Geoffrey Miller on Polyamory and Mating

This is the third part of our NYC rationality group’s conversation with Dr. Goffrey Miller. The transcript of the conversation is in three parts:

  1. On effective altruism, AI, and rationality.
  2. On research and the state of psychology and academia.
  3. On mating, dating, and polyamory. (This one)

Our questions are in bold, Dr. Miller’s answers are in normal font and lightly edited for readability, my post hoc comments are [in brackets].


I wonder if you have any thoughts about the general concept of compersion, which means taking emotional enjoyment in your partner’s enjoyment of other partners. It seems to me that for a lot of people this is the point they’d have to change their mind about to decide whether polyamory makes any sense or not. 

Some people have always felt compersive, and for some, it’s hard to imagine. Sam Harris heard about it for the first time when talking to A.J. Jacobs on his podcast. He said: “Oh well, I guess if I felt that way [polyamory] might make a lot of sense.” What do you think?

I used to be a real compersion skeptic. I thought compersion is a wonderful fiction invented by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco in the 80s, and it’s bullshit. It would be great if that instinct existed, but it doesn’t, except maybe in some folks.

And then I eventually thought of a System 2 utilitarian version of it. I can convince myself that that dude’s getting more pleasure from my girlfriend than I am suffering from knowing that they’re together. So it’s a micro version of Effective Altruism.

Lately, I’ve thought that there are versions of compersion that might make sense depending on the relative status of the people involved. For example, if my girlfriend is dating somebody who is significantly younger than her or me in a sexual mentorship role, it’s a lot easier for me to feel compersion. I can think that I would have loved at his age to be introduced to all this amazing stuff by this cool woman, and I can project myself into his experience in that way. But if she had a secondary who was another fifty-something psych professor, that would be harder.

More direct competition.

It’s more direct competition, it’s more of a threat.

When I taught a class on polyamory and open relationships last semester, I looked really hard for empirical research on compersion and I think there are no papers at all on it. So we hardly know anything about it.

Anecdotally, some people have never felt sexual jealousy to start with. But those that do often find it impossible to reason their way out of those emotions. How did you manage to reason your way out of sexual jealousy?

I did not reason my way out of the emotion. Instead, I figured out the cues that tend to trigger the emotion, and how I can avoid those cues, distract myself, or find ways to eroticize the experience. A combination of these can work.

Inasmuch as I had a System 2 override it was a utilitarian thought: the girlfriend is having fun, the guy she’s with is having fun, I’m a little bit miserable but I can be distracted by watching Billions on TV. I would also reason that I’m going to have a date tomorrow night, so that’s OK. We actually try to schedule our dates on the same night.

What do we know about polyamory in early humans or other primates? What are your thoughts on Sex at Dawn?

I read Sex at Dawn and I thought that it sounded about 60% right. Then I read the rejoinder, Sex at Dusk, which tears Sex at Dawn apart in many ways. And I thought that book is 80% right.

Maybe you’re not a morning person.

That’s also true.

Humans have been forming medium- to long-term pair bonds for at least 2-3 million years. But these bonds haven’t been sexually exclusive or life-long.

I think the typical pattern included a lot of adolescent sexual experimentation and short-term mating, learning about mate choice and calibrating your preferences. And then you form some pair bonds and have kids and a relationship that can last 10-20 years. And then perhaps you switch mates or have a few affairs along the way that can be open and consensual or secretive. I think it was complicated.

I don’t think prehistoric people were in a polyamorous, co-living utopia. But they were certainly not Mormons either. The genetic evidence shows that there was a lot of hypergamy, with some males having great reproductive success while other males didn’t. The fate of Y chromosomes is a lot dicier than the fate of mitochondrial DNA, and you can see that in the genetic evidence.

It’s funny how much this matters to the popular perception of polyamory. The poly community really seized on Sex at Dawn as validating their lifestyle. My attitude is that the fact that we didn’t evolve for lifelong exclusive monogamy shows that polyamory might be possible. But the things that really make it possible are contraception, STI testing, Google Calendar for scheduling dates, and living in cities where you can meet a lot of people. That’s the technology that makes it possible.

I don’t think it’s natural, but I think it’s achievable given our instincts.

[Jacob: I think that not only our evolved instincts but also our traditions and norms around mating aren’t very relevant in a world that has Tinder, the pill, cheap genetic sequencing, and where young women outearn young men. Those traditions and instincts also were never designed to optimize a couple’s happiness for the better part of a century. They’re informative, but shouldn’t be taken as the standard or even the default.

I think that the right approach for many couples should be to throw out a lot of the conventional wisdom and design their own relationships by experimenting with exclusivity, gender roles, sex, and family-building. I don’t know if most couples will end up poly if they follow this approach, but I think they’ll end up in a relationship that fits them much better than whatever our ancestors did a century ago or a million years ago.]

When did lifelong monogamy come into existence?

The social norm of lifelong monogamy that’s legally recognized and enforced by institutions and taboos came with the rise of civilization and high-density cities 10,000 years ago. I buy into the theory of Joseph Henrich that the real benefit of socially-supported monogamy is in group-vs-group competition. The civilizations that do it get more buy-in from lower-status males, because they have some hope of finding a wife. In a slightly more polygynous society, they’re going to be shut out as incels.

In the Roman army, if you served for 20 years you were basically guaranteed enough farmland to attract a wife. You might not live that long, but if you do, you can reproduce. As a result, all the large civilizations are founded on sexually exclusive monogamy as the norm.

Polyamory presents many challenges because there aren’t a lot of traditions or institutions to build on. Making polyamory work requires intelligence, self-awareness, being good at communication etc. A lot of us rationalists are polyamorous, but we are also huge outliers on things like IQ and introspection. Can polyamory work for the broader population?

In our current context, we don’t have very good social technologies for polyamory. But if you’d asked me five years ago I would have said, as an evolutionary psychologist, that there’s no way that polyamory could work at all. Sexual jealousy is too strong to overcome. And then I met Diana, and she said: “If you want to be with me, you better overcome it”. That sounded hard, but I did it, and I had to learn all the mind hacks for doing that.

Five years ago, if I wanted to estimate if I’m a good candidate for polyamory, I would have said that I’m actually pretty jealous. I couldn’t imagine Diana texting me that she’s in bed with a metamour and me saying: “Cool, give him a hug for me”. But now I can do that.

How? I’m smart enough to read the books on how to do it, and ask how her previous boyfriends have done it. If I was jealous and also dumb, bad at communicating, and had poor emotional self-control, that would’ve been a disaster. I was at a dinner party last night with a bunch of Manhattan poly people. The common denominator was that they were all smart, all emotionally self-aware, and had all worked on leveling up their emotional regulation and communication strategies.

I’m working on a book that will focus on polyamory, and BDSM/kink, and somewhat on New Age tantric sexuality and different sexual subcultures. It will talk about the key things that these subcultures have learned, like how to manage sexual jealousy, how to clearly state your hopes and your boundaries in a relationship, how you can use sexuality to broaden your social or professional network.

I think the current state of poly is that there aren’t stable social norms or institutions around it, it’s highly stigmatized, and nobody quite knows what the right way to do it is. Under these conditions, you really need to be extraordinarily mature, self-aware and smart to do it, because it’s an exploratory, alternative sexuality. Maybe in 20 years, when we have the top list of skills you need to make it work, it would be easier to roll it out as a broad social movement that could reach 20% of the population instead of 4-5% currently.

But in that way, it’s just like monogamy. If all of us were poly, and somebody invented monogamy from scratch, they would have to reinvent all the monogamy hacks that everyone in our culture learns from childhood. Then you’d see monogamy also routinely failing; you’d see a 90% divorce rate, even among college-educated people, rather than today’s 30%.

So my hope is that poly folk keep experimenting, compile their best practices and lessons learned, and share them. So you could gradually broaden out who succeeds at it.

[Jacob: I think the main hack for both mono and poly relationship is the same – open your source code to your partner to ensure permanent lock-in into a cooperative equilibrium.]

If we’re able to have the average person navigate polyamory we may still face the social problem of a huge number of men that are on the losing side, and a few that are highly successful. Is that a problem with promoting polyamory widely?

The libertarian in me believes that if a mating system that is fully consensual and freedom-based results in some negative externalities, then we shouldn’t try to tweak the mating system. We should just deal with the externalities in a different way. Diana wrote a piece about sexbots partly anticipating this.

But there’s a huge difference between polyamory and polygamy of the sort where the despot has 1,000 women and so a thousand guys don’t have any. If polyamory was sufficiently widespread there would be plenty of women who would think some guy isn’t good enough to be their primary partner, but they’d still bonk them once in a while. It loosens the criteria, you don’t have to be good enough to be the full-time boyfriend in order to have sex with someone. That might actually be better, even for the lower status males.

[Jacob: I see this criticism of polyamory trotted out quite often, and it’s rarely backed by evidence from modern, rich societies. It’s certainly not the case among poly rationalists that a few men monopolize all the women. To be fair, this community also has a fairly high male:female sex ratio so it doesn’t disprove the claim either.

In any case, for polyamory to create a lot of “leftover men” it would take not only a strong polygynous skew within polyamory, but also for more women to opt into polyamory than men. Otherwise, lonely men could always decide that if their choice is between 0 and 1 partners they may as well be monogamous.]

One thing that sometimes comes up when discussing potential problems with a wider adoption of polyamory is how marriage would work. 

One thing that occurs to me is that a lot of the problems seem to come from this weird thing that marriage is, which is a convolution of three things: it’s a social recognition of a sexual thing, it’s a tax thing, and it’s a religious thing. A lot of the problems with the religious opposition to gay marriage is because the religious partnership has to be the same thing as this social and the sexual partnership. I wonder if you have any thoughts on marriage as an institution and how it seems to combine three tangentially related things.

That’s well put. It’s this unholy mishmash of things. As a libertarian, I think the government should have no role whatsoever in anything to do with sexual relationships. It shouldn’t specify the default contract for long-term relationships. It should just not be in that business. I don’t see anywhere in the US Constitution where it says the government should be in the business of creating social norms.

What would probably be more realistic is the government would offer a smorgasbord of about 5 or 6 marriage contract options. Hopefully, none of those would have anything to do with tax breaks or health insurance, or any of that. They would just be enforceable, and you could pull one of those contracts off the shelf, like a monogamish contract with standard terms, and tweak it a little bit for your particular relationship.

I think the concept of having plural marriage for 3 or 4 people is probably completely unworkable for game-theoretic and complexity reasons. I can’t imagine you can actually create a realistic, practical, enforceable triad contract or something. But maybe I’m wrong.

[Jacob: Being recently married I did the math that if a company with good health insurance hires a married person, they cost them something like $5,000-$10,000 extra per year for the spouse’s insurance premiums. That’s a huge amount compared to most people’s salary and it creates some crazy incentives. I know people who fake-married for health insurance and other people who fake-divorced for tax reasons.

I wonder how many strange things in our economy are the result of individuals and companies adjusting to the weird bylaws and regulations around marriage.]

How does having kids work with polyamory?

I have a 21-year-old daughter and I also raised 2 teenaged step kids back in the day. I’m very aware of the demands of parenting. Diana and I are likely to have kids I think, so I’m going back into the fray just as I’ve gone out of it.

In an ideal world, you’d have unlimited money and you could live in a fabulous apartment and have your little poly co-living commune and do co-parenting. You’d have more parents rather than fewer, and that would all be awesome. My fantasy is to do it all in Montana where land is cheap.

What do people worry about? They worry that it will be confusing to kids; I think that’s dumb. I think kids are very resilient in terms of figuring out that mommy and daddy have a bunch of friends. Kids don’t want to think about sex anyway, they don’t care.

People worry that it will provide bad role models and bad values for the kids? Well, the kids will just learn poly values and not monogamous values. Will the kids be stigmatized and bullied or mocked at school? Only if you’re in a monogamist culture that stigmatizes poly. Let’s solve the stigma problem, not just decide that we can’t have kids. That covers it.

Otherwise, it’s just time and money. Diana and I would probably close up a little bit and be more monogamish while she’s pregnant and for the first 2 years, partly for emotional reasons and partly because we’d just be too sleep deprived to be interesting to anybody else.

I used to be poly. But with my current girlfriend of a while, we’ve been monogamous, even though she’s open to going poly. What do you think my outside view should be that if we go poly that relationship is gonna explode? I’m guessing that probability is kinda high.

I think it depends a lot on how much expertise you feel like you have and how much of it is easily shareable with her. What are her personality traits, emotional traits, and what are your communication skills like? How serious are you about each other?

I think if you’ve got a high degree of mutual commitment you could experiment with going poly for three months, then closing it up for three months, and evaluating how well it worked. That makes it a safe, time-limited study rather than going into poly in an open-ended way.

She seems okay with it except when I try to get her to really think about me being with another girl. But I don’t know how to estimate these things.

The thing to note there is just that there is a bit of a sex difference in sexual jealousy versus emotional jealousy. Guys tend to be more distressed that some dude’s penis is in her vagina; that is the issue. Women tend on average to be more distressed by the guy spending hours writing erotic stories for the other girl that he used to only do for her. Or investing in the other girl, spending money on dates. Women are very keen to track where a man’s resources are going that might in the future go to their kids.

It’s hard for guys to get used to this idea that the women on average aren’t as worried about the actual sex acts as they are about the guy still responding to their texts or overinvesting in someone else romantically.

You were talking about mate switching, and I remember reading a study that said a lot of people who break up with long-term partners is because of perceived change in mate value. For example, the husband gains a lot of weight and the wife gets a new job and suddenly she thinks she doesn’t need that loser anymore.

In general, a lot of the evolutionary psychology of sexual selection has to do with how people find mates, I haven’t read a lot about how people keep them. If I already found a great mate, what does your research advise if I’m interested in making my current marriage work out in the very long term?

You should have a really good mental model of what your mate’s true preferences are, what they really care about you maintaining versus what you can let go a little bit as the pressures of parenting and senescence kick in. Often people don’t have very accurate models of what their mate really wants because they don’t really ask them straight up: “How would you feel if I gained 30 pounds?” You have to have radical honesty, take MDMA and then ask it.

A cool thing about poly is that you can reallocate time and attention between different partners without being forced to give up on anyone entirely. It’s not an either/or. You can tell someone that they’ve become less of a good fit to your needs lately, and you’re downgrading them from primary to secondary – but you can still keep them in your life.

The heartbreaking thing about monogamy is that you have this mate switching dilemma where the partner is getting less and less attractive to you until you hit a certain threshold and declare that you want a divorce. In a more flexible system you would give them more credible warning signals, like deciding to see a secondary partner every 2 weeks rather than every 2 months. Then the primary partner might realize that they have to start doing Crossfit, or read more nonfiction instead of just watching Westworld.

[Jacob: My wife and I are Westworld-monogamous. We watch it together, and would consider it flagrant cheating if either of us watched an episode with someone else.]

8 thoughts on “Geoffrey Miller on Polyamory and Mating

  1. I think that the right approach for many couples should be to throw out a lot of the conventional wisdom and design their own relationships by experimenting with exclusivity, gender roles, sex, and family-building. I don’t know if most couples will end up poly if they follow this approach, but I think they’ll end up in a relationship that fits them much better than whatever our ancestors did a century ago or a million years ago.

    My first reaction was “Aaah! Aaah! Chesterton’s fence!,” but than I realized you wrote “many,” not “most.” I won’t even root my iPhone – I’ll let you experiment with poly and report back, but I am very interested in what you learn.

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    1. This is precisely not Chesterton’s fence, in that we have a pretty good idea about why the fence is there. We know the evolutionary basis for, e.g., men feeling more sexual jealousy than women (on average). We know the reasons why societies do things like encourage monogamy and punish female infidelity. And if we know the reasons why the fence was built and we disagree with those reasons, we should feel more confident chipping away at the fence than if we had no idea why it’s there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, to be precise, you might or might not know it, but I (a) start with a lot of skepticism about evbio models and (b) am too lazy (or rationally ignorant) to look into it more closely. 😉

        For me, it’s cheaper to watch you tear down your fence than it is to study fenceology.

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        1. it’s cheaper to watch you tear down your fence

          Cheap, but pretty worthless.

          First of all, if I write on my blog that I recommend experimental relationship design you can be sure that I’ve done it myself, for many years, and am satisfied with the results. But then, the relationship I design with my wife is what works for us, not what will work for you. Even if we’re similar people, there’s great value in fine-tuning the details yourself via experimentation. This is the kind of project that takes a lifetime; if you wait for a meta-analysis in Nature to try it you’re missing out.

          This is similar to my approach w.r.t. mate choice. I can tell you why decision matrices are a good tool for figuring things out, but not what factors to put in your matrix and how to weigh them.

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