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    Sunday, September 13, 2015

    Snacking on Single People – Such Yummy Stereotypes

      The very first sentence compounds the lonely hearts stereotype of single people with the desperately-seeking one: "As if they didn't have enough on their plate trying to find a partner…"

    Just about every single thing that was stated or implied about single people in that article was unsubstantiated, misleading, egregiously derogatory, or just plain wrong.

    My inbox has been filling up with emails from people who were offended or disgusted or just exasperated by the article. And now that we have a Community of Single People, we also have an ongoing discussion there, and every single person who has participated had more thoughtful, insightful, and accurate things to say than did the writer who got paid to write his story for MarketWatch. They all seemed to know better than the editor who let the writer get away with his singles-bashing headline and inaccurate reporting.

    The brief summary of the supposed substance of the article is this:

        "The growth in snack foods being consumed at meal time is largely driven by people who are eating alone, according to an online survey of over 350,000 snack times a year by market research firm NPD."

    I read the part of the report that the research firm made available to the public. It didn't cover everything I wanted to know. But putting together what it did provide with my own research and writing on the science of single life (link is external) (well over a decade of work), and my experience at teaching graduate courses in research methods for many years, I can offer an informed critique.

    Let's Count Up All the Inaccuracies in the Article

    Here are a few of the inaccuracies in the article. Maybe there are others I'm just not noticing.

        The market research in the NPD report is not about single people. It is about people who live alone. Most single people do not live alone. Many coupled people do eat alone. In fact, the practice of eating apart from a spouse (link is external) or romantic partner has been increasing over time. What's more, about seven percent of American adults have a committed relationship (often a marriage) in which each person in the relationship lives in their own place. (They are "Living Apart Together (link is external).")
        The article is all about potato chips and other snack chips. But according to the graphic made available in the excerpt from the report, 33 percent of all the snack foods are "better for you" snacks. All of the examples shown in the graphic are fruits. So it appears that about a third of the time, the people getting chastised for their snacking habits are actually eating fruit. (I wonder how that distribution breaks down. Who is eating the most fruit? Is it people living alone? Is it single people?)
        Of course, the article makes the obligatory reference to obesity. The implication, I think, is that the supposedly lonely single people are eating all the junk food and becoming fat pigs, in contrast to the slim, virtuous, and never lonely married people. Here's just the first problem with that suggestion: Married people are fatter than single people (link is external). That alone would count as little more than a correlation, but there is better evidence, too: When the same people go from being single to being married, they get fatter. So why is this MarketWatch writer conflating lonely, single, fat, and snack-crazed all together into one intellectual muddle?
        I can't find any indication at all that the NPD market research had anything whatsoever to do with loneliness. I think the inclusion of "lonely" in the title about the lonely single people and the snacking frenzy was just gratuitous singles-shaming and stereotyping.
        Has any study ever been done showing that when people get married, they become less lonely? No, there hasn't. Here's what the research actually has shown (link is external), and it does not support the writer's embarrassing headline.
        There is lots of research on single people's social ties, and that research is quite clear. It is single people, more so than married people, who are more connected to friends, neighbors, parents, and siblings. Some research is based on nationally representative samples. In other studies, the same people are followed as adults go from being single to getting married, and after they marry, they are more isolated from their friends and family. Hey MarketWatch writer, where are your headlines about the self-involved, insular couples?
        Contrary to the MarketWatch writer's suggestion that single people are all pining for a partner, all single people are not pining for a partner (link is external). Many who have never married never want to marry, and many who once were married do not want to re-up. There are also people who are single at heart, who live their best, most authentic, and most meaningful lives by living single.
        Even if single people really did eat more snack food than married people did, would that mean that they had worse eating habits? Suppose they ate more snack food (about a third of which may have been fruit) and also more vegetables and other good stuff? Suppose the married people are eating stacks of meat and potatoes and pancakes, but not that many chips? Should we conclude that their eating habits are more virtuous than those of single people? There's something really wrong here because, look again at #3: when people get married, on the average, they get fatter.

    Don't Be Fooled

    Big numbers are catnip for reporters who do not know much about research methods or how to draw accurate scientific conclusions. When they see that a survey has gathered data from "over 350,000 snack times," they swoon. If there are 350,000 data points, the conclusions must be accurate, right?

    Well, even if there were a million data points, that would still not be grounds for concluding that people who eat alone are single people and people who do not eat alone are married.

    And even two million data points about snacking cannot tell you even one thing about the eating habits that do not count as snacking.

    And even 10 million data points on snacking would not justify describing single people as lonely when not a single shred of evidence from the research report has anything whatsoever to do with loneliness, and when the relevant data about single people and their loneliness and their social ties put the lie to what the MarketWatch writer tried to imply with his headline.

    (Check this out: Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong (link is external).)

    My Solo Supper

    Last night, I made dinner and then enjoyed it again tonight. I had roasted salmon and a riff on this New York Times recipe (link is external). Mine included green beans, chick peas, an orange bell pepper, zucchini, fresh corn, tomatillos, tomatoes, garlic and onions. I substituted olive oil for the butter and fresh lime juice for the cream. (I also skipped the lobster, which I love, because I couldn't afford it.) I guess I didn't get the memo about ripping open a bag of Cheetos and calling it dinner.

    The MarketWatch article said that "it's hard to shop and cook for one." My shopping and cooking would have been exactly the same if I had been cooking for several people.

    But suppose I had eaten chips for dinner. Would that mean that I deserved to be shamed by this MarketWatch writer?

    If the MarketWatch reporter actually cared about improving the nutrition of single people, perhaps he should have paid more attention to some real issues and made recommendations about them, instead of stereotyping single people as lonely, mate-seeking snack-gorgers.

    The reporter quoted a nutritionist who said that solo dwellers don't want to "buy too many groceries that go bad before they're used." How about adding this: Too often, perishable goods are packaged in big quantities unsuitable for people living along. And on top of that: buying bigger quantities is sometime rewarded with greater discounts. How about if the MarketWatch writer pointed out that the ways foods are packaged and marketed and priced needs to be reassessed, considering that there are now fewer households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids (link is external) than of single people living alone?

    Why It Matters

    I've heard it countless times. Oh, so what if some reporter called single people lonely when loneliness had nothing to do with the research in question and when it is not even an accurate description? So what if the reporter implies that single people are obsessed with dating and desperate to become unsingle?

    The article so annoyed me that I had to go for a long walk before I wrote this. During my scenic stroll that calmed me down, I tried to think of how I could explain the problem to a writer (and his editor) who truly does not seem to understand what's wrong with what he wrote. So I came up with some extreme examples that perhaps will convey the point.

    Suppose the research had been about the snacking habits of Muslims or women or Black people or gays and lesbians. Would the writer (and his editor) have been fine with writing and publishing these headlines:

        "Terror-loving Muslims and their taro chips"
        "Something else for women to worry their pretty little heads about"
        "Stupid, lazy Black people and their Doritos"
        "Fags love their snacks"

    If you wouldn't say such stereotying and stigmatizing things about other groups, then don't say them about single people, either.

    Yes, I know, they all sound extreme and I did make up extreme examples on purpose. So try this. Do you know those studies about implicit bias? The research tests the strength of the associations people have between particular groups and particular characterizations. Are you quicker to associate male names with words indicating strength and female names with weakness? Are you quicker to link Black people to stereotypical adjectives describing them?

    The actual research is more sophisticated than my description suggests but the bottom line is this: The stereotypes get lodged in our minds. Even people who see themselves as not the least bit biased, people who really do try to treat everyone respectfully and fairly, still have those automatic associations as part of their mindsets.  Sometimes even members of the stereotyped groups harbor those same demeaning associations.

    They are not thinking that way on purpose. They just can't help it. Decades of racism and sexism and singlism embedded in everyday life and in the media get to all of us. They infect our minds with stereotypes that are hard to shake. Yes, each little quip about "lonely single people" might seem light as a feather. But over time, a ton of feathers is still a ton, and we can all get crushed by it.

    That's what this reporter contributed to with his article. It is what every other reporter and social scientist and pundit and person-on-the-street does when they mindlessly and uncritically repeat phrases such as "lonely single people." So please, everyone, stop.

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     This topic brought to you from psychologytoday.com
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