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The New York Post has informed me that “Having a pretty wife or rich husband ‘maximizes’ life: study.” Well gosh, I want a maximized life. Wait, what does that even mean. Does it mean happy? I want a happy life, really. But am I pretty? Am I going to marry a rich guy? How pretty is “pretty” and how “rich” is “rich,” and what if he’s rich enough but I’m not pretty enough, is my life going to be maximized but his isn’t, and if so will he leave me, and if he does, does that mean my life is still maximized? So many questions from one headline.
If you have the same questions I do, you’re in luck because I went ahead and looked into it all for us. And the tl;dw is this: don’t worry about it because it’s pretty much all bullshit.
Often good science writing is ruined by a bad headline writer, but in this case the New York Post opened their article with “No one likes to admit they’ve “settled” in a relationship — and a new study shows that those who do are worse off,” which is absolutely in no way true, at all. Like, that is just made up.
The actual study is, well, exhausting. Absolutely exhausting, especially considering how simple it should have been. Researchers at Florida State University examined two pre-existing databases of surveys of newly married heterosexuals, totally 231 couples (at first). These couples filled out surveys, got their photos taken, and then completed more surveys 2 to 3 times a year for three years.
At this point you should already know that this study will tell us nothing about partner choice maximizing “life,” or even maximizing a long-term relationship, since these couples were only followed for three years. Even I’ve had relationships last longer than that, and I’m a giant fuckup.
According to these surveys, neither the attractiveness of a person nor their social status predicted anything about how happy the relationship was. But! This study looked specifically at “maximizers,” people who you might say are picky. They’re the people who need to research every possible option before making a decision. They’re the people who say they need to pop into the grocery store to pick out a new cereal but then you end up just leaving them there in the cereal aisle so you can finish your shopping as they compare nutritional facts and look up reviews on Amazon.
And yes, that’s where “maximizing” comes into play in the New York Post headline. They took an adjective and made it a verb. They may as well have read this study about picky people and said “having a sexy wife picks your life.” What? Exactly. It makes no sense.
So the researchers thought, well if picky people continue looking at other possible options even after making their decision, maybe that extends to marriage and so maybe picky people are more happy to have spouses with obviously superior traits. And what’s easier to see than physical attraction and wealth?
(As an aside, they measured physical attraction by having a couple of lab assistants sort through headshots and rate them. This is considered “objective.” I’m sorry, but if you’re not considered attractive by some minimum wage flunky in a lab in Florida, you’re not attractive. Deal with it.)
In order to get the results they wanted — I’m sorry, for the good of science — they had to delete 33 couples for being over the age of 35. Why? Well, because physical attraction doesn’t matter once you’re elderly like that. That answers at least one of my concerns: my picky boyfriend doesn’t need me to be attractive, because we’re too old. Whew!
With that nasty business out of the way, they reran their calculations and found that TADA they managed to get results that just barely, and I quote, “trended towards significance.” Is that…is that significant? Okay not really, but those results have definitely bought a bus ticket with a transfer that will definitely get them to significance one day, and what more can we possibly ask for?
So what were those results, exactly? Well, the results that trended toward significance were that picky men aren’t happier with more attractive wives when they get married, but they do get ever so slightly happier as time goes on — again, up to three whole years. Picky women also aren’t happier marrying men who have more money, but they get less happy at a slower rate over the next three years. Yay?
So here we have a pretty boring effect based on a very small sample size, and they only got there by doing absolutely unspeakable things to the data. For more information on that, go see my previous video on p-hacking. But none of that matters, because someone at Florida State University wrote a good enough (or bad enough) press release that the New York Post wrote absolute nonsense about it. Go science!