Today’s mail bag question deals with the ethics of the mental model called assortative mating. This refers to the phenomenon whereby individuals choose to engage in relationships with others who are like themselves (positive assortative mating) or dissimilar (negative assortative mating). There are strong economic arguments that the perceived rise in income inequality is due to assortative mating patterns following the introduction of women in the workforce. Some scientists believe that assortative mating is responsible for the rise of Autism in Silicon Valley.
The topic is fascinating due to its second and third order effects on every aspect of our society and civilization, such as the insistence upon certain family bloodlines of negative assortative mating to reduce the probability of genetic defect for recessive traits, such as Tay-Sachs disease in the Ashkenazi Jew population or positive assortative mating, such as a wealthy family insisting on children marrying into other wealthy families to preserve culture, connections, and capital.
Dear Mr. Kennon,
The way you explain decision trees and rational thinking has helped revolutionize my life. I know you might not get a chance to answer my question because you receive so many letters but I am wondering about a touchy subject.
You seem to believe in a free, fair, open society. You give a lot of money away to support causes of equality, poverty, and religious freedom. With that said, what are your thoughts on assortative mating, which you’ve mentioned in passing on the site?
Recently, the biggest sperm bank in the United Kingdom announced that it would no longer accept donations from red-headed men because there was no demand from clients for “ginger” children.
I’m interested in your thoughts on the more controversial aspects of assortative mating … stuff like: Is it racist to only date members of a specific race? Is it wrong to serosort as blogger Trevor Hoppe says (that is when an HIV negative person refuses to even consider dating or sleeping with an HIV positive person)? Is it wrong to only date those who have money? Is it wrong for a man to refuse to date someone who was born transgender? Are there limits to what is acceptable to assortative mating patterns or should be just consider it part of the human genetic code?
What are the ethics of relationships? How does discrimination play into choosing a spouse?
Please keep writing. You have no idea the influence your works have had on many of us.
I saw the news story to which you refer. The Telegraph in the United Kingdom wrote a story detailing how the world’s largest sperm bank has started turning down redheaded donors due to a lack of demand for their sperm.
Human emotional and reproductive behavior when it comes to a relationship is incredibly complex. When meeting someone new and considering whether or not you want to grow old with them (which is, after all, the purpose of dating for a vast majority of the population), you are going to consciously or subconsciously sum up potential on a wide range range of suitability points that are intensely personal to you based upon your own desires, background, beliefs, and happiness. These may include:
- Family background
- Social behaviors
- Political beliefs
- Geographic location
- Health status
- Reproductive fitness
- Social network
The Searching Phase and the Commitment Phase of Assortative Mating
Broadly speaking, let’s look at the two extremes of romantic relationships: The beginning, searching phase and the ending, commitment phase.
The Searching Phase is when you are looking for someone to whom to make a commitment for the rest of your life. At this point it is all about what you want. If you like aggressive, driven, successful, well-educated people who enjoy debating philosophy and spending time at museums and classical music concerts, it would make no sense for you to try to date an unsuccessful, drug-addicted, high-school drop-out who lives with his parents and listens to hard rock. At this point, you should have no concern other than finding a compatible match that will have you and that meets your criteria.
The Commitment Phase is when you have actually taken the “till death do us part” vows. Once you’ve entered this territory, the rules change. An oath should mean something. If your otherwise successful spouse loses a job, develops cancer, and struggles to survive, that’s what “in sickness and in health” and “for richer or poorer” means. If you’re not willing to live up to those standards, don’t get married.
Your Question Isn’t Really About Assortative Mating, Serosorting or Racial Dating Patterns
Restating your question, you are asking, “Is it acceptable to discriminate, arbitrarily or not, when it comes to the person with whom you choose to date and sleep during the searching phase?”. One useful technique when confronting a question that might have strong emotional reactions is to apply the underlying premise to different areas that are roughly comparable. In this case, you could do that by answering the following questions:
- Do you believe that attractive, in-shape people who prefer the same should be required to sleep with out-of-shape people to spare the feelings of the latter?
- Do you believe that men who prefer redheaded women should be required to sleep with blonds and brunettes occasionally to prevent the latter from feeling undesirable?
- Do you believe that attractive high school girls over the age of consent should be required to sleep with old, retired men to make the latter feeling young and desirable again?
- Do you believe that a black man who finds Asian women attractive should be required to sleep with women of his own race occasionally despite having no desire to do so?
- Do you believe that a homosexual man should be required to sleep with one of his heterosexual female friends occasionally to make the latter feel desirable and wanted?
- Do you believe that it is irrational for someone who prefers tall people to only date tall people? Should they be required to date someone shorter than them from time to time to be “fair” to the general population?
- Do you believe that a devoted Christian should be required to date a Muslim? How about a Jew or Buddhist?
- Do you believe it is fair that men often refuse to marry or commit to women who have large debts?
What you are really asking relates to the question we tackled in Does Focusing On Your Own Happiness Make You Selfish? You are trying to figure out if personal desires should be subject to community standards of fairness. To me, the answer is clear and unequivocal: No. When it comes to finding a spouse during the searching phase, it is all about finding someone who meets your own needs and wishes and for whom you, likewise, do the same.
Racism, Gingerism, and Medical Discrimination in Assortative Mating
Given my life and career, I come in contact with a lot of different people. These people often open up to me as if we’d known each other for decades. It is a fairly normal scenario for a waitress at a restaurant to begin telling me about her credit card debt problems or a casual business acquaintance to confess things about his love life to which most people wouldn’t admit. One told me it was because my brain wiring made me the intellectual equivalent of a priest. I analyze, repackage, process, and frame situations better than most people. Instead of then suggesting penance or prayers, I lay out options and opportunity costs.
In the past five years, here are just a few of the confessions that involve assortative mating:
- A successful man was dating a red-headed, freckled girl for years. He decided to break off the relationship as it became more serious. He gave the woman an excuse that seemed reasonable but the real reason, which he wouldn’t admit to anyone else, was that he “didn’t want a chance his kids were born ginger.”
- A college-educated black woman with strong Christian values always made excuses to not date work colleagues but the real reason was she wanted to marry a successful black man that shared her religious beliefs. She had no interest in white, Asian, or hispanic men.
- A moderately successful man dumped a woman he would have otherwise married because she earned more money than he did. “If I can’t be the provider, I don’t want to get married.”
- A man refused to consider dating a girl he liked because her family had a history of breast cancer and he said it was virtually a guarantee she would get the disease at some point in her life, or at the very least, his daughters would, and he didn’t want to deal with it or take that risk.
It doesn’t matter if you think these beliefs are rational or irrational. It doesn’t even matter if you think this behavior is good public policy or not. What counts is that every individual has the right to determine what he or she wants in what is likely to be the most important relationship in life. Romantic, emotional, sexual, and intellectual attraction is a complex interplay of genetics, environment, temperament, and life experience.
The Ethics of Serosorting and Other Exclusionary Medical Screens in Assortative Mating
You specifically mentioned the practice of serosorting, which is a very real issue in much of Africa and even certain sub-demographics within the United States. The arguments against serosorting range from, “it doesn’t reduce risk enough to matter” to “it helps perpetuate a damaging social stigma against infected individuals.”
These arguments are hollow, at best, self-serving at worst. We don’t consider it irrational for an in-shape person to (kindly) reject someone they think is overweight or for a Catholic to (again, kindly) make it clear they aren’t interested in someone who practices Hinduism. These are often put under the umbrella of “compatibility”.
This concept doesn’t magically cease to exist when you get into serosorting. It is perfectly rational for someone who is HIV positive to only want to be with someone else who is also infected since they are dealing with the same issues. On the flip side, it is perfectly rational for someone who is HIV negative to refuse to sleep with or date someone who is infected for a variety of reasons. If you can reject someone for having a bad haircut or having a dead-end job, if you can reject someone for being a Democrat or Republican, if you can reject someone for using drugs or smoking, it is perfectly acceptable to reject someone romantically due to their health status, especially considering it could have a strong influence on your life. In the case of HIV:
- The risk of infection, even if small, is still present. Take, for instance, the odds laid out by blogger Trevor Hoppe from your mail bag question, which stated that the probability of becoming infected due to a sexual encounter with a person infected with HIV is 1 in 6,000; we’ll take it on faith for now that his final calculation is somewhat rational. If you were in a relationship and slept together three times a week, there is a 2.6% chance of getting infected for the non-HIV partner every year. Restated, that is a 1 in 38.46 probability of contracting a fatal disease every year you remain together. With each passing year, the total cumulative probability of infection climbs, especially when one factors in something known as “condom fatigue”, a phenomenon in disease spread research that indicates people are less likely to protect themselves as familiarity with a potential sexual partner increases.
- Financially, the added cost of continuing to treat a chronic disease can escalate over the years so that a greater percentage of the family’s money, which could have gone to raising children, taking vacations, giving to charity, planning for retirement, travelling around the world, purchasing new furniture, nicer meals, and better clothes, and supporting institutions such as your alma matter, is instead paid to hospitals, insurance companies, and health care providers. This can be exacerbated as one person grows sicker and may be unable to work or contribute as much, leaving the healthy spouse to become the work horse provider of the family unit.
- The social stigma experienced by infected spouse may spill over into the life of the non-infected partner, subjecting him or her to unnecessary discrimination. His or her family may not want them in their home any longer or may refuse to eat after them, share drinks, use the same bathroom, etc,. despite the statistically minuscule risk of infection.
Your Bedroom and Marriage Shouldn’t Be Subject to Political Correctness … It Should Be About Whatever Works for You and Your Spouse
No one would dream of telling a fantastically in-shape United States Marine that he needed to date, sleep with, and marry a girl who was 150+ pounds overweight to “fight the stigma of obesity”. No one would dream of telling a woman she needed to date, sleep with, and marry and man who was a bi-polar schizophrenic to “fight the stigma of mental illness.” It is equally absurd to tell someone they should feel a sense of shame by engaging in serosorting and that by sleeping with HIV+ people they are “fighting stigma of HIV”.
Stop worrying about what other people think, find someone you love, spend the rest of your life with them, and go into the relationship with eyes-wide-open knowing the challenges you might face. Stop subjecting yourself to external, artificially induced political guilt. If overweight, older women are your thing: Great. Go for it. If in-shape, twenty-something Asian men do it for you, fantastic. Have fun. If you want a Leave-It-To-Beaver picket-fenced house in the suburbs with 2.5 children, wonderful! I hope you have it. If you are HIV+ and you only want to date someone else who is, too, super. Go with God. If you refuse to date people who are communists, bravo. Peace be with you. But stop worrying about what you think you should want and be honest with yourself.
Remember, though, that following your own desires does not mean being cruel. Be kinder than necessary and treat people how you would want to be treated if the situation were reversed.