Have you ever listened in on a conversation between a single person and a married couple? Did you hear the phrases “being single works for me” and “I’m a relationship kind of person” being thrown around? Well, based on a recent study, what you may have perceived as a “live and let live” exchange was actually a self-righteous single telling a married couple that flying solo is spectacular, and a couple telling a single that being in a relationship is something he could benefit from. It’s called “normative idealization,” and it refers to the tendency to idealize your own lifestyle over others’ and the belief that others would benefit from the way you live, too.

The idea of normative idealization, at first, seems very innocent. People who like their lives want to share that sentiment with others. But really, what researchers at Stanford University and the University of Waterloo found was that people were more judgmental of others’ lifestyles when they felt like the concept of their own position in life was being threatened. The less stable a participant’s life was, the study found, the more likely they were to go to greater lengths to promote the advantages of their own relationship status. “Building on existing evidence that people are motivated to rationalize circumstances they perceive as likely to persist, we predicted that participants’ perceptions of the stability of their own relational status would lead them to rationalize that status,” the researchers wrote.

A team of psychologists conducted four studies in order to compile the data. In the first two studies, they found connections between perceptions of stability and idealizations. In the second two studies, the researchers found that the perception of stability had an effect on people’s judgments of individuals in the same position they were in, as well as their judgment of those in a different position from their own. In an article in The Conversation, Ph.D. student Samantha Joel says this about the study:

It seems then that people look down on people with opposing relationship statuses as a way to feel better about their own. This kind of judgment is really a form of defensiveness. A person who has taken a different path in life can threaten our confidence in our own lifestyle, particularly if we feel that our own lifestyle is not easily changed. A good way to combat that sense of threat is to convince ourselves that our way is the only right way. So the next time you catch yourself looking down on someone else’s lifestyle … ask yourself if it is possible that you are actually a little bit envious.

Of course, this one study can’t quite predict why people feel the way they do about their relationship status overall. Any number of factors, including society’s negative stigmatization of being single, could contribute to how people form opinions about relationships and whether it’s beneficial to be in one. However, this study does take a good look at whether our values are ever-present, or constantly changing based on our station in life.

To read more on the study, visit Psychological Science.

Source: Laurin K, Kille D. The Way I Am Is the Way You Ought to Be: Perceiving One’s Relational Status As Unchangeable Motivates Normative Idealization of That Status. Psychological Science. 2012.