Monday, December 22, 2003

Media Abstractions

Recently the British Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published results of a study that compared male and female mental health condition in light of marital status. In this age of almost-faster-than-light communication, the story appeared almost instantly in several media outlets around the world. However, if you only read the headlines, you might have had a hard time determining the "real" results of the study.

Many had a headline similar to these:

"Women, stay single to stay sane" --The Age, Australia
"Women 'should stay single to stay sane'"--Ananova, UK
"Single women stay sane"--The Australian, Australia

Others looked more like these:

"Men's mental health better if they stop short of marriage"--The Scotsman, UK
"Cohabiting Better For Men's Mental Health; Marriage Better For Women"--Newswise
"Getting Married May be Bad for Men's Health"
"Serial relationships bad for women's mental health"--ABC Online, Australia

Only one headline that I found, on the website headed by a former Surgeon General of the US, offered an appropriate equivocal evaluation of the study results:

"Love and Marriage: An Emotional Mixed Bag"

Someone reading just these headlines might want to ask "so which is it? good or bad to be married or single?" The actual results, as one so often finds with scientific analysis, sound much more equivocal than either of the first two sets of headlines above.

Indeed, I find that the following abstract, from the Journal's website, somewhat contradictory itself, which suggests to me that the researchers did not find clear or dramatic differences or similarities.

"Enduring first partnerships were associated with good mental health. Partnership splits were associated with poorer mental health, although the reformation of partnerships partially reversed this. Cohabiting was more beneficial to men's mental health, whereas marriage was more beneficial to women's mental health. The more recently a partnership split had occurred the greater the negative outcome for mental health. Women seemed more adversely affected by multiple partnership transitions and to take longer to recover from partnership splits than men. Single women had good mental health relative to other women but the same was not true for single men relative to other male partnership groups. "

I bring this to your attention not to criticize the headline-making skills of these media outlets but rather to illustrate the pitfalls inherent in the abstracting process. Just as these writers had to boil down a large study into a single phrase, we regularly zero in a single detail of an event to the exclusion of many other aspects, and then categorize the event based on that one detail. We often end up with just as little meaningful information as readers did from these headlines.

We cannot avoid abstraction. We could not function without it. But a healthy and habitual recognition of the bias that the abstracting process necessarily introduces can help us to avoid the repercussions of acting without thinking.