Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1999

Stigma Of The "Ugly Single Male"

Analysis by
Scott Constable, Amy Mackey,
Zach Shuler, & Michael Wise

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Dilbert, by Scott Adams

        The single male has traditionally been in a position of dominance, idealized for his power, independence, and status in American society. However, Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, satirizes this depiction by showing the "ugly single male" as the "most feared and hated creature on Earth." In doing so, he emphasizes the importance of physical attractiveness in our society and how it influences perceptions of ourselves as well as others. We found that many social psychological concepts are applicable to this underlying theme. Among them are social identity theory, self-esteem, gender roles, and schemas.

        Research has shown that physically attractive people create a positive impression, especially in terms of their social competence, dominance, and intellectual ability. This has been referred to as an attractiveness halo effect (Feingold, 1992). In Dilbert's case, his unattractiveness creates an aura of negative attributions. His colleagues notice his glasses, pocket protector, ill- fitting shirt, disheveled tie, and altogether socially undesirable appearance. All of these factors lead his co-workers to fear any kind of association with him. The males avoid him because being seen with Dilbert would lead to a negative self-concept. The men perceive themselves as more attractive, or at a higher social status than Dilbert and merely acknowledging his presence could threaten their social identity (Trajfel & Turner, 1986). The women also practice avoidance behavior, yet for slightly different reasons. They draw the quick conclusion that Dilbert's request for companionship at lunch has underlying romantic intentions. This sort of action identification, like any other form of inference, can lead to false assumptions (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Furthermore, the principle of assortative mating explains that there is a tendency for persons to select mates who are similar to themselves (Caspi & Herbener, 1990). The women, like the men, assess their personal qualities by comparing themselves to those with which they associate. Therefore, the women must perceive themselves as more attractive than Dilbert, whom they do not view as a desirable mate.

        Despite the overt actions of his co-workers, Dilbert is unaware of their disdain for him. His obliviousness works as a defense mechanism that protects his self-esteem from the rejection of others. Dilbert's reaction is also important because it maintains the humorous tone of the comic. If he broke down into tears no one would be laughing. Moreover, during the discussion the class came to the consensus that if a woman was the subject of the cartoon, then social norms would overshadow the humorous intent. There seems to be a double standard that makes it more acceptable for males to be the subject of personal ridicule. Calling a woman ugly conflicts with norms associated with feminine sensitivity whereas males are seen as unemotional and able to disregard such criticism.

        The last frame of the comic recognizes gender roles surrounding the issue of marriage. The woman's comment, "We drew straws; I have to marry you," conveys the impression that it is a woman's job to domesticate the male. Marriage is seen as the necessary means to end the horror that the "ugly single male" inflicts on society. She is the "maiden sacrifice" who tames his socially unacceptable condition for the good of all. This serves to make a mockery of American values, implying that love is not a prerequisite for marriage. For example, chance rather than love is the uniting factor of this satirized marriage. In fact, the comic suggests that it is better for a woman to marry an undesirable Dilbert than to remain unwed. This is consistent with evolutionary theory, which dictates that the need to continue the species supersedes all others. When procreation cannot take place under optimal circumstances, one resorts to the sparse resources that are available.

        Althought this comic deals with serious social issues, the comedic structure is maintained through the use of schema violation. The first frame obviously attempts to establish the mental construct of a creature that is "feared and hated." As the reader conjures up images consistent with this phrase, he or she is presented with a dinosaur, a rabid dog, and Donald Trump to reinforce cognitive structures that are associated with fear and hate. The juxtaposition of the illustrations and the concepts they represent lays the foundation for the amusement of the piece. The pictures appear to be rather benign and perhaps even endearing while Dilbert is portrayed as a colossal beast.

        This comic provides a humorous interpretation of the role of the "ugly single male" in American society. It focuses on the ideal that physical attractiveness is a dominating force in social interactions. Appearance interacts with social identity theory, self-esteem, and gender roles to create norms that are apparent in everyday discourse. The use of schema violation allows Scott Adams to present a humorous depiction of otherwise unpleasant cultural mores.



        Feingold. (1992). In A. Manstead & M. Hewstone (Eds.), The Blackwell encyclopedia of social psychology (pp.313). New York: McGraw-Hill.

        Tajfel, H. & Turner, J.C. (1986). The social identity of intergroup relations (2nd ed., pp.7-24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall

        Nisbett & Wilson. (1977). In Abraham Tesser (Ed.), Advanced social psychology (pp.115-116). New York: McGraw-Hill.

        Gilbert, D., Fiske, S. & Lindzey, G. (1998). The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., pp. 210). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Thursday, April 18, 2002 at 15:17:10 . This document has been accessed 1 times since 1 Jan 1999. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman