Bryan Caplan  

The Lens of Hypergamy: An Application

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Last year, Tyler named "hypergamy" his word of the day.  He called the source "evil," but the Evil One's explanation is admirably elegant:
It is sometimes said that men are polygamous and women monogamous...It would be more accurate to say that the female sexual instinct is hypergamous.  Men may have a tendency to seek sexual variety, but women have simple tastes in the manner of Oscar Wilde: They are always satisfied with the best.
For a nice illustration, see the romance in Public Enemies.  Although Johnny Depp plays a murderer and a thief, he has his girlfriend's true love.  Why?  Because he's the nation's Number One criminal.

Since I first learned the term, hypergamy's explanatory power just seems to keep growing.  Let me share an example.  Last week, Robin reminded me that women initiate most divorces. This book says women initiate 91% of them; other sources say 65-75%.  Here's how this pattern looks through the lens of hypergamy:

In marriage, a man and women contract to forsake all others.  Now ask yourself: If either were going to defect from this agreement, what form would the defection take?  Men, with a polygamous objective function, typically defect by trying to find an additional woman.   Women, with a hypergamous objective function, betray by trying to replace their existing man with a better one. 

It's only natural, then, for the woman to initiate most divorces.  She has to lose her zero before she can renew her search for a hero.  The man, in contrast, gets little direct value out of initiating divorce; with polygamous preferences, divorce is inferior to remaining married while ignoring its constraints.  On further reflection, if fiction is any guide, a decent fraction of male-initiated divorces are probably the result of pressure from the "other woman," who wants to have the two-timer all to herself.  So hypergamy explains even more than it seems: Why wives initiate divorce, and why mistresses pressure other women's husbands to do the same.

In writing about betrayal, I don't mean to sound overly cynical.  I'm not.  The world is full of men and women who not only take their marriage contracts seriously, but are too devoted even to want to break the agreement.   My point is simply that the betrayal takes very different forms - and the lens of hypergamy helps social scientists understand why.

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COMMENTS (14 to date)
El Presidente writes:

The concept seems remarkably insightful and disappointingly accurate.

DBT writes:

I'm not doubting your analysis "through the lens of hypergamy", but the most likely source of female induced divorces is financially based. I just did a quick google search on married male vs. married female wages, and according to this Mises blog post ( women make 1/3 of married men. According to this, when assets are split, men on average lose wealth while women on average gain wealth. Men are more likely to put up with women they don't want to be with than divorce and lose money. Women are more likely divorce a man and gain, possibly even if they want to be with him (but would rather have half of his stuff than him).

Bob Murphy writes:


I'm not sure how this affects things, but it seems disparate earning power might be a big driver too. Like, "If I divorce her I'd have to write her monthly checks, heck no." Or, "If I leave him I can get a job and half his money."

So I wonder what would happen if you broke down the stats by controlling for, say, the salary each spouse earned the last five years of the marriage.

RL writes:

This would also explain why women are less sexually satisfied than men...

Alex J. writes:

Similarly, a wife could learn of a her husband's affair, and this would be new evidence of his lower value to her: she now knows he's not loyal.

Another "evil" observation is that the best man a woman can get to have sex with her will be better than the best man she can get to marry her. Typically, this results in all of those "how to get him to commit" articles in women's magazines, but another implication is that a women might resent her husband for not matching up to her best lover.

El Presidente writes:

Alex J.,

. . . [S]he now knows he's not loyal.

Yeah, but she also knows he's a valued and passion-inducing partner and the advances of another woman may be a social proof. You presume she values a guarantee of fidelity more than the prospect of winning it. That might not always be the case. I don't want to delve too deeply into dangerous waters but perhaps men and women value challenges equally. The prize may be different, but the hunt might be just as envigorating.

I will now stop talking before I dig this hole any deeper. :-)

JH writes:

7s marry 7s, 2s marry 2s, and 10s marry 10s. There is usually some wiggle room where, say, a 6 will marry a 5. But, it seems when there is a point differential, the woman is typically higher. I think part of it is a woman's extra emphasis on personality, kindness, and other things outside of looks. But, this could also provide another possibility. Men generally don't marry down; they either marry an equal or someone higher. So, that limits "the best" a woman can acquire. If a 7 woman knows no 8s, 9s, or 10s are in her marriage future, she knows a 7 is the best she can do. If she goes a while without finding a good match in the 7 pool, she then expands her pool by including 6s and maybe some high 5s. So, in a strange twist, women may marry down in order to obtain the best. When they do that, a 7 may eventually come into her life and become the new best. So long 6, here are the divorce papers.

R.A.W. writes:

Oh oh! If I'm sexually successful with women and write cynical things based on my experience therefrom, can I also get an official Tyler Cowen Stamp of Evil (tm)?

Seriously, he seems to use the word to denote "things of which I must publicly disapprove, but that I find are too topical, popular, and personally interesting to me to outright ignore".

Perhaps I am too quick to condemn Mr. Cowen in particular, after all, a quick summary of the evening news will show that the average news viewer at least finds evil to be fascinating.

Rimfax writes:

Yet another opportunity to link to Baumeister's Is There Anything Good About Men? which touches on female hypergamous behavior in the context of reproductive selection in humans.

Billy writes:

How many women do you think find out about the other woman and then initiate the divorce without a backup plan?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

"Men may have a tendency to seek sexual variety, but women have simple tastes in the manner of Oscar Wilde: They are always satisfied with the best."

All I can say is, "Be careful what you wish may get it."

Sometimes "the best" comes with its own set of baggage...such as a high-maintenance ego, which is in constant need of validation.

It's just an opinion, but I think that the person who makes a sincere effort to be the best is frequently a better choice than someone who believes they are the best.

Jason Malloy writes:

Correct application; most men who cheat report that they are happily married, while very few women who cheat are happy with their husband.

(NB - Women initiate about 70% of dating break-ups as well).

A couple of months ago, I calculated that about 42% of divorces are due to women "trading up," and 23% are due to men trading up.

MNL writes:

While I agree with the conclusion (that women are hypergamous) there's got to be more to it than just this to explain the higher ratio of women who initiate divorce. Why must a woman RELINQUISH her marriage to begin a new, largely exclusive relationship with a better man (hypergamy)? Much like a man, a married, albeit dissatisfied, hypergamous woman could easily maintain an exclusive sexual relationship with her new better, "alpha" man--while giving a cold shoulder to her marriage partner and marriage certificate. In this case, the only difference between her and her married (on paper) polygamous husband need be that his partners are MANY.

I think that relaxed and female-favored divorce laws and state-enforced child support are the tipping factor. No doubt women are naturally hypergamous and men are naturally polygamous. But it's the structure of today's divorce laws that give women more benefits than men following a divorce. It's not only our polygamous/hypergamous natures but also economic incentives that helps explain the different divorce initiation rates across the sexes.

nuna yerbiz writes:

My understanding is that many married women will seek out an outside alpha male for his genes, knowing that he won't stick around. The more loyal beta male will stay and support her and her children, unknowingly raising another man's child. One theory is that this is the root cause of paternal discrepancy.

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