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Bella DePaulo

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Sandra Bullock, David Brooks, and Misleading Claims About Marrying

Posted: 03/30/10 05:39 AM ET

In his column today, David Brooks asks whether winning an Academy Award is worth it, if it comes with a cheating husband, as it did for Sandra Bullock. I don't care about that question, but I do want to underscore some Brooksian fallacies. They are not his alone, but he is giving them wings by printing them in his New York Times op-ed column.

In making his case, Brooks says this: "According to another [study], being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year." He gives no reference to the study so it is hard to check out the claim the way I prefer - by reading the original research report. Still, just that one sentence is telling. What it tells us is to beware. If some study really did show that "being married" is equivalent to one hundred grand in "psychic gain," then if you get married, will you become the equivalent of $100K happier?

The answer is no. Studies that compare the currently married to everyone else (which is the vast majority of marital status studies) can tell us nothing about the implications of getting married for happiness, health, or anything else. That's because the currently married are the people who are left after setting aside the 40-some percent of people who got married, hated it, and got divorced. It is like saying that the new drug Shamster is very effective, based on a study in which the experiences of nearly half the people who took the drug were discounted, because it most certainly did not work for them. Or, as one of my Living Single readers pointed out, it is like encouraging others to get into the start-up business based on the success of Google and Netflix, hoping that it won't occur to them to consider all of the start-ups that fail.

Keep this general rule in mind and you can debunk many claims about the implications of getting married from now into the future: Anyone who compares those who are currently married with others is probably cheating. Such a comparison tells you nothing about the implications of getting married.

The best studies follow people over time as they stay single or get married or get divorced or become widowed or get remarried. That research shows that [continue reading here].