Originally posted at Living Within Reason.

Last week, Jacob Falkovich, of the Putanumonit blog, put up a post trying to figure out why rationalists are disproportionately polyamorous. He notes that about 5% of Americans engage in consensual nonmonogamy, while 17% of Americans in the 2014 Less Wrong survey indicated that they did. My expectation is that the number for both is slightly higher today. In service of this goal, Falkovich developed several theories and surveyed a number of his readers. His results ended up inconclusive.

Since this involves the intersection of the two themes of this blog – rationality and nonmonogamous relationships – I thought I would offer my own theories about why this might be the case. I don’t have any survey data, but if anyone is planning on doing a survey, you may want to include some questions evaluating these theories.


Rationalist try to be rational about everything, so we also try to be rational about relationships. Relationship anarchy is my attempt to derive a rational relationship style from first principals.

While there are some good reasons to be monogamous, anecdotally, the most common justifications I hear for monogamy are jealousy-related. People don’t want open relationships because they would be jealous of their metamours (and often, their partners). But jealousy is just an emotion, and rationalists have a tradition of distrusting emotions. Falkovich somewhat addressed this in his first theory – 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.

Unfortunately, Falkovich’s analysis is frustrated by the lack of variance in his survey data on whether people overcome their intuitions. I have a feeling that this result was limited somewhat by the survey questions, which asked participants to rate how much they trusted their intuitions and whether they ever significantly changed their emotions through analysis and introspection.

The difficulty is that there are a whole host of cognitive biases encouraging us to believe that yes, of course we trust our cognition more than our intuition, but that can easily just be motivated reasoning. Some people will admit that they “go with their gut,” but that sort of thing is frowned on in the rationality community, so it doesn’t surprise me that most of the participants claimed to trust their cognition more regardless of whether that’s actually the case.

The small amount of variance in Falkovich’s survey was highly correlated with polyamory, so that lends some credibility to the argument that rationalists choose polyamory because they do not reflexively trust their feelings of jealousy.


If you spend enough time around my rationalist friends, they will start talking about prisoner’s dilemmas. It’s inevitable. Scott Alexander has a whole game theory sequence. Rationalists love game theory, and in particular, they love coming up with coordination strategies to turn things from zero-sum to positive-sum games.

Monogamy is a zero-sum game. Each person gets one partner, and once that partner is taken, they are removed from the dating pool for everyone else. There is no sharing, coordination, or trading. There are no complicated strategies that can be optimized. In other words, it’s not interesting to rationalists.

Nonmonogamy, properly coordinated, is a positive-sum game. Multiple people can partner with the same person and unless they always want undivided attention at the exact same times, they can coordinate so everyone is better off. Nonmonogamy allows parties to, for example, have a date with one partner while their other partner is busy, spend time with multiple partners at the same time, and coordinate to compensate for imbalances in sex drive. Parties rarely want exactly the same thing from their partners, so there are usually large opportunities for emotional arbitrage.

I strongly suspect that this impulse toward coordination and creating positive-sum interactions underlies a substantial amount of rationalists’ preferences for nonmonogamy.


On Falkovich’s survey, 78% of the respondents where heterosexual men. 11% were women interested in men. That’s a 7:1 ratio. Other surveys of the rationalist community have indicated similar gender and sexuality breakdowns.

In the Robert Heinlein novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the moon is originally used as a penal colony, and as a result has a population that is mostly men and few women. The result is that, out of necessity, the society developed to allow women to date multiple men. When there are multiple heterosexual men for each woman interested in dating them, you either have nonmonogamy or you have a lot of lonely men.

A similar thing may be happening with the rationalist community. It’s not the moon, so rationalists are free to date outside of the community, but people often want to date like-minded people. Most rationalists would probably prefer to date other rationalists. Rationalist women likely have multiple suitors all the time, and may find more than one appealing. Unless they are particularly high-status, rationalist men then face the choice of embracing nonmonogamy, dating outside the community, or not dating at all. Notable also is that most of the high-status men in the rationalist community are nonmonogamous. Under those constraints, nonmonogamy may be the ideal choice for many of us.

Further Study

Ozy is currently recruiting nonmonogamous survey participants. If you are nonmonogamous, please consider taking the survey. I have never done any kind of survey design, so I do not know how one would test the above theories. However, if someone is planning on doing a survey of the rationalist community and is interested in this question, I encourage you to consider the above and perhaps try to design some questions to test its accuracy.

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overcoming intuitions

I absolutely hate this phrase and everything it represents.

Re, reasons for polyamory.

One obvious explanation (or at the very least contributing factor) is network effects. Rationality started with a polyamorous founder, which could create a starting condition to seed experimentation with poly. I conjecture that the more of your romantic prospects that are polyamorous, the more likely you are to be poly.

My own experience was that I was poly before finding the rationality community, which points to a common factor that cause both, but on a group level it could just as easily be based on the initial starting conditions.

I'll add that I also wouldn't consider that phrase much to do with rationality, and more to do with following orders or something.

In general, I try to understand where intuitions/urges/desires come from, and then often either they dissolve because they're not actually helping me get what I want, or else they're strengthened by my realising they're helping me get what I want, and then there's nothing to overcome. I don't say to myself "I don't understand my desire for X, so let me push it down / bottle it up internally". 'Overcoming' is often not a useful frame for reasoning when you're confused about your internal processes.

I would think it a bad approach to polyamory to be constantly feeling angry/jealous/threatened by what's happening in your romantic relationships, but keeping practising ignoring it until you're numb to that part of yourself. I think the better thing is to practice asking that part of you why it feels that way, see if you can understand its motivation, and practise helping it look at whether the world is really something you should be scared about, or whether it in fact achieves your goals quite well. If you get the practise of dissolving the intuition to a fast speed, then the feelings of anger and being threatened will go away; if you do not, then this is a reason to not be polyamorous.

(My guess is that Jacobian doesn't feel much of the above emotions, or else that he did but successfully dissolved the feelings enough to no longer feel those emotions. Nonetheless I wanted to explain why 'overcoming intuitions' didn't feel like a good pointer to rationality.)

I used both "questioning intuitions" and "overcoming intuitions" in my own article, and both very much refer to what you wrote: understanding where they come from, dissolving when they're not useful. I probably should have chosen a better vocabulary. By "questioning" I mostly meant the *inclination* to even doubt one's intuitions, and by "overcoming" I meant the *ability* or *skill* at behaving in ways that go against your initial reaction (whether because the intuition is dissolved or overridden). I did not mean "overcoming intuition" to mean the normative stance that intuitions should be discarded willy-nilly or numbed, just the ability to do something about them.

overcoming intuitions

I absolutely hate this phrase and everything it represents.

Very much seconded!

Yeah, I think the data in Jacob's post supports network effects as a more likely explanation than common factors.

I absolutely hate this phrase and everything it represents.


Intuitions are not something to be overcome.

Why not?
I'm sorry if I'm being dense, but my understanding is that this community's main focus is fixing the issues that human intuitions have. All it takes is a relabeling of "bias" with the word "intuition" to describe this process as "overcoming intuition". Is that not what the phrase stands for? Or, a more specific guess, does it stand for a specific variant of rationality in which the whole intuition really is what you try to overcome?

(Or, yet another alternative, do you disagree with this community's main stated goal? This isn't my main guess because it looks like you're a fairly prevalent and popular participant here, neither of which I would expect for somebody with fringe views.)

All it takes is a relabeling of "bias" with the word "intuition" to describe this process as "overcoming intuition".

Words do not work like that.

The word "bias" has a meaning: patterns of thought that systematically veer away from the path of finding the truth. The word "intuition" has a different meaning: beliefs for which we cannot articulate our reasons. These are different things. All four segments of the Venn diagram are nonempty.

Call a dog's tail a leg, and it won't make the dog able to walk on it.

I'm starting to feel frustrated (and confused) by this conversation, because it feels to me like people are responding to something other than what I'm saying. Let me try to clarify what I'm getting at.

As far as I know, this conversation began on Put A Num On It, where Jacob used the phrase "overcoming intuition" as a name for one of his hypotheses about why rationalists are more polygamous than others. He says:

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.

So it seems to me that he was trying to bind the phrase "overcoming intuition" to the idea of overcoming the tight grip that intuitions hold over most people. Not throwing out all of our intuitions' conclusions (I completely agree that that would be bad) but rather getting our intuitions under control so that we don't just automatically obey them at every turn.

Do you agree that this is what Jacob meant by the phrase? Separately, do you agree that this is a reasonable thing to do?

Since I am confused, I will generate some hypotheses about what's going on:

  • I have completely misunderstood Jacob's intent for what the phrase means.
    • Evidence in favor of this hypothesis: This is going to sound sulky, but I cross my heart that I'm just trying to be a good rationalist: I seem to be the one with the less popular opinion here. Obviously it might just be the case that I really do have an unpopular opinion, but it's also exactly what you'd expect to see if I was on a different page than everybody else about what we were talking about.
  • Others are jumping into the conversation late and are not aware of the commentary given about the phrase by the person who wrote it.
    • Evidence in favor of this hypothesis: The comment at the top of this chain says "I absolutely hate this phrase and everything it represents", but I don't see why OP would feel so strongly about "the willingness to entertain the idea that your intuitions about truth may be wrong", which is what the phrase is being used to represent here. This makes me think that the phrase represents something other than that to OP.
  • Before I joined the site, there was some divide between people who really did think that we should throw out all of our intuition's conclusions and people who did not acknowledged that sometimes correct conclusions could have illegible conclusions, and people responding to this comment chain are thinking of that divide when they profess their hatred of the phrase "overcoming intuition".
    • Evidence in favor of this hypothesis: Even though I pointed out that Jacob was using the phrase to mean a certain thing, two different people have insisted that the phrase really means something different. That makes me think that the phrase has a history in this community.
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.

This is true (broadly).

it seems to me that he was trying to bind the phrase "overcoming intuition" to the idea of overcoming the tight grip that intuitions hold over most people

This is true.

Since I am confused, I will generate some hypotheses about what's going on

Solid attempt, but none of your hypotheses explaining the confusion are correct.

The problem is that Jacob picked a term which has very different connotations than his attempted binding.

As a toy example, if I picked the word "murder" to refer to "saving a life", then people would rightly object to me going around saying "Murder is the most important thing that we should do. Murder is good!" because the connotation everyone else has is very different.

Similarly, Jacob picked 'the idea that your intuitions about truth may be wrong' and called it 'overcoming intuitions'. If I were to take 'the idea that your teacher's beliefs about science may be wrong' and call it 'overcoming education', or if I were to take 'the idea that your friends' beliefs about the world may be wrong' and call it 'overcoming friendship', this would be a bit confusing - it's important to build a more nuanced relationship with these things, learn how to trust them, how to get value out of them, and also how to deal with them when they're mistaken in a way that doesn't throw them out entirely - like the phrase 'overcoming friendship' would imply, which sounds to me like not having friendships because they might lead you to have false beliefs.

Indeed, I think that 'overcoming intuitions' does suggest a much more adversarial relationship with intuitions than seems healthy to me, and is indeed a common relationship people have ("Oh no, the teacher told me the right answer, but I don't understand it and feel like the other answer is right. I wish I could overcome my intuitions.")

The disagreement here was sort of at two levels - people were objecting to the connotations of 'overcoming intuitions', and weren't sure whether Jacob agreed with them about the underlying matter but had picked unfortunate words, or disagreed with them about the underlying matter and had picked terms that he definitely intended. And so overall people wanted to say "This phrase is bad and I don't like what it represents".

Added: I actually have a sense this is a problem many people get from the phrase "Overcoming Bias". They label their intuitions as "biased" and then start trying to "overcome their intuitions", which is counterproductive. The correct way to overcome bias is an increased understanding of intuitions, not throwing them out.

Ahh, I see. Thanks for this analysis, now I see where the posts above mine were coming from.

Note that this is exacerbated by the fact that the original questionnaire Jacob used to gather this data further implied the adversarial relationship between cognition and intuition.

Happy to hear :)

I hadn't read the Putanumonit posting, but now that I have, I think he's going down the same wrong road. There's a presumption throughout his opening paragraphs that intuitions are by default wrong, that they are obstacles to reaching the truth that should be dissolved. In his third paragraph he slides between intuitions and biases as if the two are interchangeable, and emotions as well. Jealousy and possessiveness are to be overcome: it's against the rules of this game to reach the conclusion that they are valuable.

Oh, I see. Reading through his post again, I think I actually agree with you that Jacob was conflating the two. Thanks for clarifying, the whole conversation seems reasonable now.


Try relabelling intuitions as priors. You can't reject all intuitions because you can't have an epistemology that starts from nothing.

The field is actually called heuristics and biases. Intuitions represent both. Trying to overcome them rather than understand and use them is a naive and counterproductive view of rationality.

do you disagree with this community's main stated goal?

The closet thing we have to a stated goal for this community is on the about page: We are a community dedicated to improving our reasoning and decision-making. We seek to hold true beliefs and to be effective at accomplishing our goals. More generally, we work to develop and practice the art of human rationality.

The word bias doesn't appear in that stated goal and there are reasons for it not appearing in it. There's a little discussion of bias in the sequences that were written a decade ago but the concept of bias is used relatively little today.

Concepts such as internal double crux that rely on intuition are more central to the cutting edge ideas of this community about how to go about improving our reasoning and decision-making.

Yet another factor: Nerds are usually worse at lying and other social skills.

Therefore a nerd would consider polyamory in a situation where a non-nerd would be like "I can simply cheat on my spouse, why make it unnecessarily complicated".

In other words, don't just compare consensual nonmonogamy" but also nonmonogamy in general. If the numbers for nonmonogamy in general are more similar, it can mean that rationalists are less likely to lie about their behavior; that the more frequent thing is not nonmonogamy but consent.

Maybe? It doesn't square with my personal experience, at least. I went through the usual spiel with someone last night, without knowing whether that was going to be a deal breaker, and I very easily could have avoided that problem, because (1) I'm a good liar, or at least I was back when I let myself do it, and (2) this person and my SO live in totally different cities and run in completely different social circles, so an alternate version of me who's willing to cheat and lie would have no reason to think that keeping this particular secret would be hard to do.

On the other hand, my father lied a lot and much of who I am today is basically An Attempt At Being Not-Him, so I might have a Weird Reluctance To Lie for reasons other than "am a nerd."

Monogamy isn't zero sum because not everyone is an equally good partner for everyone else. Like, Alice can date Bob or Carol, and leave the other one single. It's unlikely that dating either of them is equally good for her; and it's unlikely that dating her is equally good for each of them; so there's probably a single outcome with the highest total utility.

By that definition nothing is zero sum. "Zero sum" doesn't mean that literally all possible outcomes have equal total utility; it means that one person's gain is invariably another person's loss.

Wikipedia disagrees with you: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum_game

a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant's gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.

Emphasis mine.

(By your definition, it seems to me that almost everything would be zero sum. If I bake a tasty cake for my friends, and that causes one of them to not visit the bakery that evening, the baker has lost out. More generally, see my post "Pareto improvements are rarer than they seem": https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/5AQBNwDoKW5YXDbvc/pareto-improvements-are-rarer-than-they-seem)

One important aspect that wasn't mentioned was openness for experience. Joining a community that's different from the status quo filters for the personality trait of openness to experience.

If you take a different community with is partly engaging in personal development and full of people with a lot of openness to experience like the Circling community I would expect that it has similar rates of polyamory.


But jealousy is just an emotion, and rationalists have a tradition of distrusting emotions. Falkovich somewhat addressed this in his first theory – overcoming intuitions:

Rationalists should also regard emotions and intuitions as things that probably evolved for a reason... they're not necessarily true, but they're not necessarily false.