Bryan Caplan  

Monogamy and Heterogeneity

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One thing I've learned from seminars: Preferences are almost unimaginably heterogeneous.  During a presentation, I'll be thinking, "No one will like this paper."  Then lo and behold, this paper has three ardent defenders.  And this is the harmonious, genteel GMU econ department.  Imagine the preference heterogeneity of the world as a whole!

A striking non-academic example: Differences in mating strategy, or, as psychologists term it, "sociosexuality." 

Brute Fact #1: Attitudes toward monogamy vary widely.  Some people spend their own lives in love with a person they met in high school.  Others feel like spending a weekend with "just one person" is a virtual prison. 

Brute Fact #2: Many people can't wrap their minds around Brute Fact #1, especially if they're at either extreme of the sociosexuality distribution.  The highly monogamous imagine that thirty-something singles are desperate and/or unbearably lonely.  The highly polygamous imagine that people who have been married for a few years are tortured and/or hypocrites.

I could be misreading him, but I put Micha Ghertner over at Distributed Republic in the latter category.  A while back, I referenced one of his eloquent posts, and he followed up with an equally eloquent reply:
But what Dan and I are questioning, and Bryan seems to miss, is whether the default rule of a life-long commitment to a single partner is a wise commitment to make, or a wise commitment to reinforce through social pressure...


Leaving the norm of monogamy unchallenged assumes that it is the most efficient one for resolving social conflict... Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, seeking other sexual or emotional partners would not be considered an act of cheating, infidelity, unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure.
My objection: Monogamy is extremely wise for some people, and extremely unwise for others.  People low in sociosexuality experience little or no conflict or regret from monogamy; for them, it's great.  People high in sociosexuality experience all the problems that Micha lists.  The judicious reaction to complaints about monogamy remains: If you don't like it, don't consent to it.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Tuttle writes:

Problem is, the government doesn't let you opt out of monogamy without penalty.

Look at the "child support" payment structure in the US; if one wants to be polygamous, or have children with a long distance significant other, then they will pay punitive levels of "child support."

Thomas Sewell writes:
Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure.
So what he's really saying is that if you don't want all these problems, but you also don't prefer monogamy, don't get involved with someone else who expects monogamy.

I agree with you, Bryan, what these people really want is to change everyone else who has a preference for monogamy because that preference limits their potential good partner pool to other people who don't prefer monogamy. It's much easier to say that all the problems listed are caused by the partner who doesn't prefer monogamy, but who make a monogamous agreement anyway.

redbud writes:

Tuttle, children = child support. Mono, poly, whatever. Hope this is cleared up for you 8^D
Thomas, agreed. Only adults should sign contracts.

Other thoughts:
Men who disapprove of abortion shouldn't get one!
Satisfaction = reality / expectations

RL writes:

Bryan, it's not merely making rules for oneself: If you don't like monogamy, don't agree to it.

It's also an issue of education, of raising people's awareness of that alternatives structures are worth at least considering. Otherwise, someone with whom you could have a significant caring relationship is bared from you simply because of default cultural norms you hadn't considered veering from but might have had the issue ever been discussed.

As an educator yourself, I'm sure that's obvious to you.

Joe Teicher writes:

If you find a monogamous weekend to be torture then you probably shouldn't get married. But what about people who have affairs after 20 years? Do you really think that they knew going into the marriage that they were going to do that? I bet that most people who get married honestly believe that they will be faithful to their spouse, and then a significant percentage of them end up cheating. What's the best solution for those people?

bil A. writes:

The best solution would be self-knowledge.

It seems many on this topic are assuming that a preference for monogamy is purely socially/culturally constructed. To me it seems that there are clearly some evpsych selection pressures for some (and varying) degree(s) of sexual possessiveness and/or post-orgasmic partner-based satiation and/or pair-bonding tendencies.
One can argue about whether this is good or bad, but pretending that there isn't some genetic component to monogamous/non-monogamous behavior seems to be quite off base.

8 writes:

People like polygamy with all the benefits of a civilization built on monogamy.

Micha Ghertner writes:


I agree with you that preferences, including sociosexual preferences, are heterogeneous. I'm not questioning the wisdom of monogamy for some people. I'm questioning the wisdom of monogamy as a social norm.

What is your reaction to complaints about social norms? If one doesn't like a social norm, one can't avoid the effects of that social norm simply by not consenting to it.

Granite26 writes:

The social norm is bad for innate monogamists as well... They end up lied to.

Tuttle writes:


I am all in favor of child support. But I'm not in favor of what the US has and calls "child support," and which predictably has only a bit to do with actually supporting children.

Troy Camplin writes:

The big flaw I read in his statement is that he assumes that monogamy is a purely socially constructed norm. It's not. We have the same brain chemical balance as monogamous voles, and we both equally differ from non-monogamous voles in those same brain chemicals. As are -- as a species -- monogamous (actually, ever so slightly bigamist -- at about a 1.5 level, based on brain chemical and the fact that males and females are about the same size, though the males slightly larger size is indicative of slight bigamy, as seen among mammals). There are likely to be ranges, of course, but the norm will tend toward monogamy. All the biological evidence -- and the cultural norms around the world that as a consequence emerged -- support this.

matt writes:

Economists arguing sex. reminds me of something an intro marketing teacher once told our class regarding consultants. "a consulatant is someone that knows 99 different ways of having sex but doesn't know any women". haha

DK writes:

The judicious reaction to complaints about monogamy remains: If you don't like it, don't consent to it.

Umm, so you must have evaluated all the pros and cons of monogamy to the society and simply forgot to include the analysis in your post. Please correct your omission. Because without it, I am thoroughly confused. "If you don't like it, don't consent to it". Should this also apply to people who don't like societal prohibitions of murder, incest, etc? If not, why not?

Nick writes:

If my wife wants me to have only one partner (her), and I want her to have only one partner (me) - then the equilibrium state for an ongoing relationship is monogamy *regardless of whether we each want to have more than one partner ourselves*.

chuck writes:

"My objection: Monogamy is extremely wise for some people, and extremely unwise for others."

Marriage is only socially meaningful if kids are involved. That's when it becomes relevant.

Given this, your comment makes sense under a Classical Liberal economic model, that accepts a degree of social Darwinism. Under such a condition, a person can do as they will, and since there mistakes are not subsidized by everyone else, there is relatively little net drain. Who cares.

In this situation, you might actually see larger preference for marriage, since cooperative living and child rearing is more efficient than otherwise; and the kids do better -- so social competition will push for this.

But the more a society becomes Managerial, and the more being burdensome on everyone else is seen as a natural right, the more social norms are needed to push for marriage to limit state dependence. If not, everyone else gets taxed and has to bear the burden or raising someone elses DNA)

These norms could be pro-marriage, or they could be hyper-pro-status - such the marriage factor in child success would select for marriage -- assuming the state didn't just seek to compensate again.

I suppose if you don't care about raising other's kids and spending you money one them -- that could work. Apparently Iceland is like that. But we are not exactly an ethnically homogeneous small mini-state, where altruism just acts as enlightened egotisms -- where you get to see your neighbor kid that you are paying.

Chuck writes:

I'm assuming, of course that polygamy proper will work like serial polygamy (serial marriage), when not confined to a particular religious community or tradition that regulates abuses. In other countries this can work because there is social net, and women only marry when the man is know to to have enough to support them in such contingencies(ie. a tribal leader). Under our system, my guess is that you would get some guy with 10 wives and 30 kids, who dies or takes off, and leaves 30 kids to for us to take care of.
What am I missing here?

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