Preserving a Paper

For my Psychology Ethics course at NUIG this semester I’ve been given an assignment with an ambiguous prompt and a frustrating word limit. I’ve always been one to write too much when it comes to boundaries like this one, and I’m struggling to decide which sections of my work to highlight and delete. It’s never easy. The limit this time falls at 1,000 words. I’ve negotiated my way to 1300 after talking to the professor, but my current 1900 word paper is out of the question. So, to lessen the sting of cutting out several of my thoughts and sources, I’m going to post the paper as it is on this blog. Surprisingly, I’ve noticed that it’s actually around the same length as many of my other posts.

And now the editing process begins! Here’s to hoping you enjoy a few of my thoughts that will soon be lost in the final version.

Prompt: In what ways does psychology influence society? In what ways does society

influence psychology?

Red lips purse into a perfect “O” as she dramatically blows out birthday candles and the circle of friends surrounding her break into applause. 29 candles. No husband (or boyfriend.) She puts on a plastic smile and wonders about her future. She worries about life alone…and craves it at the same time. She is exactly where she wants to be with her career, her salary, and her social life. And yet, in the eyes of society, she is unfulfilled. It seems that everyone hears the tick of her biological clock, counting down the days and months before she finds a man, has a child, and finally “settles down.” She thinks of the studies she’s read about the health benefits of marriage—and those that boast the idea that marriage only leads to stress and prolonged unhappiness. She wonders about the steep incline in the number of women who choose to live “single lives” in a society where “good men” are harder and harder to come by. She ponders the idea of having a child on her own if she doesn’t find a man by the time she’s 35.

And then, her head full of confusion and contradictions, she returns to her party.

This hypothetical woman, representing complexities in the current views of marriage and romance in countries like the United States and UK, questions her “singleness” in ways that are influenced by both science (particularly psychology) and society. Through the example of the traditional institution of marriage, we see how psychological studies can change mainstream beliefs and behaviors, and how set social practices can influence science through confirmation bias. In other words, the experts might just be telling us what we want to hear—making us feel better about the beliefs we already hold and the lives we already lead. Or their evidence might be used to create social paradigm shifts—leading to transitions in society involving greater acceptance of the “single woman” or parent.

In one example of science supporting societal “norms,” a recent study published by King and Reis in Health Psychology (2012) stated that “Marriage and long-term survival after coronary artery bypass grafting has prompted a flurry of media response—analyses of the data ranging from sweeping statements that being married can help your heart and save your life, to the simplistic assertion that not being married makes it less likely that you will survive after a major surgery” (Hughes, 2012). These interpretations of data (made by sources like the LA Times, USA News, CBS, and Fox News,) did not acknowledge a bias of social values. Instead, they looked at the data as “scientific fact”—leading audiences to feel that if they were married their chances of survival were better than those who were not. I imagine hoards of single people reading these articles, then logging on to e-dating sites as they hear the “tick” of society’s clock that reminds them they must find a partner before they end up alone and dying after coronary bypass.

What these mass media reports leave out are the ambiguities and gray areas of this study. Extrapolated to confirm the benefits of an institution that has been central to society for centuries, the study is interpreted two-dimensionally. Though the data itself carries statistical significance, it has been manipulated in order to ensure this. For example, in this study researchers did not include variables like smoking or depression in their analyses. They compared patients only on the basis of their status as “married” or “not married,” and did not take into account other important factors for survival. Had smoking been incorporated into the analysis of data, the study would have no longer been statistically significant (Hughes, 2012). Furthermore, the definitions of “married” versus “unmarried” were not as clear cut as the public was led to believe. Those who were widowed, divorced, or single were all grouped into the category “not married.” Participants in the study who were in serious adult relationships (but not legally married) were grouped in the “married” category. This means that it might not be the institution of marriage that ups survival rates, but the presence of a strong relationship (one that could come in the form of strong family support, a girlfriend or boyfriend, a spouse, or a close friend.)

In its interpretation and public discourse, this study is dangerously simplified.  Causation is inferred. In the Fox News response to the study titled “Take Heart! A Good Marriage Protects Even After a Bypass,” cardiac surgeon Robert Hagberg states; “I can only imagine that people who have a good marriage are pretty happy people, so they don’t have many destructive behavior patterns — they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t stay out late trying to pick up dates.” With this blanket statement about the health benefits of marriage, Hagberg uses his expertise to mislead. The public audience to whom he speaks is given the reassuring idea that we are able to take control of our health by being married. Our social practices and expectations are reinforced, and we feel good about our relationships. And yet, I am left wondering about the layers of meaning behind this study. What if those who are widowed or divorced (and categorized as unmarried) didn’t survive because of the trauma and stress that their previous marriages caused? What if those who marry have personalities that make them more prone to forming strong social networks? What about those in the study who were married in the beginning, but whose relationships faltered under the pressures that come with sickness? What about the matter of income and fiscal security—how might this impact survival rates? Or the health of their own parents’ marriage and the quality of their home environment growing up? These are all factors that are overlooked and unacknowledged in the interpretation of King and Reis’ study.

Oversimplification is common when psychology makes its way to the mainstream media. I am left wondering if King and Reis understood this from the outset—acting to design the study in a way that would confirm the most respected lifestyle in society and lift spirits in the process—giving even more merit to marriage in a modern age where it seems to be in danger of becoming obsolete. This would mean that society is influencing psychology. Or we might understand this study as evidence for psychology influencing society—the marriage-endorsing media response as a trigger for more marriages and relationships. When looking at the influences of psychology and society upon one another, it seems it is a circle that must be drawn rather than a line.

In an article similarly emphasizing the many benefits of marriage, contributor Iris Tse writes for “my health news daily” about the five most appealing aspects of married life—all backed by scientific “evidence.” Listing pros of fewer mental health problems, reduced pain, reduced stress, longer life, and happiness (all the while citing recognizably reputable sources like the Journal of Aging and Health, the US Census, and the Journal of Family Psychology,) Tse reassures readers that marriage is the way to go when it comes to leading a happy and healthy life. She briefs us on studies of MRI scans that show dopamine spikes in the brain in those who are lovestruck, and tells us that “single people are more prone to psychological stress than those who are married or in a steady relationship” (Tse, 2011). Again, we see how society both influences and is influenced by psychology and science.

Of course, as the rising generation of “Millenials” takes center stage of society’s judgment and interest, we might think about how psychological studies could lead to or support acceptance of the “single life” that has come to characterize 20 and 30-somethings in the 21st century. In a 2011 article written by journalist Kate Bolick for the US political, entertainment, and culture magazine The Atlantic, the rise in single women in a changing economy and society is explored as an opportunity. Bolick boldly suggests; “as the economy evolves, it is time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of ‘traditional marriage’ as society’s highest ideal” (Bolick, 2011). Throughout her article, Bolick eloquently expresses the modern dilemma of the Emerging Adult[1]— the double standard of society’s expectations that calls for self-exploration and climbing the career ladder while simultaneously finding time to meet the traditional deadline of marriage before age 30. She remembers being told that being alone would make her a better person, but that she needed to eventually be a partner as well. She speaks of “finding herself” in her 20s and trusting that she would be able to marry whenever she finally felt like it. In an increasingly feminist society, she believed she had complete control of her life. Of her circle of friends during her college and graduate school years she says; “That we would marry, and that there would always be men we wanted to marry, we took on faith. How could we not?” (Bolick, 2011, p. 4). This naïve mentality seems to mimic the analyses of the coronary bypass study mentioned earlier—we are told by society and science that if we make the obvious choice to marry, we will find happiness. But what if this isn’t a choice that is in our control? What if we wait too long, and we can’t actually find a partner?

Bolick reminds us that despite the traditional expectations of marriage in modern society, there is an attitudinal shift occurring. Once we realize (as she did) that the choice of marriage is less black and white than it seems, we protest it. Citing a Pew Research study, she tells us that 44 percent of Millenials believe marriage is becoming “obsolete.” In this reference, we see how society might influence psychology and science. An observation of a social shift prompted a study of a generation whose beliefs differed from those before it. When we poll large numbers of the population and find a trend backed up with trustworthy evidence, are we more likely to accept transitions in societal norms? (Bolick, 2011).

In two more recent articles written this month for the New York Times, this influence of society upon psychology persists. In a February 17th article by Jason Deparle and Sabrina Tavernese, the trend of nearly half of the births for women under 30 attributed to unmarried women is examined as a societal shift—a new “norm” of the single mother that has become more accepted in American society (Deparle & Tavernese, 2012). The data collected for this analysis was inevitably spurred by an observation of an attitudinal and social shift—society driving science. In one more example, Steven Kurutz wrote an article for the New York Times titled “One is the Quirkiest Number”—a social analysis that reveals; “If there is any doubt that we’re living in the age of the individual, a look at the housing data confirms it. For millenniums, people have huddled together, in caves, in mud huts, in split-levels and Cape Cods. But these days, 1 in every 4 American households is occupied by someone living alone” (Kurutz, 2011). Data is used to support (and arguably validate) a social shift toward “singleness.”

Exploring scientific evidence and media perspectives in support of both marriage and single life in our modern society, we give a tangible example to the cyclical question of psychology influencing society and society influencing psychology. The two are inextricably linked. The question is one of human anthropology—Why do we do what we do? When we look at the perplexing question this way, we might come closer to a holistic understanding of society (married or not.)


[1] A new psychological “life stage” defined by psychologist Scott Arnett, Emerging Adulthood is characterized as a time period of self-exploration—it is lived by the current Millenial generation who are delaying marriage and life goals for longer than any generation before them. It is a time between the ages of 18 and 29 for exploring possibilities of love, marriage, and career (http://www.jeffreyarnett.com/EmerAdul_Chap1.pdf).

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