Tuesday, 29 January 2008

On myths, perceptions and statistics

No photo yet, but I will find one, I promise!

A survey of the UK population published this morning relates that a majority of people do not view marriage as being essential to healthy relationships, good parenting or the wellbeing of children. Socially the stigma of unmarried mothers has disappeared, our peers accept cohabiting as of equal worth as marriage, and of course if things go wrong cohabiting couples don’t have to resort to the divorce court to return to single freedom. The Times opined that David Cameron and his Conservative policy-makers might have to think again about their much-trumpeted support for marriage, tax-breaks and all, if they want to be in line with the social mores of out time, and with the perceptions most people have of acceptable social trends with regard to the family.

The trouble is, it seems to me, that these perceptions don’t seem to match with widely reported statistics on a range of relevant subjects, from the mental health of single and married people to the academic and occupational achievements of their children. Cohabiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples (perhaps reflecting a degree less commitment in the first place?); single people are more likely to suffer from physical and mental illness than those who are married, and more likely to be poor; children brought up by single parents do less well in school and by extension in the work-place, and are more likely to be in trouble with the police; the list goes on and on. Yet the perception of the bulk of the UK population is that marriage does not confer much in the way of tangible benefits either to themselves or their children. I find this interesting, and I find myself asking why there should be such a gap between perception and the reality shown by the statistics.

When this kind of gap occurs it is often because what it suits us to believe is running counter to what we would believe if we were being completely rational. And in our individual lives this may be no bad thing. The type of statistics I mean only tell us about a large group of people, and deal with probabilities, not individual cases. Individual decisions have to be made on the basis of our own sense of right and wrong, and what will be best for us and/or our children. Sometimes the right decision for us will fly in the face of the statistics, because of the particular circumstances – violent quarrelling between spouses, for example, or persistent adultery. Sometimes we will want to be sympathetic to the friend who tells you that she has decided to split up with her husband because they have grown apart, especially when it is clear that she is doing her best to keep him in touch with their children. Where this goes wrong is where those individual decisions and sympathies are broadened to make up a social philosophy at odds with the statistical evidence. This is where sympathy and sentimentality turn perception into myth. The evidence of the statistics tells us that it is a myth that cohabitation is just as good at marriage at keeping ourselves and our children healthy and prosperous. We may not want to believe it, and those of us who are married know just as well as those who are single that being married is not a bed of roses all, or even the majority, of the time. But allowing our perceptions to mythologise the situation will not help us to heal the ‘broken society’ of which the Bright Young Men of the new Conservative leadership have been so eloquently and touchingly speaking. To put society right you must believe the facts. The Conservatives may have to take note of the social perceptions revealed in the survey, because they need to have the political support of the electorate to win the next election and form a government: being in Opposition will not allow them to put their policies into effect. But the rest of us should look at our perceptions again. Do we really not believe the evidence about the relationship between marriage and the health of individuals and of society? And if we don’t believe it, we need to ask ourselves why.

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