“The Rationalist community isn’t just a sex cult,” quoth Diana Fleischman in a new book about Rationalists, “they do other great things too!” When I read that I asked my friends if there are any cultish sex parties I’m not being invited to; they all assured me that they’re not having secret sect sex in my absence (except for Diana, who kept mum).
So, I assume that this trope mostly comes down to the high percentage of Rationalists who are polyamorous. I found out about this correlation soon after discovering Rationality (having already been in an open relationship), but I never paused to question it. When a journalist recently called to interview me about polyamory and rationality, it got me thinking: what actually explains the correspondence?
It is estimated that about 5% of Americans are CNM (consensually non-monogamous) although that number varies widely based on the survey sample and the exact definition of non-monogamy used. In contrast, 17% of Americans in the 2014 LessWrong survey said that they prefer polyamory. Perhaps more than 5% of non-Rationalist Americans would prefer open relationships if they could get them, but it’s unlikely that 17% do. Moreover, the survey indicates that polyamory increases with Rationality engagement both online and off: 19% of those who have posted on LessWrong prefer polyamory vs. 12% of those who haven’t, same for those who have and haven’t read at least half of The Sequences, and 26% of those who’ve attended a Rationalist meetup prefer polyamory vs. 11% of meetup virgins.
It’s not obvious there should be a correlation between a relationship style that originated in the hippie counterculture and a meta-philosophy that originated in questions of decision theory, cognitive biases, and artificial intelligence. There could be a founder effect: LessWrong creator Eliezer is open about being open. But he’s not that open: the word “polyamory” isn’t mentioned even once in The Sequences, while “polysyllabismic” occurs twice. If this entire community is a plot by Eliezer to get laid, he’s really throwing people off the scent with all the AI work.
The scolds tell us that “Polyamory is for rich, pretty people” but while Rationalists are good looking, they’re not richer than the average American. A bunch of nerds in a Berkeley group house are not the upper-class decadent playboys the author imagines.
I brainstormed six plausible theories to explain the connection between polyamory and Rationality, as alternatives to the hypothesis that Rationalists are simply indoctrinating their friends into non-monogamy. In a rare burst of scientific endeavor, I posted a survey to interrogate all seven hypotheses, and a couple of other variables as well. The survey has gathered 633 responses as of this writing thanks to my diligent readers and my friends who retweeted it. You can view the survey to see the original phrasing of the questions and contribute your data. You can also download the raw data yourself, come up with your own stories, and critique mine.
I’m not particularly attached to any of these theories, this is purely driven by curiosity, not advocacy. Most of these are beliefs and attitudes that should correlate separately with both Rationality and polyamory, at least in my personal experience. It is very hard to tease out causality from these relationships: each attitude can be a result of engaging with Rationality and polyamory, a preexisting cause that leads people to them, or a result of one and a cause of the other. Establishing a causal direction is beyond the power of a point-in-time survey, so whenever I mention causality below keep in mind that I’m just speculating.
The survey consists of multiple-choice questions, the majority of which encode a linear scale (even if the scale was not explicit). For example, the answers to the two questions regarding engagement with online Rationality and the Rationality community are treated as 4 point scales, and the two scores are added to create a 7-point scale for “combined engagement”.
Linear scales are easy to work with and most of my analysis is in the form of linear regressions and correlations. While this introduces some inaccuracies (e.g., the implicit assumption that the distance between 1-2 on the scale is the same as 2-3 and 3-4) some errors are unavoidable no matter how these things are measured and encoded. I erred on the side of making the answer options explicit so respondents wouldn’t have to guess what “3 out of 7 on the polyamory scale” means. I also erred on the side of making the survey short and accessible — this is all exploratory. I also preregistered the core of my analysis plan with 3 scientists and the aforementioned journalist, to help keep it free from bias.
The main variables I measured, which will be explained in detail below, are:
- Engagement with Rationality, via two 4-point scales.
- Preference for polyamory, with a single 4-point scale.
- Questioning and overcoming intuition, two 4-point scales.
- Agreement with evolutionary psychology, a 5-point scale.
- Acceptance of weirdness, a 4-point scale.
- Ethics, a question with 6 discrete categories 3 of which are used to encode a “Rationalist Ethics” scale.
- Religiosity, a 4-point scale.
- Utopianism, a poorly written question collapsed to a 3-point scale.
- Attitude towards progressive politics, a 5-point scale.
Below is the correlation matrix of all the main variables, with the color representing the strength and direction of the correlation. We will dive into each in turn.
Of the 633 respondents, 78% are straight men. I don’t break out any of the main analyses by gender and orientation, so keep in mind that if these confounders have a strong impact on the measured variables this impact may not be accounted for.
I posted the poll on Putanumonit, LessWrong, my own Twitter, and my Facebook. It was also retweeted and shared, most noticeably by former Putanumonit interviewees Aella and Geoffrey Miller — these all fall under “elsewhere”.
Respondents who came to the survey from different sources differ quite a bit in their engagement with Rationality and polyamory, although not so much on the other variables. The two charts below also show the relative number of respondents from each source.
And now, to the stories.
Story 1 – Overcoming Intuitions
A core tenet of Rationality is that what feels true is not necessarily what is true. What feels true may simply be what is pleasant, politically expedient, or what fits your biases and preconceptions. The willingness to entertain the idea that your intuitions about truth may be wrong is a prerequisite for learning Rationality, and Rationality further cultivates that skill.
A key to polyamory is realizing that what feels bad is not necessarily a sign that something is bad. Seeing your partner kiss another lover can trigger feelings of jealousy and insecurity. But in the context of polyamory, it’s actually a positive sign: that they trust you and feel comfortable around you, and that they encourage you to express your love for other people too.
Failure to overcome your intuitions can happen in two places: failing to question them in the first place, and failing to believe that you can overcome your immediate reaction and in time dissolve the intuition itself. Many Rationality skeptics (including Daniel Kahnemann himself!) see biased thinking as inevitable and impossible to improve. Many polyamory skeptics don’t believe that jealousy and possessiveness can be overcome. To progress in Rationality or polyamorous relationships, you need the opposite attitude.
After fiddling with ggplot2 for several hours, the chart above is the most comprehensive way I came up with to illustrate the relationship between questioning intuition and both Rationality and polyamory. It may not be clear at first glance what’s going on, so let me explain what these charts represent.
- There are 7 different levels of engagement with Rationality forming the X-axis, from left (unfamiliar) to right (engaged Rationalist). I used labels instead of the numbers 2-8 to clarify the meaning.
- There are 4 relationship type preferences forming the Y-axis, from fully monogamous at the bottom to polyamorous on top.
- The two axes form 7×4 = 28 combinations. The area of each square represents the number of respondents in that combination. For example, there were 44 people who scored 6/8 on Rationality engagement (Rat-adjacent) and are monogamous, represented by the 5th square from the left (since that scale goes 2-8) on the bottom row.
- The color of each square represents mistrusting and overcoming one’s intuition, from bright red (trusting) to dark blue (overcoming).
Overall, there wasn’t much variance on the “overcoming intuition” scale, with most individuals (and all 28 group averages) falling in the 5-7 range of the 2-8 scale. Whatever variance there is strongly correlated with polyamory (p < 10-4) and not correlated at all with Rationality. On the chart, you see the squares getting darker as we move up but not as we move left or right.
The latter result is very surprising to me. The ability to notice, dissect, and when necessary overcome my intuitions and gut reactions is an invaluable skill for me, and I credit a lot of that to my engagement with Rationality. Skeptics of Rationalist self-improvement like Scott Alexander say that to the extent that is ability is real, it is innate and not enhanced by engaging with Rationality. The two survey questions get at attitude more than skill, but it’s still evidence in favor of the skeptics.
Story 2 – Believing in Evolutionary Psychology
This is related to the first story, but I could imagine it has a standalone effect. Dissecting our emotions and intuitions requires understanding where they come from, and that understanding starts with our evolution. On the Rationality side, evolutionary psychology explains many of our cognitive biases, especially around social behavior and signaling.
Evolutionary psychology also offers insight into the emotion at the heart of relationship choices: jealousy. Men tend to be sexually jealous and control their partner’s sexual access, as a result of the immense cost in reproductive fitness borne by raising another man’s child by your mate. Women experience more jealousy around emotional investment and solicit signs of commitment from their partners, having been dependent on a man to provide them and their children with the resources necessary for survival.
Grasping the full implications of this did a lot to dispel jealousy’s hold on me. The first thing I noticed is that our ancestor’s reproductive fitness concerns are not very relevant in the 21st century. Contraception and genetic testing make raising another man’s children a very remote possibility, and a pregnant or nursing woman is unlikely to starve these days just because a man is not there to provide for her. More importantly, there’s no particular reason for me to follow my evolved drives; if I adopted a child I would love and raise them even though it does little to propagate my genes.
Well, it appears that I’m alone on this one. Accepting evolutionary psychology does not correlate with Rationality and correlates negatively with polyamory.
The correlation is not very strong because there wasn’t a lot of variance in people’s attitudes about evolutionary psychology. 91% of the sample were at least Neutral on a 5-point scale of accepting that it does a good job explaining human behavior and emotions. Among monogamous people 69% agreed or strongly agreed, vs. 56% of poly folk.
I considered that evolutionary psychology is not popular in politically progressive circles because it rejects the blank slate doctrine, and progressive politics are correlated with polyamory. While both these things are confirmed in my data, progressive politics don’t fully explain away the negative relationship between evolutionary psychology and monogamy.
What does explain it? Since I predicted the opposite, I do not want to speculate.
As for Rationality, it correlates with neither evolutionary psychology, nor progressive politics, nor the two together (they could have offsetting correlations with Rationality, but seem to simply have none). This further frustrates my hypothesis, but it at least dispels the notion that Rationalists are a reactionary sex cult, a canard that is promoted on one particular subreddit.
Story 3 – Social Reality and Weirdness
In a story that I shared on Twitter, I told my coworker that when I’m in a rush and need a measured dose of caffeine I just chew on a handful of roasted espresso beans. The taste is not actually bad — if you like chocolate covered beans, you may not totally need the chocolate. I suggested to my coworker that she try it at least once, just to know what it tastes and feels like.
She adamantly refused, citing “that’s not how it’s consumed” and “it’s weird, people don’t do that” as her main objections. I countered that these are facts about people, rather than facts about coffee beans. While you can infer some things about beans from observing people, the beans are right there in the office kitchen to be experienced directly. My coworker seemed unable to grasp the distinction, treating the social unacceptability of eating coffee beans as akin to physical impossibility.
I call this phenomenon social reality. Those who feel its pull strongly allow for small quirks but mostly follow the socially acceptable course — monogamy. Those who ignore social reality stand the risk of becoming Soylent-drinking, AI-safety-donating, cryonic-enlisted Rationalists.
At least, that was my hypothesis. Instead of asking directly “how weird are you?” I opted for a question giving strange eating habits (coffee beans, cold steak, raw oil) as a concrete example to gauge people’s reactions.
As with the intuition question, weirdness correlates strongly with polyamory (p ≈ 10-1) and not at all with Rationality engagement. Again, this is shocking to me. It could well be that the question wasn’t getting at the willingness to be a weirdo-among-weirdos that I associate with Rationalists, but if it measured nothing at all it wouldn’t correlate with polyamory either. Joke’s on us — Rationalists were the normies all along.
This wasn’t in my original analysis, but I checked the connection between weirdness and overcoming intuition. The two are significantly correlated but are not measuring the same thing. For example, when regressing polyamory on rationality engagement, weirdness, and overcoming intuition together, all three show up with positive and significant coefficients.
Story 4 – Religion
While the Old Testament had mostly positive things to say about kiloamorous King Solomon, modern religions tend to criticize adultery for both sexes. As for Rationality, I personally think that LessWrong has become too hostile to religious folk and I’m a Bayesian atheist. The absence of religious people in both polyamory and Rationality will cause them to correlate.
Only 10% of my respondents were religious, but that was enough to demonstrate a negative relationship to both polyamory and Rationality.
The survey also included a single polyamorous, Rationalist, virtue-ethicist, religious woman. If that’s you, please get in touch! I would love to hear some more about your lifestyle and worldview.
Story 5 – Ethics
Most people don’t need an explicit system to make moral choices, they follow their intuitions and the norms of their social circle. This applies to relationship choices as well — asking your partner not to kiss other people is usually not the output of a moral deliberation but just the popular norm.
Polyamory doesn’t fit well within the normal moral-intuitionist framework. As Geoffrey Miller noted, the natural justification for polyamory is from consequentialist ethics: the pleasure Geoffrey’s partner and her lover gain from spending time together outweighs the discomfort it brings him. Consequentialism doesn’t have a lot of room for claims of special moral rank due to “being her real boyfriend”, the well-being of all people is treated the same regardless of their relationship status.
The polyamory guide More Than Two also argues that expanding one’s moral circle and adhering to a stricter moral system is required for flourishing polyamorous relationships. Polyamory requires treating as moral equals not only currently existing lovers but also potential ones: an existing couple shouldn’t make rules (for example, veto power) that will unreasonably constrain or harm new people who may one day enter into a relationship with one of them. The book’s mantra “the people in a relationship are more important than the relationship” likewise carries a strong flavor of consequentialism.
Rationalists are also very likely to follow a consequentialist ethical system, and not just those who overlap with Effective Altruism. There are myriad reasons for this and exploring all of them would take a project at least the scope of this one. For now, I’ll simply claim that it is known. If the data contradicts me on this one I should really give up on saying anything at all about Rationalists.
Whew. Consequentialism has a remarkably strong correlation with Rationality. On the non-Rationalist end of the scale, consequentialists are a small minority while 50% follow their intuitions rather than an explicit system. On the Rationalist end, consequentialists are a large majority.
When regressed on multiple variables, consequentialism also shows a significant positive relationship with overcoming intuition (since it requires overriding one’s moral intuitions) and a significant negative relationship with religiosity (since religious people are likely to follow a religious system of ethics instead). When these variables are included consequentialism no longer has a significant relationship with polyamory (although it still does with Rationality).
Story 6 – Utopianism
Have you ever experienced a moment of bliss? On the rapids of inspiration maybe, your mind tracing the shapes of truth and beauty? Or in the pulsing ecstasy of love? Or in a glorious triumph achieved with true friends? Or in a conversation on a vine-overhung terrace one star-appointed night? Or perhaps a melody smuggled itself into your heart, charming it and setting it alight with kaleidoscopic emotions? Or when you prayed, and felt heard? […]
Yet a little later, scarcely an hour gone by, and the ever-falling soot of ordinary life is already covering the whole thing. The silver and gold of exuberance lose their shine, and the marble becomes dirty. […]
I summoning the memory of your best moment – why? In the hope of kindling in you a desire to share my happiness.
And yet, what you had in your best moment is but a beckoning scintilla at most. Not close to what I have. No closer than the word “sun” written in yellow ink is to the actual sun. For I’m beyond words and imagination. […]
The challenge before you: to become fully what you now are only in hope and potential.
This excerpt is from Nick Bostrom’s poetic Letter From Utopia, an imagined missive to today’s humans from our possible future selves who are wiser, happier, better in every way that we want to be better. I am not much given to religious sentiment, but Letter From Utopia comes closest to kindling that sentiment in me.
I use Utopia as a benchmark for orienting myself towards the person I want to be. With a clear enough picture of Utopia in my head, I can interrogate it along many dimensions. Are the people of Utopia nationalist or universalist? Secular or religious? Do they feel joy or anger when their lovers find new lovers? Some of these are hard to answer, but I can’t imagine that in the glorious future people regulate who their lovers may and may not spend time with. It just doesn’t fit.
Polyamory is new, it’s weird, and it’s certainly forward-looking. Insomuch as people have the instinct to explore and experiment with new ways of being, to take risks in the hope of reaching new plateaus of happiness, that instinct will push them towards polyamory.
As for Rationality, it was conceived on transhumanist messaging boards and still retains that sentiment. Our home is not a static point but a vector — Less Wrong every day. The project of Rationality is born of the belief that humans can become wiser, polyamory is the belief that we can become happier and more loving.
The question I came up with to assess positive and negative attitudes about humanity’s future potential garnered a lot of complaints, all of them justified. It was confusing, poorly worded, and unintuitive. And yet, even with the measurement noise that resulted from the badly written question, “utopianism” correlates significantly with both Rationality engagement and polyamory. In the glorious future, everyone is a polyamorous nerd (and almost certainly bisexual).
While not the main aim of the survey, I was curious to confirm my anecdotal impression that bisexuality correlates with polyamory. It surely does. Bisexuals were exactly twice as likely in my sample to be polyamorous as heterosexuals: 56% vs. 28% for women and 39% vs. 20% for men. Somewhat surprisingly, only 2 of the 15 homosexual men in the survey were polyamorous, although I don’t know if we can draw conclusions for this small sample by itself.
How did my hypotheses do when faced with 633 actual human beings? Some were confirmed, some are still in question, and some went up in flames.
The six stories were based purely on my own experience: I’m a consequentialist non-religious transhumanist weirdo. Learning about evolutionary psychology blew my mind, and so did realizing that my emotions are subject to introspection and modification. I’m still not bisexual, but, you know, growth mindset. I arrived at polyamory and Rationality independently; what the survey shows is that there any many different paths to the same destination.
Polyamory did show significant correlations with all six variables thrown into a single regression, except that evolutionary psychology had the opposite effect from what I predicted. When Rationality engagement is added to the regression it screens out some of the effect of religiosity on polyamory and most of the effect of consequentialism.
My hypotheses did a worse job explaining Rationality than they did polyamory. Only religiosity, consequentialism (massively so), and utopianism had a positive relationship with Rationality. When polyamory is included in the regression, overcoming intuition becomes significantly correlated in the opposite direction from what I predicted.
Bottom line: only religiosity and utopianism (despite the poorly written question) significantly correlate with both Rationality and polyamory when everything is thrown in the regression. Consequentialism is purely a proxy for Rationality, and accepting evolutionary psychology is a proxy for monogamy. Not accepting your intuitions and yes accepting weirdness are not correlated positively with Rationality engagement, which goes against my intuitions and is extremely weird to me.
More importantly, even when all the above variables are included Rationality and polyamory show a very strong correlation. Rationality engagement alone accounts for 9% of the variance in polyamory, and the six additional variables only contribute another 5% of variance explained between them. Whatever makes Rationalists poly or vice versa, we have not explained it yet.
San Francisco Bay
Since I published the survey, I happened to talk to two women who said that everyone they know in the San Francisco Bay Area is polyamorous. One of them moved to New York in part because she couldn’t find a monogamous boyfriend in SF, the other is polyamorous and still lives there.
Rationalists also happen to concentrate in Berkeley and the rest of the Bay Area, albeit for initial reasons that had nothing to do with polyamory. My survey didn’t ask whether people live in the Bay or not, and neither did any of the LessWrong surveys to my knowledge. I quickly ran an even-less-scientific Twitter poll with the following results:
I can’t match this poll to the original survey’s respondents, but the overall percentage of polyamorous respondents matches almost perfectly: 22% vs. 24% in the original survey. Living in the Bay is correlated with polyamory but not overwhelmingly so: 31% of Bay Area respondents are poly vs. 20% of respondents who live elsewhere. While this is quite a strong effect, geography also doesn’t suffice to fully explain the poly-Rat relationship.
Well, is Rationality a polyamorous cult then?
I included one question in the survey to measure the direct impact of Rationality engagement on polyamory, asking nonmonogamous people who or what opened them up to open relationships. I “independently invented” polyamory, and so did my wife and most of my poly friends. I know very few people who were convinced to try polyamory by their acquaintances, even fewer who were converted by something they read. Still, I decided to ask how people became polyamorous: whether they came up with it themselves or if they picked it up from friends (Rationalist or otherwise) or something they read (Rationalist or otherwise).
Holy poly. This chart blew my mind when it first rendered. I rechecked the data three times to make sure they’re correct. They are.
The percent of people who self-invent polyamory is roughly constant for all levels of Rationality engagement, and the percent of those who pick it up from non-Rationalist sources goes up only slightly. But three out of four highly-engaged Rationalist in my survey are polyamorous, and fully half of those had absorbed polyamory from other Rationalists — those are the expanding green bars/
My survey certainly oversampled polyamorous people, but I still have to conclude that engaging with Rationalists and Rationalist writing will at least double your chance of becoming polyamorous.
There’s no point fighting it anymore, and no reason to. Rationality is great and it will make your life better. Polyamory is great and it will make your life better. That may not be true for everyone, but I suspect that it’s true for a lot of you who are 4,000 words deep into a research post on a polyamorous Rationalist’s blog.
Go read Alicorn’s polyhacking story on LessWrong, and show up to a meetup in your nicest outfit. Or, you can stay right here. I’ll be your poly Rationalist media, with interviews and book reviews and dating tips. I’ll be your poly Rationalist friend, check out this page if you want to hang out in real life or ask me out on a date.
Give in. Join us. And remember — we’re not just a sex cult, we do other great things too!
39 thoughts on “Polyamory is Rational(ist)”
Re Story 2: Going in, I would’ve predicted a negative correlation. I would imagine that ones level of belief in evo psych is probably highly related to how applicable its predictions are to our own feelings/behavior. So someone who is unusually jealous seems like they would be more likely to think that evo psych is true, while someone who is unusually non-jealous might be more inclined to think it is inaccurate.
While being aware of your biases may help you overcome them, I don’t think it is a very strong effect comparatively. If someone is unusually jealous, it seems very unlikely they will be able to will themselves into being not jealous.
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Love the analysis!
Still… always struggle with survey questions. I find evo psych arguments compelling. I’ve only ever been in monogamous relationships, and believe that I prefer them. In my case though, it has nothing to do with jealousy. I have freely offered partners the option of non-monogamy in the past. I just don’t have the headspace available to manage multiple relationships. I imagine this is an unusual combo though.
I’m not a part of the Rational movement (though I was big in the skeptic movement for 10+ years), and I’ve only ever seen an interview with two evo-devo scientists who were also polyamorous. As someone who studies psychology (masters in mental health counseling and sex therapy) and is currently working on research regarding metamour relationships, I have mention that what I have seen from the evodevo people is completely ignoring the role of socialization and attachment in jealous feelings. In terms of clinically treating jealousy, I would never look at the things evodevo points to, I would instead focus on the attachment structure between the dyad experiencing the jealousy and go at it from an unmet intimacy needs, in both men and women. One of my biggest problems with evodevo is that it’s basically post-hoc rationalization with little science to back it up. I’d love to sit down with someone who is evodevo educated and understand more about their thinking, but I haven’t met one I liked.
Sorry, not evo-devo. I mean evo-psych.
Here’s my story for how rationalists make you poly:
Most people, in my experience, can be either poly or mono more-or-less happily. (Some people, of course, can only be happy while monogamous, and a smaller but still existent group can only be happy while poly.) These people usually are monogamous but sometimes wind up being poly because they meet a poly person and fall for them.
The problem is that poly and monogamy are asymmetrical. If you break up with your monogamous partner, you can easily become either mono or poly. If you break up with your poly partner, you likely have other partners you value and don’t want to break up with, so you’re going to stay poly.
So if a community has a certain concentration of poly people, we should expect it to gradually become majority poly, since monogamous people who can go either way often become poly, but poly people who can go either way rarely become monogamous.
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I like this model! Instead of evaporative cooling of group beliefs, you have condensation to group polyamory.
I think that the preference for mono or poly is not purely innate. I was very happy in monogamous relationships for the first 25 years of my life, happy in both for the next 5-6, but now I think I’ll remain staunchly polyamorous even if I end up single. Of course, I would never bet too much against changing my mind in the future, especially on a topic on which I’ve changed my mind so many times before.
Yes, that’s absolutely true! I’m oversimplifying a lot. :) But I do think it’s a real dynamic that poly is stickier than mono.
This is probably true for people between 18 – 34, but becomes less true as people age and decide to have children.
My impression is that having/wanting children causes a non-trivial amount of people to return to becoming mono.
poly mono is more of an orientation on a spectrum, much like sexuality. And like sexuality, it can vary over time, especially for those in the “middle” that are fine with either orientation. I am very much an the poly end, and I felt really confused and out of place in monogamy until I figured out that there was an other option. Once I was able to open up, I felt like I was finally not living a lie.
I’d be interested to see how children may effect poly relationships. It has NOT been my experience that they close people up. but I’m in the 40+ childless category, and I’m in a polyamory bubble, so my data set is likely skewed.
There’s no plausible way you could know that, since poly people are such a heavily self selected group. All the data I’ve seen regarding polyamory seems entirely in line with a majority of people not having the psychological makeup to be poly without significant jealousy/drama.
I’m very glad that you’re back with hard stats, and I really appreciated your curiosity-driven approach to investigating this issue. That being said, I disagree with some hypotheses and the final conclusion.
Before I list counterarguments and loose thoughts, can I kindly ask you to add a gender breakdown (cis-het men vs. cis-het women) of a correlation between the agreement with evolutionary psychology and practicing polyamory? This would be definitely the most interesting part of this study.
Polyamory might correlate with openness, extroversion and low neuroticism, the factors that make you generally more engaged in any communities (especially the more unusual ones, rewarding these tendencies). The “rationalist agenda” may not play such a huge causal role.
The most common failure mode of rationalist projects and discussions is trying to reinvent the wheel (see points 5 and 6: https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/07/04/some-clarifications-on-rationalist-blogging/). All the historical and contemporary data convince me that polyamory is like re-inventing the wheel in relationships: works rarely and/or temporarily, ending up badly in predictable ways. It’s like transgenderism: works poorly beyond a tiny percentage of people who are a really good fit for it, and it’s a very bad idea to adopt it as a default model.
Polyamorous people are known for being, on average, less attractive when compared to the general population. I believe it holds true for many poly rationalists (though I’m less convinced in this claim).
Many male rationalists are nerdy STEM/IT bros with relatively high salaries but severe love deprivation. This makes them particularly vulnerable to being subtly pushed into the roles of providers of resources and emotional reassurance (exchanged for being in non-exclusive, low-intensity relationships with mostly transactional affection and sex).
Polyamory works really poorly for many rationalists, but they rarely admit it publicly to avoid embarrassment and lower status in highly networked circles. I’m not going to disclose sensitive details that might be used to identify specific people, so just four vague examples:
a guy supposed to pay for not his child because his wife got pregnant with her boyfriend, and later declined to have an abortion (despite the prior agreement);
an exceptionally smart and farsighted guy who, despite being in an open marriage, still got divorced (most likely because his wife no longer found him exciting);
a guy accused of sexual harassment and publicly ostracized because he politely complimented a woman in an online conversation;
an STD outbreak involving people working on one project, participating in one poly arrangement.
Fun fact: users of r/polyamory are 9.5x more likely than the average Redditor to post and comment on a subreddit about divorces, 17x more likely on a subreddit dedicated to pacified incels, and 20x more likely on one dedicated to borderline personality disorder.
I would be very cautious with trying to affect our evolutionary background with highly uncertain System 2 considerations. This bears the same game-theoretic risks as pathologically self-sacrificial behaviors, like getting euthanized so that 10 other people can live thanks to your organs (doing so is valid from the consequentialist perspective, but most likely horrible within the social contractual order).
Surprisingly, women don’t make such consequentialist adjustments to their sexual strategy in order to offer attention, care, intimacy and affection to good-hearted, low-to-average status men. Why is it the case? Is it because men cooperate much more than women in repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma games (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001691817305917), or maybe because women’s automatic in-group bias is 4.5x as strong as men’s (http://doi.org/10.1037%2F0022-35220.127.116.114)?
The feasibility of affecting our evolutionary background through conscious efforts is another issue. Look at the case of step-parenthood, involving more or less the same mechanism of preventing paternity fraud as jealousy: https://twitter.com/robkhenderson/status/1174069562918277120
Do you really believe that polyamorous people, who are generally higher in sociosexuality, will voluntarily adhere to much stricter ethical norms going against their impulses, than mostly monogamous people in mostly monogamous cultures?
I stay by the point that “consensual non-monogamy/polyamory” is mostly a code word for a regressive, socially harmful practice of de facto polyandry. It is no coincidence that it largely overlaps with the conceptual bullying toolkit including the ideas of toxic masculinity, toxic monogamy, mansplaining/spreading, male gaze, or male privilege. This is a Molochian coordination trap arranged according to the feminine-primary imperative, exploiting male disposability, intrasexual competition, and a hardwired craving for closeness and intimacy.
Monogamous, long-term relationships have been cherished in so many different cultures for very good reasons.
Memento Chesterton’s fence, rationalists.
Thanks for your comment. I won’t reply to everything, just offer some thoughts.
I’ve shared my thoughts on “toxic” masculinity before. Shouldn’t you be in favor of efforts like mine to disentangle polyamory from the “bullying toolkit”?
Thanks for replying, Jacob. I do appreciate your noble intentions and how similar our fundamental moral views are, despite the major differences in implementation. It’s difficult to “actually change one’s mind” when a person invested so much in terms of lifestyle and identity into the conversation subject, and I’m certainly not exempt from this source of bias. At the same time, the converging evidence still makes me very confident that polyamory is a regressive, unsustainable, harmful practice.
1) Thanks, I’ll look into it: the interaction between evo-psych awareness and gender might be an important variable. Current studies suggest that more intelligent guys are, on average, more likely to value monogamy and sexual exclusivity (http://doi.org/10.1017/S0021932009003368). Futhermore, young men in polygynous groups feel that they are treated more unequally, and are readier to use violence compared to those in monogamous groups (https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002719859636).
2) Assuming that the rationalist diaspora includes 10-20 thousand people, there are approximately 1,600-3,200 poly men and 300-600 poly women. It’s a pretty low sample size and a polyandrous 3:1-10:1 sex ratio. I’ve listed just few (loud) cases of drama in (the core of) a (young) community (that happened in last few years). The information I have suggest that it doesn’t get any better in more dispersed rationalist circles. Remember, it’s a relatively isolated, hippie, high-IQ group obsessed with ethics and harnessing evolutionary impulses for the greater good. Polyamory doesn’t work well there, so imagine what it can do in the mainstream.
3) Obviously, human relationships are complex and countless variables interact with each other. But it shouldn’t make us disregard predominant trends that set up the incentive structures in favor of small sources of variance. I’m glad that your personal experience is good so far, but I have to prioritize coherent results of historical/cross-cultural studies, analyses of online spaces, compatible personal observations, as well as sociopolitical trends over the fragmentary anecdata that goes against all of them.
4) Are you sure we shouldn’t object to the raging bull (ehm..) smashing the monogamous fence? It will mean more STD outbreaks (in the age of antibiotic resistance), less stable family structures with risks inherent to step-parenthood, more cases of jealousy and status anxiety, more intrasexual male competition and stratification, and more logistics in an already complicated world with biased marriage/divorce/alimony laws. Is it all worth the hypergamous optimization under the New Polyandry? Even if we assume that men matter less and should be degraded to pariahs as soon as they’re not “allies”, would women be really happier in the long run, living in a divided and radicalized world, experiencing a global backlash from anywhere between 30 to 80% of monogamous men?
5) I appreciate the good intention, but it doesn’t change much. Polyamory, no matter if formally uncoupled from other conceptual weapons, serves the core goal of a feminine-primary imperative: disrupting the complex gender equilibria to maximize female agency at the cost of minimizing male agency.
Doubtful. Do you have a source for that? Most of what I’ve seen suggests that STI’s are not more common in poly relationships than in the general public.
No source provided for this claim either, but assuming that poly makes relationships less stable, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stability is not an end in itself, and a lot of what causes relationships to be stable is that people want to leave, but can’t for practical or emotional reasons. If polyamory enables people to leave relationships that aren’t serving them, I consider that a feature, not a bug.
More male competition? Maybe, but not necessarily. When women are permitted to date multiple men, it lowers the stakes of any competition. If you and I both want to date the same woman, we don’t have to compete with each other; we just have to be appealing to her independently. This is a big advantage polyamory has over the polygyny you cited.
Overall, your comment seems like it’s coming from a place of fear over some imagined “feminine-primary imperative.” Polyamory is not a conspiracy to keep men down. It’s just a preference that plenty of people (of all genders) have.
I never argued against small groups of people who practice assortative polyamory because they have a strong preference for such a relationship model. If it works for them and doesn’t harm the broader circles, then I’m glad that they can fulfill their needs. I’m against the mainstream adoption of polyamory as the “future of relationships”, its role in a broader ideological push, and the associated destabilization of beneficial incentive structures that try to coordinate gender dynamics.
I didn’t state that STI rates in ethical polyamory are higher than in case of unfaithful mono relationships or irresponsible casual dating – but they’re certainly higher compared to long-term monogamous relationships, a model which is still popular in the mainstream. People are imperfect and fail regularly, but the negative consequences of ethical failures in monogamous settings are usually easier to restrain (at least in case of safe sex). STIs now rise to record high (https://www.statista.com/chart/19597/total-reported-std-cases-in-the-us/), and we know how difficult it is to coordinate actions to stop their transmission in network structures (http://www.soc.duke.edu/~jmoody77/chains.pdf ) like polycules. As biological risks involving treatment resistance are considered potentially catastrophic, general caution seems justified and should not be considered as driven by some sort of prudish prejudice.
Yes, stability is a key component of the desired end state for many people – they want to feel secure, take a rest from competing on the dating market, be able to make long-term plans involving significant others, and rely on them when worse times come. Here are the costs of step-parenthood (https://twitter.com/robkhenderson/status/1174069562918277120) and divorce (https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/14/the-dark-side-of-divorce/). Nobody claims that people should be confined to dysfunctional relationships through some sort of overly strict and oppressive norms – but for most people and the society, the beneficial direction is to form long-term bonds with highly suitable matches who make reciprocated and roughly equal efforts to support each other, not making people easily replacable.
The data is pretty clear – it does mean more competition (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07418825.2016.1216153). Before the introduction of monogamous norms, women were at least two times more successful than men in terms of reproductive success, and that’s the default state of things. Men don’t appeal to women through some kind of nuanced interests and then “receive” an equal combination of attention, care, intimacy and closeness. There’s a reason why there are two male archetypes – a masculine bad guy vs. a nice provider, and you can instantly recognize who’s a sexy beast women want to tame (or at least share), and who’s a good boy providing resources and emotional reassurance. I’m not happy with this binary and restrictive pattern, but it is universal. We are not egalitarian bonobos, and all complaints should be direct to Mother Nature: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_pluralism
There’s no conspiracy, and the feminine-primary imperative is a technical term describing the prioritization of women over men in an ideological push exploiting the mismanaged gender dynamics. Given what we know about them and their outcomes under different circumstances, the modern mainstream push for non-monogamy can be considered as the relationship equivalent of “Women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat (…)”, “Fewer economically attractive to blame for marriage decline” or “1 in 4 homeless people are women”.
We already know that men who are not high in status are, by default, treated as disposable. They try to live with this not-so-pleasant realization. But if they complain about the things that make their standing even worse, it’s rather pointless to shame them as “fearful” or “insecure in their fragile masculinity”.
We could keep arguing about the separate points, but I think our disagreement ultimately boils down to whether you see romance as a cooperative or adversarial game.
You seem to be coming from the core assumption that ultimately, it’s about men versus women. In this world, everything is zero-sum, whatever is good for women must be bad for men and vice versa. I think this sometimes applies on evolutionary time scales (millions of years), though quite rarely on societal time scales (decades-centuries). In any case, it’s an incredibly misguided stance to bring to your own relationship choices.
How can you even make monogamy work with a woman while worrying about the “feminine-primary imperative”? My assumption is that the human-primary imperative is to build good relationships with good people; those who don’t share this imperative I can just ignore.
“So the fact that everyone keeps bringing up that one child and those 2-3 divorces as examples of poly drama is evidence that polyamory reduces drama and pain.”
So I have a friend that is polyamorous who has held multiple poly meetups and met more than 1000’s of poly people all over the country. This is what he told me(I used to be poly for 10 years, but am now monogamous and I will never in hell change my mind again):-
“Ran a poly meetup for many years in one of the largest metro area’s of the country. Met several thousands poly folks face to face over many years, had more personal conversations than I can remember, mentored more than I can remember, was a shoulder to cry on for more than I can remember. I would be careful even saying ‘plenty of poly / enm folks are blissfully happy’. The reality was seemingly few were, on the surface a lot of them looked great, everyone was happy. Behind the scenes there were a lot of issues, the vast majority of the time one partner was incredibly unhappy but put on a happy face for their partners. Seeing how horrible things were for most once you start to peal back the curtain, and how toxic the general community typically is caused me to finally stepped out of the public scene and just check reddit from time to time.
Everyone seems to relationship horribly, poly / enm folks seem to do even worse than mono folks imo. Most people can barely maintain career, a single relationship and a hobby, mix in kids and its a shit show. Try adding complex relationship dynamics and people just fuck everything up.”
So your claim that “everyone keeps bringing up that one child and those 2-3 divorces as examples of poly drama is evidence that polyamory reduces drama and pain.” is false. Divorce and children are only one aspect of drama and pain. When you consider other forms, the number skyrockets, the way my friend found out from his years of experience as a poly meetup host.
I feel like your sample is heavily selected for “at least one of rationalist, Aella fan, or evo psych fan”, which leaves you vulnerable to Berkson’s paradox on those variables. More broadly, maybe people are selected for being at least one kind of weirdo, which would tend to hide or reverse any correlations between the different weirdo-types. For example, if literally all respondents are weirdoes, and literally all rationalists are weirdoes, there will be no correlation between rationality and weirdness in your sample.
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The question about one’s belief in evo psych is a poor measure of whether the respondent credits psychological theories such as signaling. “Evolutionary psychology” is a tainted term, especially for progressives and feminists. 95% of the time internet discussion of evo psych is someone pushing shallow sexism. Is that the “true” evo psych? I don’t know, but it’s enough to give me a strong negative reaction to evo psych in general, even though I tend to agree with some evolution-informed theories of psychology.
“The scolds tell us that “Polyamory is for rich, pretty people” but while Rationalists are good looking, they’re not richer than the average American.”
I don’t think you know just how poor the average American is.
As far as I’ve read, people associated with the “rationality community” are significantly more likely than the rest of the population to have college degrees and particularly graduate degrees, and are disproportionately white/asian and male. All of those tend to be wealthier than the alternative.
If you actually click on the LessWrong survey, you’ll see that the median income for Rationalists is not that high compared to the American median. A lot of Rationalists are young and/or still in school, so even if they earn well for their age the majority are not quite rich.
I’m most shocked that less than 3% of the sample was gay. My top two hypotheses before reading the post were 1) Rationalists have greater openness to experience, and 2) Rationalists, being largely educated urbanites concentrated in areas like San Francisco, are far more gay than average, and gay men are like 50% oriented toward open relationships.
In my very limited experience, gay men practice open relationships, and have for a long time, but they don’t identify as polyamorous, for whatever reason. In most of the poly groups I’ve seen or been involved in, there are very few gay men participating. They have made their own culture of openness that doesn’t seem to have much overlap with “poly culture”.
(Couldn’t reply directly under your comment: https://putanumonit.com/2019/10/16/polyamory-is-rational/#comment-48569)
You know, I’m always happy to get my points dissected and be proven wrong. After all, it would be really nice if the polyamory trend resulted in less net misery and more net happiness, but I predict otherwise.
The point is, male and female intersexual strategies are inherently competitive and zero-sum. For one gender’s sexual strategy to succeed, the other gender must either compromise or abandon their own. Sperm is cheap, eggs are expensive. Men perform, women select. Women are driven by the fear of bearing and raising a child of a suboptimal male (“Is he the best I can get?”), men are driven by the fear of paternity fraud. Women are gatekeepers of sex, men are gatekeepers of commitment. In any relationship, the person with the most power is the one who needs the other the least. Again, small sources of variance do not affect the big picture. This is the evil game our evolutionary past pushed us into, and humanity should harness it based on the belief that all people are equally entitled to relationship fulfillment. All I argue for is this humanistic, corrective action being done properly.
The past 1,000 years of monogamy were a very imperfect – but in principle correct – attempt at finding the equilibrium point of these two strategies according to the “human-primary imperative”. Instead of improving this framework based on our expanded knowledge and taking modern life circumstances into account, polyamory takes a step closer to nature’s dark side. Just as monogamy attempted to aide men who would otherwise end alone as a genetic ballast, polyamory seeks to ensure that even the least conventionally attractive women are entitled to meet their needs with top-tier men of their choosing.
And by the way – it’s not about your individual choice between following either an enlightened worldview or evolutionary programming. It’s about the broad social consequences of applying a specific paradigm in a specific part of life, judged by consequences. Severe arachnophobia is evolutionarily hardwired, but it’s a maladaptive heuristic if your neighborhood is inhabited by non-venomous spiders. Monogamy might be perceived as an artificial social construct, but it did the job of restraining the suffering involved in following our unrestrained evolutionary proclivities.
My inside story is that I became poly(-ish) because my girlfriend was. If I was going to take the risk of losing her to another, I would have to hedge it by also dating others.
She isn’t a rationalist, btw.
I always figured it was an adaptation to the shortage of women in geek circles. With their mathematical bent and lack of regard for convention, the geeks came up with the obvious solution: let the women have multiple boyfriends!
Not being a redpill guy or traditionalist, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Everyone gets someone. Doesn’t seem that appealing to me, but whatever arrangements work for the people involved increase happiness, so why not?
Gender imbalance probably encourages the adoption of polyamory, but it’s not the determining factor. Everybody uses internet and can easily reach out to people beyond their community or neighborhood, and the proportion of men and women in general population is almost exactly 1:1.
Geeks didn’t come up with anything or “let the women” practice polyamory, which in its current version is a feminist invention. Hypergamy + Tinder + cultural shifts targeting men = women sharing a small percentage of most attractive guys to have sex with + offering some fleeting interest to “good men” for various favors (money, connections, emotional venting). In theory, polyamory is supposed to be more sophisticated and involve various configurations, but eventually dramas are frequent and very stereotypical. Even “woke” folks often admit how dissatisfying or even abusive a poly lifestyle tends to be.
‘Let’ was a bad choice of words; obviously the impetus came from the women, and the guys didn’t fight back for a variety of reasons. But I think you’ve cleared quite a bit up for me. Thanks!