The people who took the drug but then couldn’t get it anymore are the widowed people
  • 3.2 The people who never did take the drug are actually the people who never married. (I like to refer to them as always-single because I don’t like to describe single people in terms of what they are not)

The real authors did not make the wild claims that I attributed to the drug company. But other people who cite their work sometimes do make those kinds of claims.

When I first started reading the research studies on marriage, this is one of the first ones I read. I noticed that it was cited a lot in the review articles I had been reading, so I thought I’d start with it. When I read it, I could not believe that this was the sort of study that was the basis for the claims that marriage makes you happier and healthier. I thought that maybe this study was the exception and the others were more compelling. But a lot of the studies were just like this one.

That quote that I showed you earlier, saying that “social science research has established beyond reasonable doubt that marriage makes people happier and healthier,” was from 2004, but you will still hear claims like that over and over again, in the media and even in some scholarly publications.

Sometimes the claim sounds like this [SLIDE]:

Married people are doing better than single people. So if you get married, you will do better, too.

Whenever you hear that claim — Married people are doing better than single people – your b.s. detector should go off. And as a psychology student who has studied research methods, you should have a better b.s. detector than people who have never learned about research methodology.

You know you can’t just take 43% of the people in your study who did not behave the way you wanted them to, and just ignore them.

You know that the married people differ from the single people in all sorts of ways, so if they are happier, the reason might have nothing to do with the fact that they are married. For example, maybe they were already happier even before they got married. (Statistically, you can try to control for those kinds of things, but you can never control for everything.)

And you can see that the people who got married and then got divorced were less happy than the people who stayed single.

You can also see that even if you thought it was legitimate to compare only the people who are currently married with the people who never did get married, the difference isn’t very big.

[Readers: to see the graphs I’m describing in this next section, check out this talk.]

The good news is, there are better ways of learning whether people who get married get happier. One of those ways is to follow the same people over many years of their lives as they go from being single to getting married. Ask them every year how happy they are and see if people who get married get happier. [SLIDE] That’s longitudinal research.

A review paper from a few years ago found 18 studies like that. Some of them found no increase in happiness at all. Some of them, though, did find a hint of an increase. I’ll show you an example of one of those studies.

Before I show you the actual results, let me show you what 760 college students think the results will be. Asked to predict how happy they would be if they stayed single year after year, THIS is what they said. They think they would be miserable. Now look what they said when asked how happy they would be if they got MARRIED. They think they would be about as happy as they could possibly be!

What you see there is the fairy tale version of marriage and single life.

Now let me show you how happy people really do feel when they are single, and then, when they get married. HERE are the average happiness ratings of thousands of single people, starting years before any of them got married – they are way up there! NOW here they are getting married, and they do get a little happier. Not the enormous jump the undergraduates predicted, but a SMALL increase. THEN look what happens: their happiness starts to slip, year after year, until they end up about as happy as they were when they were single.

Getting married didn’t make people happier! They just got a little thrill around the time of the wedding.

But wait – that small increase in happiness that people enjoyed when they first got married – only the people who got married and stayed married experienced that!

WHAT about the people who got married and then divorced? When they get married, they get a little LESS happy! AND over the course of their marriage, their happiness slips, too, and they end up less happy than they were when they were single.

To say that marriage increases people’s happiness, even for just a little while, you have to look only at the people who are currently married.

Suppose you did a study like this and you combined in your analysis everyone who ever got married, whether they stay married or not, and see whether they got happier. I think that’s the appropriate test of the claim that if you get married, you will get happier. Now suppose you found that the people who got married got happier. Not just at first, around the time of the wedding; they stayed happier.

Would that mean that if only those people who stayed single had gotten married instead, that they’d be happier, too?

No, it doesn’t. Not necessarily. Do you see why?

Again, the people who marry and the people who stay single are different people. Just because the people who choose to marry get happier (hypothetically – in fact, they don’t) doesn’t mean that if the single people got married, they would be happier, too. Or that they’d be healthier. Or that they would live longer.

I think that’s especially true for single people who have chosen single life, who embrace it, who love living single. To paraphrase an old cartoon, if I got married, I wouldn’t live longer. It would only seem longer.

 

I’m telling you all this for several reasons.

First, sometimes I still can’t believe that claims about how marriage makes people happier and healthier are made so often and are so rarely challenged.

And second, more to the point of this talk, without the research methodology part of my psychology training, I never would have realized what was wrong with those claims.

Psychology is your secret weapon. And your research methods courses, and everything you learn about how to do research and how to interpret it in your other courses, give your secret weapon a lot of its power.

So far, I’ve said that your training in psychology is powerful because it gives you something that other people want. Other people want to know about psychology and what makes humans tick. They love that stuff.

That means that there are opportunities to use your psychology training in ways other than what my undergraduate psych professors told me – go to graduate school and teach at a university. I’ll mention some of what I’ve gotten to do once I no longer had a full-time academic job, but there are many possibilities besides the ones I’ve had.

Because of other people’s yearnings to understand themselves and their fellow humans, I have been able to do a lot of writing and find readers who are interested in what I have to say. I’ve written books. I’ve also done a lot of blogging. For example, I’ve been blogging at Psych Today for 10 years, and at Psych Central for 7 years.

I’ve also had opportunities to write for places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and NBC.

I’ve done some consulting about single life. Marketers have asked me how to appeal to single people without insulting them. I’ve also been asked, by about 4 or 5 different companies, to help them predict future trends. I never knew there were so many organizations with the mission of predicting the future.

I’ve also given workshops on single people to mental health professionals, and I’ve lectured about single people here and abroad. I gave my TEDx talk, “what no one ever told you about people who are single,” in Belgium.

My interest is in single people who want to live their single lives, not escape them. So I study every aspect of single life except dating and other attempts to become unsingle. If I wanted to study dating, I would have many more opportunities. But it doesn’t interest me, so I let that door stay shut.

I’ve been saying that people want what you have to offer as a person trained in psychology, but sometimes they also need what you have to offer [SLIDE]:

  • After 9/11, the government needed people who understood the psychology of deception and bad intentions. I mentioned the consulting I did for the think tank. I’ve also given talks and workshops to people who give polygraph tests, and to people from the FBI and organizations like that. (Sometimes they don’t wear name badges. And when I asked them their names, a few of them really did say, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.” I think they were kidding. But they never did tell me their names.)
  • Research firms, consulting firms, polling organizations – any group that wants to learn something new and wants what they learn to be reliable and valid, needs people who understand research methods and statistics.

Those are some examples of what other people can get out of your training in psychology. But even if you never use your training in any way that is useful to other people, you get to benefit from it yourself. [SLIDE]

I think your training in psychology makes you a more sophisticated thinker, psychologically. After you’ve taken a whole bunch of courses in psychology, you think about psychological issues in more complex, and less obvious ways.

I realized that when I was first starting to study single people and how they are viewed by other people. Consider this example. [SLIDE]

In the year 2002, Time magazine ran a cover story about single women. The magazine noted that “more women are saying no to marriage and embracing the single life.” Time then asked, “Are they happy?” Some of the single women said that they were.

That didn’t sit well with one of the readers of the story, who sent a letter to the magazine that said this:

“as long as women bounce around kidding themselves that life is full when alone, they are putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.”

This man was talking about single women who were not complaining about their single lives. They were not whining. They were not asking for anything. They were describing what they liked about their single lives. So why was this man so upset? At first, that was really puzzling to me.

My first reaction was to wonder what it would mean to just take comments like that at face value. Because sometimes, that may be the most straightforward and most reasonable approach.

So here was someone saying that single women were “putting their hedonistic, selfish desires ahead of what’s best for children and society.” If that’s his issue, then is there a way that single women could behave that would satisfy him? Now I’m certainly not saying that single women should respond to someone like him by placating him. My question is a more psychological one: What does he want?

There are a number of possibilities, but one logical implication is that he wants women to have children. So maybe if the single women were raising children, he would see them as anything but hedonistic and selfish and narcissistic. [SLIDE]

I don’t know what that particular man thinks of single mothers, but in that same issue of Time magazine, there was a story about single women raising children without the help of a husband. Another reader wrote in to scold those single women. He said:

“It is sadly typical of our narcissistic age that so many women are opting to have children and raise them ‘on their own’.”

So it didn’t matter if the women were single and did not have kids, or if they were single and they did have kids. No matter what they did, other people were coming for them. They were getting put down not because of the kid issue or any other issue – they were getting criticized because they were single.

As I continued to study the way other people think about single people, I kept finding the same kind of thing over and over again. For example, single women are sometimes told that their life is empty because they don’t have a spouse. Maybe they are especially at risk of getting told that if they are working at a job that is not very fulfilling. But here’s the thing. When single women have jobs that they love, meaningful jobs that make a difference in other people’s lives, jobs that single women do with a passion, there’s a come-back for them, too. They are told that their jobs won’t love them back.

Or consider what happens to single women around the issue of sex. If single women are having sex, you can be sure there are people just waiting to pounce and call them promiscuous. But what if they aren’t having sex? There’s a put-down for those women, too: “Aw, poor thing – you aren’t getting any.”

Again, the crime is not whether you are having sex or not, or even how much. The issue is, you are single, and even in this 21st century of open-mindedness about all sorts of things, lots of people still have a problem with people living single.

Of course, it is not just the single women who get bashed by the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination that I call singlism. [SLIDE] Men get it, too.

One of the most popular stereotypes about single men is that they are slobs. They dress like slobs, they live like slobs, they even talk like slobs. But what happens when people meet single men who are just the opposite – men who always look great, have places that are neat and attractive, and speak eloquently? That’s an easy one. If you are a single man who is like that, other people will just say – “oh, he’s gay!” And they think there’s something wrong with that.

When I wrote Singled Out, I came up with titles for my chapters that made fun of the way that other people think about single people – the myths about what single people are like. For the chapters about single men and single women, I wrote titles that zeroed in on this dilemma that no matter what you do, there is a put-down waiting for you. [SLIDE]

The title of the chapter on the myths about single men was:

“You are horny, slovenly, and irresponsible, and you are the scary criminals. Or, you are sexy, fastidious, frivolous, and gay.”

The title of the chapter on the myths about single women was:

“Your work won’t love you back and your eggs will dry up. Also, you don’t get any and you’re promiscuous.”

For other chapter titles, I also made fun of the myths about single people, but without using the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” theme. [SLIDE]

Myth #3: The dark aura of singlehood.

“You are miserable and lonely and your life is tragic.”

Myth #4: It is all about you.

“Like a child, you are self-centered and immature and your time isn’t worth anything since you have nothing to do but play.”

Myth #7: Attention, single parents:

“Your kids are doomed.”

Myth #8: Too bad you’re incomplete

“You don’t have anyone and you don’t have a life.”

Myth #9: Poor soul

“You will grow old alone and you will die in a room by yourself where no one will find you for weeks.”

Myth #10: Family values

“Let’s give all the perks, benefits, gifts, and cash to couples and call it family values.”

Let’s go back to the guy who wrote to Time magazine complaining about the single women who “bounce around kidding themselves that life is full.” Ask someone who has never taken a psychology course to explain that guy, and they will probably say, “He’s a jerk!”

And you know what? He probably is a jerk.

But that is just one component of the psychology of stereotyping and stigmatizing single people. What you learn in your psychology courses is to look at the bigger picture.

When it is not just one guy who is bashing single people, but lots of guys (and women, too), there’s something bigger happening. When single people get put down no matter what they do, then we are talking about something much more meaningful, psychologically, than individual people being jerks.

There’s something about these beliefs that people have about single people that is very powerful. I think these beliefs are part of a whole worldview, an ideology, in which people are very invested. [SLIDE]

The ideology goes something like this: Find “The One,” get married, and all of your dreams will come true. Your path through life will be set. You will be happier because you got married. You will be healthier. You will live longer. You will be a better person, maybe even morally superior to people who stay single.

That’s a very seductive worldview. It tells you that once you get married, your whole life falls into place. Your fairy tales come true.

People who believe in that worldview really want it to be true. They want it to be true the same way that people want their political ideology to be true. It matters to them.

The flip side of thinking that if you get married, you will be happier, is that you don’t get to be happy if you are single. The ideology says that in order to be truly happy, you have to get married. [SLIDE]

And that, I thought, was the answer to the puzzle of the reader of Time magazine. He wasn’t incensed at those single women despite the fact that they were happy – he was angry because they were happy!

That was my guess when I wrote Singled Out. Since then, there have been several studies that support that interpretation. In the studies, people read brief biographical sketches of single people and rate them. Some of the single people say that they want to be single and the others say that they really wish they were married.

Well, the participants in these studies really dump on the single people who want to be single. Even though they are the ones saying they are happy with their single lives, the participants rate them as less happy. It is like that guy who wrote in to Time – they think these single people are just kidding themselves.

The participants also thought that the single people who chose to be single were more self-centered, less warm, less sociable, and less secure than the single people who did not like their single lives and wanted to be coupled.

And, in the most dramatic of the findings, the participants expressed anger at the single people who were happily single. Just like the guy who wrote to Time did.

In a way, it is a depressing set of findings, especially for someone like me who is happily single. But it was also exhilarating to figure out this puzzle of human psychology.

I will even go so far as to say that these kinds of understandings can even be kind of comforting if you let them. I’m someone who has said a lot of things that people don’t want to hear. And, I have a Twitter account. In these days of social media snark, I have been told plenty of times that I’m just bouncing around kidding myself that I’m happily single. And worse. In the spirit of Jimmy Kimmel’s mean tweets, I’ll share some with you, though most of them were comments on blog posts rather than tweets [SLIDE]:

  • “You’re bitter.”
  • “You’re a loser.”
  • “No one would ever want to marry you – not for all the tea in China.” And the most recent one:
  • (and one last example that was so crude, I’m just going to skip it)

Psychology can be my secret weapon in these circumstances. I can tell myself that maybe those nasty comments are not really about me. Maybe they are about the person who is making them, like that person who wrote to Time magazine. He’s feeling threatened. And he is feeling especially threatened because I’m a single person who is happily single.

Now maybe these people are actually right that I’m a loser and I’m just rationalizing. But knowing that I have some psychological studies on my side is something I like.

 

I’ve thought a lot about my career in psychology while writing this talk. It reminded me that spending my professional life in the field of psychology has not just been comforting, it has been joyful.

My wish for you is that you can get as much delight out of your knowledge of psychology that I have gotten out of mine. As secret weapons go, it is a pretty terrific one. [SLIDE]

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