The Real Problem With Monogamy: Asymmetric Information
By Bryan Caplan
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.