Why monogamy is ridiculous

Dan Savage, aka the American Savage thinks monogamy is ridiculous. I agree to the extent that he’s talking about the life-long, one-person, you’re-the-one fantasy that those ultimate purveyors of the unattainable, Disney, are so fond of propagating.

“‘Till death do us part” is one of the most horrible ideas ever conceived. I put it up there with the “one true god” idea. If your religion precludes the acceptance of other religions, it’s not a huge step to go from “You are wrong” to “You’re a heretic,” because your standards have narrowed so greatly. Likewise, I wonder how many people have tossed aside a great relationship because it wasn’t like the one Alladin and the Princess had.

Anyway, here’s the America Savage to tell you more:

Here’s his book too if this has piqued your interest:

How to dance according to science (includes videos!)

The theory of sexual selection proposes that certain traits evolved due to the preference of the other gender. These preferences may evolve because the trait is an indicator or genetic fitness, for example through being related to better health. Random genetic mutations that lead an individual to better display this trait are make that person “sexier” to the other sex, and hence the gene is more likely to make it into the next generation.

T1000 Getting jiggy with it. John Connor, get down!!

Many such traits are physical characteristics, as we’ve discussed before, but research on numerous species suggests that certain variations in movement patters can also be “sexy,” particularly when displayed by males and preferred by females, as seen in some birds, ungulates and crustaceans, for instance.

We humans seems to use this fitness indicator too — married couples dance together by tradition, strippers dance instead of just standing there taking their clothes off, and I’ve never heard someone say that they don’t want a partner whose a good dancer! So maybe dance serves to indicate beneficial traits in humans too? A study from 2010 tested this idea.


A problem with testing this scientifically are certain confounds that tend to go along with good dancers. For example, if you got a load of people to dance in front of participants, then asked them to rate the dancers’ attractiveness, things like facial attractiveness, clothing or height might get in the way.

To isolate the effect of dancing alone, the researchers had males dance for 30 seconds using a motion-capture system. The movements were then mapped onto an avatar, a faceless humanoid shape that kind of looks like the T1000 from terminator two when it’s in the liquid metal mode. Females then rated the avatars on their dancing quality.

The best dancer

The results indicated that the following are preferable to females in a male dancer:

• Variability and amplitude of movements in the head, neck and trunk
• Faster leg movements
• Move and quicker right knee bending and twisting

Here’s the good dancer:

I know, it looks ridiculous to me too. Here’s the bad dancer:

These are really only preliminary results, and more tests need to be done to test this type of movement. Then it’s necessary to figure out if and how these particular movements could be signals of fitness and health. But in the mean time, now you know what to do on the dance floor!

And here’s (kind of) an attempt by a YouTuber to reenact the good dancer. He seems to have thrown a few of his own moves in, making it only slighty cheesier…

Is marriage unnatural?? – the hypothesis

As a long-term bachelor, I might be a little bit biased about this, but I recently got the idea that marriage is an unnatural and unfulfilling strategy for most people. On further reflection and reading, I thought, why stop at marriage? and included monogamy generally.

I thought about this for a while and came up with a phrasing for my hypothesis:

“Marriage/monogamy goes against our nature, and unless it is enforced externally, will end in failure except in the odd occasional case.”

I’m going to explore this topic and report the findings here, although smaller facts and stuff will go in the Q&A section before being compiled.

Which group are you in? (Credit: GEEKSTATS)

Now first, let me define the terms:

  • Marriage/lifelong monogamy – When I use these terms I’m talking about life long/long term commitment to a single partner. So if one partner cheats, then by my definition, that’s not monogamy (see failure, below). I’m not sure how serial or short-term monogamy fits in, that might be a kind of exception. But certainly, this idea of “The one”, “true love” and all that, is what I’m referring to here, the very kind we’re brainwashed with in movies and songs all year round. And don’t think the old “There are lots of ‘ones‘” argument counts, because even if you accept that there are many compatible people out there, that line still implies lifelong commitment to one of them.
  • Unnatural – Unnatural, against our nature; these are slippery terms, and it’s not necessarily safe to talk about human nature outside of a cultural context. For instance, it’s in our nature to gorge on fat and sugar when it’s available. For a tribal culture in the Savannah, this is excellent; it helps you get those crucial calories. But in a society with easy access to junk food, people get fat. Likewise, what I’m proposing is that it’s in our nature to seek multiple sexual and/or romantic partners, and that this causes problems in a society that puts monogamy and “true love” on a pedestal.
  • Enforced externally – Through law, superstition, social stigma, or other forces.
  • Failure – As you know, mono means one. With poly we have two terms – polygamous (multiple marriages), and polyamory (multiple partners, no marriage). If someone in a marriage cheats, that’s polyamory, and a point in favour of the hypothesis. Divorces generally are a point in favour, but that’s a pretty deep topic for just now. Also, I say marriages may work if enforced, but if an enforced marriage is not a fulfilling one for both parties, I’m also classing that as failure, because if it wasn’t enforced it probably would end (and if enforced marriages are unsatisfying, that’s a point in favour of the unnatural argument above).

Answers to some expected questions you might have:

Mongamy, polygamy, marriage, blah blab blah. Aren’t you just splitting hairs/arguing over semantics?

No. I’ll explain why later.

My parents/grandparents/friends/pet albatrosses have been in a committed relationship for all their lives monogamously and harmoniously. Ha! Take that mister! You’re wrong!

Firstly, if you know of someone who has been in a committed, loving, lifelong, monogamous relationship (that is, no affair by either party), GREAT. I’m NOT saying it never happens, nor am I saying it’s not a beautiful thing when it does happen. I’m just saying, these cases are outliers, and the cases where there wasn’t some external enforcement of the relationship are rarer still.

Secondly, I could be wrong, which is why I’m going to look into it and write about it on the blog as I do.

Finally, I’m NOT saying marriages that aren’t monogamous can’t work, nor that a marriage in which one partner cheats is unsuccessful by definition. Quite the opposite in fact, as you’ll see…

You asshole. You have threatened my belief system and I am deeply offended. What gives you the right to question the status quo like this?

If you’re offended or upset by what you’re read so far, I strongly suggest you don’t read this blog from now on; I might turn out to be right!

I have data/opinions/a story in support of/refuting this hypothesis, would you like me to share it with you?

Yes please, either email me or leave a comment.

Science unwittingly helps future online daters

One huge criticism of almost all research on attractiveness is the low ecological validity of the studies. In psychology there’s a trade-off that researchers have to make when designing studies – do they tightly control the variables to make sure as few unknown factors are influencing the results as possible, or do they control as little as possible, keeping the test closer to real life but being less sure about what is actually causing the results?

This is ecological validity, the former example is low ecological validity, the latter is high. In attraction research, a lot of studies are done by taking a participant into a room, showing them pictures of men or women, and asking to rate their attractiveness on a 1-10 scale or similar. In fact, sometimes line drawings are used rather than actual pictures of people!

There are loads of issues here. For example, 2d pictures leave out bodylanguage, voice tone, how people move, mannerisms, how they look at you, how close they stand to you, and so on. The good scientists are merely trying to take these things out of the equation, so they know the effect of visual appearance alone, or some aspect of visual appearance. But then the studies cannot say whether any effects found would still hold when these other factors are in play. Maybe visual factors, important when judging a 2d image, are far less important in more natural settings, maybe they aren’t important at all.

So I judge them very carefully – it’s good that they are consistent with the theories in question (which they generally are), but I’d like to see the hypotheses put on the line a little more, because they don’t reflect real situations.

But do they?

Advertisers probably would value from such information, but there’s another situation where judgements of 2d images have real life application – online dating sites! You could feasibly use this research to increase your “hit rate” on sites like match.com, eHarmony, and the rest of them.

I’ll try to compile some of this research and come up with some suggestions.

Science and dating – don’t always mix. (xkcd)

Sex and Death

Sex and death; these aren’t topics that tend to appear in the same article, I grant you. But you’ll be pleased to know it’s not actual death we’re concerned with here; but it is actual sex, which I presume you’ll also be pleased to know.

Mortality salience means the extent to which you are aware that life is finite and someday you will die. Obviously this is a fluid concept, and it can be increased just by bringing up the topic, such as I have just done – your mortality salience has now increased. You’re welcome.

Mortality salience has an interesting effect on people. When reminded of death, people tend to deepen their identification with cultural symbols, as though they are trying to latch on to things that are more permanent than they are. It’s called Terror Management Theory, and some interesting results have come up; when reminded of death, people are less likely to deface flags and crosses, and people in capitalistic societies become more materialistic. But what’s the relationship between sex and death?

Credit: Micky the pixel

Well clearly it would depend on the relevance and meaning that sex (and death, presumably) holds for people. Tests of this would be expected to come out differently in different cultures and for different people.

In one test, researchers reminded participants of their mortality, and then asked them if they would – hypothetically – be likely to have a casual fling with someone. The men said they would, the women said they wouldn’t, on average. Then a second test was done, with different people. This time, the participants were asked if they would want sex following a romantic date, and both genders were up for it.

That ties in pretty nicely with the socially accepted sexual behaviours of the genders (the old “A man can sow his oats freely but a woman gets labelled a slut” things), and also evolutionary ideas of the different mating strategies for men and women.

But there is a big criticism here, which I’ll be returning to again and again with the research on dating, sex, relationships and attraction in psychology – the test was not a real situation! Scientifically speaking, the study says nothing about what people would actually do, only what they say they would do. This limitation has particularly strong ramifications in this particular design.

Think about this for a moment. Terror management theory predicts that people will fall into their cultural roles when people are reminded of their own mortality. So how do we know that, for example, women are not falling into the cultural role of not talking about having one nights stands, especially with someone who is stood there with a clipboard, recording it for all eternity? The very theory being tested seems to deepen the response biases of the participants, particularly the women.

So is there a link between sex and death salience? Although these results are consistent with that, I think it’s premature that start using “You’re going to die!” as your new chat up line!

BIRNBAUM, G., HIRSCHBERGER, G., and GOLDENBERG, J. (2011). Desire in the face of death: Terror management, attachment, and sexual motivation.