How Relationship Status Biases Us Against Others
February 12, 2013

Your Relationship Status May Bias Your Attitude Towards Others

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Remember that saying, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?" It seems it might not be true when it comes to relationships. Married couples wish their single friends would find someone and be happily married, while single people tend to pity their married friends for the loss of freedom and autonomy. Thus whether married or single, people tend to believe their way of life is best for everyone.

A new study published in the journal Physiological Science reveals this is especially true if the person thinks their relationship status is unlikely to change. The findings also suggest how we treat others is biased by this perception, even in situations where relationship status shouldn't matter.

According to the study, people tend to rationalize and justify the social situation they are in if they feel stuck in it. The research team, consisting of “¯Kristin Laurin of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and David Kille and Richard Eibach of the University of Waterloo, wanted to see if this sort of rationalization might also apply to relationship status.

“We often become evangelists for our own lifestyles,” the researchers explain. “When it comes to our relationship status, we are rarely content to simply say ℠being single works for me´ or ℠being in a relationship suits my disposition.´”

People may initially idealize their own relationship status as a way of dealing with unfulfilling aspects of that status. The team hypothesized this would occur most often when people think their status will not change. And the findings of a series of studies support their hypothesis.

The first study found regardless of how happy a person is with their relationship status, the more stable they perceive their situation to be, the more they tend to idealize it as a norm for others to follow.

The second study took advantage of Valentine's Day and the way that it seems to put everyone's relationship status front and center.  Participants were recruited on Valentine's Day and asked to imagine a hypothetical Valentine's Day evening for a person of the same gender, Nick or Nicole.

Study participants who felt their own relationship status to be stable imagined that the imaginary Nick/Nicole had a happier and more fulfilling holiday if he or she had the same status as the participant. On the other hand, they imagined Nick/Nicole's evening would be less fulfilling if their relationship status was different from that of the participant.

To understand this bias and whether it might influence how we treat others, the research team devised two additional studies, experimentally manipulating the perceived stability of the person´s situation.

In the first follow-up experiment, study participants who were led to perceive greater stability in their own relationship status tended to judge same-sex job applicants more positively, even though they were not more likely to hire them. In the second experimental study, participants were found more likely to vote for a political candidate with the same relationship status as themselves.

The team combined the data from all four studies into a single analysis and showed the perceived stability of a person´s relationship status led both coupled and single participants to treat other people with the same status more favorably. The team believes their findings are significant for a number of reasons.

“People may be aware of their own tendency to idealize being single or coupled, but they may not realize that this can impact how they respond to others — and how others respond to them,” the researchers noted.

Given the known cultural prejudice against single individuals, the team had expected to find this bias among people already in a relationship. They were surprised, however, to find the effect was just as strong for single people.

This study is “the first to show relationship-specific patterns of prejudice whereby both single and coupled people favor others who share their relationship status over those who don´t.”

The team intends to continue their research, exploring whether those who experience these idealizations and biases allow them to extend to other aspects of their lives, such as life decisions they´ve made, the community they live in or the career path they have chosen.