Should Shotgun Weddings Take Place?

EHD Bass Team Investigates

Marriage rates in the US are declining. In fact, marriage rates are lower today than they were during the Great Depression. The last time they were lower? Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States and the country was still rebuilding from the Civil War. So what’s causing these dramatic changes to this long-held social institution?

Anna Gassman-Pines and Christina Gibson-Davis, both associate professors in the Sanford School of Public Policy, formed a Bass Connections team last year to find out.

“We were working with this question of job loss in the community, and if that affects the likelihood people get married,” Gibson-Davis said.

But social norms are an inherently difficult thing to explore. It simply wouldn’t be possible, let alone ethical or scientifically sound, to ask expecting unmarried couples their own beliefs and wait for job loss to occur. So Gibson-Davis and Gassman-Pines turned to a vignette study to present experiment participants with hypothetical couples in two contrasting situations.

Working with Undergraduates

With a study premise and an idea of how to structure it, they advertised for participants to join their Bass Connections team and found six students eager to get to work on the project.

Katherine Eastwood (Economics), Natalie Hall (Public Policy), Maggie Butler (Psychology), Stella Zhang (Fuqua School of Business), Lauren Taylor (Mathematics) and Corey Vernot (Statistics and Public Policy) rounded out the research team. Joining at such an early stage, they were instrumental in developing the study.

“From that point on we worked collaboratively with them to develop the vignettes,” said Gassman-Pines. “We went through a lot of piloting. The students developed the wording and were really integral to developing the vignettes, doing the testing of them, and then they were the ones to go out into the field and collect responses.”

In one vignette the team developed, the couple was expecting a baby and lived in a community that had lost jobs. In the other, the same couple was expecting a baby in a community with high levels of employment. Participants were randomly assigned a vignette and then asked two questions: if they thought the couple will get married and if they thought the couple should get married.

The team collected information from 400 respondents in Durham ranging from 18 to 82 years old. When there was job loss, some participants were less likely to say the couple should get married. But perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t hold true for all of the participants.

What seemed to predict this response was the participant’s own socio-economic background. People struggling to make ends meet were more likely to say the couple should wait to get married. As Gibson-Davis suggests, it may be because the respondent’s own job opportunities are limited.

Invested from Start to Finish

Shotgun Wedding Team Group PhotoFor the students, it was an incredible opportunity to invest in a research project from its very beginning. Gassman-Pines and Gibson-Davis brought faculty expertise, but the students were encouraged to help shape the study with their insights as well.The results, they said, were that much more meaningful because the undergraduates understood all of the small decisions and steps in the process that led to their end result. “We had two group sessions with a Stata consultant at SSRI, where the whole team went over to SSRI and received this training collaboratively,” Gassman-Pines said, beginning an anecdote from their data analysis leg of the process.

“Towards the end of the second training, we ran the main result. ‘Does job loss predict what people say about whether the couple will or should get married?’ And when there was a statistically significant result, everyone started cheering,” she said, noting that they felt that invested in the result.

“The students actually started clapping because they had really seen the project through and been integrally involved in it from the earliest stages, so they understood exactly how we got there. It was really meaningful,” Gassman-Pines concluded.

The results, they both agree, are an exciting culmination of the project. With just a hypothesis to start, Gibson-Davis stressed that it wasn’t clear if the idea would yield results. Reliant on strangers’ responses for the data set, it took some testing for the students to find the right spaces where people were waiting and therefore receptive to the vignettes as a way to pass the time. Places like public parks, salons and barber shops were especially good places for finding willing volunteers.

“We weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get responses from even 20 people, let alone this large of a sample,” Gassman-Pines said. “It validated prior work, our own work and the hard work and efforts of the students.”

Lasting Mentorships

The team’s results were published in the Journal of Marriage and Family under the title “They should say ‘I don’t’: Norms about mid pregnancy marriage and job loss.” For their efforts on the research project and helping with the draft, the Bass Connections student team members received authorship credit on the paper.

For Corey Vernot, an undergraduate member of the team, authorship credit is a noteworthy achievement, but also not the most rewarding part of the experience. The relationship he’s formed with the faculty members who led the team has been the most rewarding outcome of his EHD Bass Connections experience.

“Dr. Gassman-Pines and Dr. Gibson-Davis were extremely supportive of us during the project. They went out of their way to make the experience educational, and it was clear that our development as researchers was just as much a priority to them as the research project itself,” he said. “After the project, I continued to learn from them as a research assistant on a number of different projects, and now they’re both giving me great guidance as I work on my thesis in public policy.”

It’s a legacy that Bass Connections hopes to achieve with all its research teams: lasting mentorships, interdisciplinary collaboration, publishable research and those incredible aha moments that sometimes, though rarely, burst into impromptu cheering and applause.