Bryan Caplan  

The Real Problem With Monogamy: Asymmetric Information

Friday Afternoon Miscellany... Moral Hazard and Capital Struc...
Some people sincerely like monogamy; other people sincerely don't.  Under the circumstances, it seems wise for everyone to just reveal their proclivities and pair up with people who share their expectations.  Unfortunately, I don't see this happening.  There is a fundamental flaw with monogamy, but it's not human nature.  It's asymmetric information.

My key assumption: Most people - even most commitmentphobes - prefer a person who will be true to them.  When you announce your religion, you make yourself less desirable to people who reject your religion, but more desirable to people who share it.  When you announce your rejection of monogamy, in contrast, you make yourself less desirable even to people who share your rejection.

In a world of symmetric information, this wouldn't matter.  People would know as much about your proclivities as you do, so there'd be no reason to pretend to be something you're not.  But in the real world, no one knows your own preferences better than you do.  The result: People pretend to be more monogamous than they really are.

This in turn leads to two kinds of dissatisfaction.  First, people who are monogamous feel abused and betrayed.  Second, people who aren't monogamous feel like they "can't be themselves."  Taken together, I think these two complaints explain most of the bitterness people feel about the institution of marriage.

What can be done?  Here are a few ideas.

1. Increase the social sanction against concealing your type.  Most obviously, we should take any outrage we feel toward "promiscuity" and redirect it toward hypocrisy.

2. Lower the social status of monogamy.  As far as I can tell, this is basically Micha Ghertner's proposal.  If people cared less about monogamy, there would be less incentive to pretend to be more monogamous than you really are.

3. Encourage - nay insist upon - disclosure from potential mates.  With the advent of Facebook, this is far from utopian.  When people announce - and update - their relationship status, for example, it's a strong and informative signal.  All their friends know what they're up to - and what they've been up to.  Even better, the information is just sitting there in cyberspace, so it's easy to avoid the social awkwardness of point blank questions about people's relationship history.  Admittedly, it's logically possible that insisting upon disclosure would lead to a pooling equilibrium of massive deception, but it seems unlikely.  Lying about yourself to isolated individuals for short-run gain is a lot less costly than lying about yourself to everyone you know, all the time.

Other ideas?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (29 to date)
SheetWise writes:

"... When you announce your rejection of monogamy, in contrast, you make yourself less desirable even to people who share your rejection."

This belief is the most telling.

There actually are people who believe in happiness, and don't marry it to vanity.

The conflict is not about monogamy and promiscuity -- it's about being happy and shaping your immortality. Absent children, it's just about being happy.

L. Burke Files writes:

Monogamy is not a belief system it is a choice of behavior. If you and your partner choose to be monogamous, great, if you choose not to be monogamous, great. It is your choice and you agreement with your partner, if you have one. Both monogamy and promiscuity are journey and both have there own risks and rewards physically, psychologically and socially.

So choose, if you choose wrong, choose again. But since it is not a religion – please don’t preach about either choice. For in reality, during our journey in life, we oscillate between the two choices…

Matt C writes:

> Lower the social status of monogamy.

Be careful what you wish for.

The nuclear family has lost a lot of ground just in my lifetime (I'm nearly 40). Lots of divorced parents and now baby mamas everywhere.

Do the divorced parents and single mothers you know (you do know some single mothers don't you?) seem to be happier and better off than the monogamous couples you know?

More single motherhood also means more demand for the government to act as a substitute provider. I don't think it's a long term trend in favor of liberty.

fundamentalist writes:

I think the real problem is unrealistic expectations. Young people choose monogamy when the get married, thinking the relationship won't change and keeping the promise of monogamy will be easy. When marriage turns out to be harder and not as fun as they thought it would be, they change their ideas about monogamy.

In addition to the naivete about monogamy, guys and gals are dishonest before marriage. Guys are romantic and attentive before marriage and afterwards ignore the wife and want to hop in bed with no effort at romance and treat her like a prostitute. Girls desire to please and make the guy think he is perfect before the marriage and afterwards nag and withhold sex in order to mold the husband into their image of perfection.

The natural deceitfulness and desire to control others can doom even the most ardent supporter of monogamy. Half of all marriages end in divorce and half of those that don't are unhappy marriages. Roughly, only a fourth of marriages achieve any kind of bliss. Most of those who failed went into the marriage hoping to be monogamous for life.

Telnar writes:

Another issue which is related to this is time consistency. People vary widely in the extent to which they feel bound by their earlier choices and may not understand their own preferences in this.

Traditional marriage isn't just about monogamy. It's also about "for better or for worse" which I'll expand into two pieces:

-- To stay together in spite of exogenous shocks
-- To stay together in spite of new information which if available earlier would have led to a different decision

Is it obvious that the 2nd piece of "for better of for worse" is a good idea?

Arnie writes:

I tweeted the line from above : People pretend to be more monogamous than they really are. I think that line should live on well outside the econlog village. Economically, I feel that the most important idea I have learned from Dave, Brian and Arnold in the last two years is the role of signalling. In love, business, governance, school, ... well the list is long, there seems to be an unwritten code of metaphors that cloud or control or maybe just are a part of our thought/decision process.

The daily quote that I put on the white board for Monday is " Love is blind, but the neighbors aren't.'

Thanks, Brian. you're insights have improved my life.

simone writes:

Absurd! The failure to properly frame the issue of monogamy makes fools of "economists" and "intellectuals" who play philosopher. Monogamy is not simply a belief or a behavior. It is embedded within a much larger belief and social system. Asymmetric information does not frame the question. It characterizes in a metaphorical manner an aspect of the phenomena.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@Matt C.

Finally somebody brings this point up.

The entire discussion on monogamy has completely ignored the fact that people usually do not think of their children when making this decision (and why would they, in the world of absolutely rational beings?) and trends in divorce, single motherhood, and reductions in monogamy demonstrate this effect.

Winton Bates writes:

It seems to me that there are several aspects to the information problem. For example:
1) whether the other party shares your views about the nature of the contract;
2) whether the other party intends to honour the terms of the contract;
3) whether the other party will be able to act according to their intentions; and
4) whether the other party is likely to behave in the manner your think appropriate if she/he has an affair with another person (e.g. be dicreet, confess and ask forgiveness, move out of home etc).

I think the social sanction should be against deceit rather than hypocisy. It would be undesirable for people to be deterred from proclaiming their intentions because of the fear that if they are unable to keep their promises they will be branded as hypocrites.

Troy Camplin writes:

I find it odd that, on e a blog where genetic determinism seems to be favored, that my comments in the last posting about the biological aspects of monogamy were ignored in the comments in this one. Environmental explanations when we don't like the biological ones, perhaps?

Kurbla writes:

Bryan advised that one tries to make his behaviour truthful to his words, but it doesn't seem libertarian advice. Why loyalty? Because it is usually the best approach for individual? Because it is, if accepted as rule, the most beneficial approach for society?

Maybe, but there is no reason to do always what is usually the best. If risk of getting caught is low enough, then it could be easily beneficial to individual in that particular situation to cheat. And, from libertarian point of view, there is even less reasons to contemplate the collective. Only consistent libertarian advice could be "estimate the chance that you'll not get caught and act accordingly."

"Behave consistently to your words" might be an example of sneaking preferred behaviour (truthfulness) in other political position (libertarianism.) Advices about lowering or increasing social sanctions are not statist yet, but they are still strangely collectivist, perhaps in conservative manner.

SheetWise writes:

My guess is that there are a lot more pregnant brides standing on the alter than there are virgin brides. Perhaps someone here can fill in the numbers. I mention this as the father of three adult girls, and also having been the groom.

In either case, I feel that marriage without the intent to raise children is somewhat pointless. Why would two people pool their resources in a marriage when there are such less ambiguous structures -- like a partnership?

Gary writes:

Patri, thanks for sharing. Do you get jealous if your wife dates other men?

tom writes:

Bryan, these posts on polygamy are weirdly ahistorical and a-societal. Nothing about:

whether men may tend toward it much much more?
whether it leads to low paternal investment?
whether you can build a democratic society around it?
whether you can have a welfare state with it?

whether it tends to create a male underclass?

whether there has ever existed a stable society that practiced it (outside of ones with women as chattel)

how much monogamy might be about women selling their short fertility and their huge investment in children to men in exchange for loyalty past that period

how much polygamy may be about high-status males trying to multiply the benefits of their status with more sex and/or more offspring

that women tend to get pregnant, and how much widespread polygamy depends on not just the efficacy of birth control, but the ability of men and women to internalize the separation of sex and fertilization and--maybe-use that knowledge to reduce jealousy/envy of a partner who takes other partners

These aren't new questions.

Plus, Patri is a free-lover, per the previous post? Maybe these charter cities will really swing!

8 writes:

What's the score on wars between monogamous cultures and non-monogamous cultures? Maybe genetically individuals can be either or, but maybe societies that interact with others cannot be. Aren't the extant non-monogamous cultures/countries far behind the monogamous ones?

Prakhar Goel writes:


Easy enough to do for now. Does today's dominant culture promote monogamy?

Most would probably say yes though its very easy to get lost in a maze of definitions and vagueness here.

Current non-monogamous countries. From what I know, this would be the Islamic countries, the Scandinavian countries, and most African countries (with the rest of the world fast approaching). Are these above or below the average?

Historically, it is a bit more interesting but that youj can fill in yourself.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan recommends:

"Lower the social status of monogamy."

How's that been working out in America's inner cities since the mid-1960s? Has Detroit turned into the Emerald City of Oz?

SheetWise writes:

Steve Sailor --

Lowering the social status of monogamy cannot logically be attributed to the decline of the family -- unless you can show that alternate lifestyles correlate with the decline of the family. My guess is that you're focusing on irresponsibility and mistaking some correlation between monogamy and responsibility. Your choice of "inner cities" as a point of reference makes me suspect you're not looking at the full spectrum.

Jason Malloy writes:

Well, let's take a look at the full spectrum.

Out of wedlock births for white Americans between 1980-1995:
Upper Class 1.7%
Middle Class 4.0%
Lower Class 10.2%
Under Class 44.5%

Average: 11%

Out of wedlock births for white Americans since 1995 (roughly):
Upper Class 4%
Middle Class 19%
Lower Class 41%
Under Class 70%

Average: 28%
(All Americans: 40%)

PBates writes:

Polyamorous people much prefer to date polyamorous people.

Where's the data? Your own preferences don't prove this.

SheetWise writes:

Jason Malloy --

I get your point that out of wedlock births are strongly correlated to income -- but what does that have to do with monogamy? Should I assume that an out-of-wedlock birth results in a single parent home?

I've known a lot of promiscuous parents who live in traditional families, and I've known a lot of single parents who discovered celibacy a little too late. What's your point?

Since the mid 1960's (the period cited by Steve Sailer) we have lived in an age where having children is a decision people make -- and that has little to do with behavior. Never before in history have people had as much control over their reproductive lives as they do in the modern world. So, to understand your numbers, we have to first understand that they represent decisions.

Looking at your numbers, I would guess that income is strongly correlated to knowledge -- knowledge allows people to make better decisions -- and choosing to be a single parent is, generally speaking, not a good decision. The numbers might correlate well over time with the benefits provided by social welfare agencies.

In any case -- while I do think that commitment and monogamy can influence decisions to have children -- I don't see any reason to believe that promiscuity causes children.

Joshua Lyle writes:

but what about plural marriage in opposition to monogamy? It can still aim at resistance to exogenous shocks and commitment in the face of improving alternatives.

I suppose it depends on what counts as " being true". I'm polyamorous as well, but my extended poly network treats cheating even more harshly than do many communities devoted to monogamy -- we just have different notions as to what constitutes cheating.

Carolus writes:

Monogamy is both a private contract and, historically, a socially revered ideal thought to be essential for stable families -- which were thought to be critical for children and child rearing women. As a private contract, the ideal of monogamy is signal of commitment, and therefore says something about the individual sending the signal. Of course, the value of the signal is dependent on the social ideal of monogamy as supporting stable families.

Has the value of stable families declined? Perhaps women are less dependent on their husbands these days, because they can control their reproductive decisions better and have more opportunities for economic independence. But the value of stable families for children has not changed at all. Kids need both parents, whether they are married or not. Let's not confuse the decline of marriage with decline of monogamy, as Jason Malloy does above.

If monogamy is good for kids, and if monogamy has indeed declined (although, as usual, we should make a distinction between serial cheating and the odd falling of the wagon kind), we need to ask why. There is a social cost to it, if it hurts the children.

So, should we look at polyamorous people as asocial? Yes, Patri, I think so. Your married partner may be understanding, but what about your children?

And, for that reason, I'd be inclined to trust polyamorous people less than someone committed to monogamy. Monogamy may be an ideal, I think a good one, and not everyone will live up to it. But, like truthfulness and honesty in economic transactions, I value people who strive to meet the ideal of monogamy more than those who jeopardize their family relations for a desire for sexual indulgence. I think of the devotion to monogamy as a signal about personal traits. And, it appears, I choose my friends and social contacts accordingly.

Joshua Lyle writes:

I can't bring cites to the table, but the little formal research I've seen on the matter indicates that polyamorous relationships tend to "not last" only in that most devolve with time into couples, albeit couples that tend to be longer-lasting on average than consistently monoamorous ones. So the balance of evidence seems to be that polyamorous people are more likely to have a stable relationship suitable for the long-term support of children, and thus are more pro-social by your standards.

(I agree that we should not confuse the decline of marriage with decline of monogamy, although I'd certainly add that we should not confuse monogamy and monoamorousness. Nor is monogamy to polyamory an apples to apples comparison, the two are not mutually exclusive. It's probably too late to get people to use the words correctly, however.)

Cathryn writes:

"When you announce your rejection of monogamy, in contrast, you make yourself less desirable even to people who share your rejection."

Is this your personal experience? I have not found this to be true among the poly people I know. I have been poly for over 15 years (happily married for 31) and I prefer to date other polys. I don't see us as "rejecting monogamy" so much as we are "accepting polyamory".

I have found that relationships are easier with people who have made the conscious choice to be ethically polyamorous and who are committed to doing the work that it takes to make multiple relationships last. Monogamous people may certainly be ethical in their relationships, I just have not found that they are committed to making a polyamorous relationship last. We want different things. I believe we will be more successful if we seek out the best chances of achieving our desires with those who want the same things we do.

SheetWise writes:

I think Bryan is onto something here -- but needs to refine the assumptions and his perception of the dilemma.

SheetWise writes:

"... it seems wise for everyone to just reveal their proclivities and pair up with people who share their expectations.

BTW -- Don't you just wait for the other party to pony up first? Isn't this the best strategy? I seem to recall some game theory here ... and if one party reveals first, is the response reliable? If the subject was set-up, is the sentiment reliable? Is the blind revealing of preferences the real reason for the growth and acceptance of online dating?

Arm Bar writes:

Patri, I was quite intrigued by your post. What I wonder, regarding a person such as yourself, engaged in polyamory, is what happens when your equally invested mate becomes jealous. Is there no asymmetry there? I realize that the relationship may begin with "equal" commitment to polyamory, but what happens when jealousy develops in the married partner? It must happen to some couples in you situation? What percentage I wonder.

Arm Bar writes:

Cathryn, interesting comment. What happens when your married mate realizes (perhaps falsely) that he/she is more invested in you than you are in your other partners? Does jealously never occur in polyamorous relationships? Quite frankly, I find this hard to believe. Perhaps you have a "perfect" comparability.

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