Monogamy and Heterogeneity
By Bryan Caplan
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
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
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.