“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!