Study: Men perceive polygamy as less troublesome than women

Men tend to perceive both polygyny — in which a man has more than one wife — and polyandry — in which a woman has more than one husband — as less troublesome than women, according to new research published in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences.

“I was watching a television news magazine story on the trial of a polygamist several years ago. As they were going to commercial, the reporter asked how severe a sentence the man should get if he is convicted. My thought was a fine or maybe a light jail sentence,” said study author David R. Widman of Juniata College.

“They cut to a women who in essence suggested something like lock ’em up and throw away the key.’ As an evolutionary psychologist, that intrigued me as our responses could be interpreted as consistent with parental investment theory; males would be interested in reproducing with as many females as possible while females should monopolize a male and his resources.”

“It took several years to get to test the ideas, but eventually when I went on sabbatical to Glenn Geher’s lab, we came up with the survey and collected the data we eventually published.”

In the study, 373 heterosexual college students read four stories about an individual convicted of polygamy. The stories varied in whether the convicted individual was a male or female, and whether there were children as a result of the marriage.

The researchers found that men, on average, thought the convicted individual deserved a lesser sentence and perceived the transgression as less severe compared to women.

Widman and his colleagues also found a relationship between life history strategy and men’s perceptions of polygamy.

According to life history theory, those faced with unpredictable childhoods tend to develop a fast life strategy that emphasizes insecure attachments, immediate gratification, and risky behaviors. Those with a more stable childhood, on the other hand, tend to develop a slow life strategy that emphasizes long-term goals, greater investments, and reduced aggression.

The researchers found that men with slower life strategies tended to view polygamy as more troublesome than those with faster life strategies. “This is consistent with life history theory which suggests that men with slow life histories engage in dad strategies, desiring fewer partners and investing more in offspring,” the authors explained in the study. But life history strategy did not appear to have an influence on women’s perceptions of polygamy.

Both men and women with a greater preference for uncommitted sexual relationships, on the other hand, tended to view polygamy as less troublesome.

“I think that the takeaway for the average person is that men and women can have very different expectations regarding mating and dating behavior and that some of these differences may be due to our species evolutionary history,” Widman told PsyPost.

“One caveat is that we only asked college students who were predominantly from the United States (there were probably a stray foreign exchange student in the sample, but not very many). Not only are these participants WEIRD (western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries), but they come from a culture that does not legally allow or culturally approve of polygamy. We are currently trying to see if can gain access to a population where polygamy is legal and culturally acceptable.”

The study, “Punishment of hypothetical polygamous marriages“, was authored by David R. Widman, Melvin M. Philip, and Glenn Geher.