Zhana Vrangalova Ph.D.

Strictly Casual

How to Make People More Accepting of Polyamory?

Give them detailed info and ask them to question monogamy

Posted Feb 17, 2015

Creative Commons License
Source: Creative Commons License

Polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy are making a regular media appearance these days. Cosmopolitan just published interviews with four polyamorous women; the inventor of the #hashtag, Chris Messina, wrote a "Why I Chose Nonmonogamy" piece for CNN Money of all places; even the Onion reported how a jewelry company "jumped the gun" by producing a polyamorous triad engagement ring. Does the increased presence of alternative relationships in the public arena leads people to become more accepting of such lifestyles? And does it make them want to explore these lifestyles for themselves? A new study—a first of its kind—suggests that the answer to at least one of these questions is yes

In a paper just published online in Psychology & Sexuality, researchers from Southwestern University set out to see whether people’s attitudes towards polyamory and their interest in trying it out would change if they were provided with different kinds of information. They recruited 196 U.S. citizens (ages 18 to 79, mean = 33; 80 percent white, 64 percent in committed relationships) using Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that solicits and pays participants for completing online tasks, such as surveys. Then they randomly assigned participants to one of three groups:

  • The Standard Definition group received a short definition of polyamory: “Polyamory is the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”
  • The Elaborate Definition group received this short definition plus a more detailed elaboration that distinguished polyamory from other forms of consensual monogamy (swinging and open relationships) and nonconsensual monogamy (i.e., cheating), and noted that polyamorists often engage in typical relationship behaviors, including raising children and forming family units.
  • The Critical Examination group received the standard, short definition of polyamory, and was then asked to consider the advantages and limitations of monogamy based on their own experiences in romantic relationships.

Participants were then asked about their views on polyamory.

There was one set of seven questions that asked about their general attitudes toward polyamory and polyamorists, such as whether they thought polyamory was harmful to children, successful in the long term, spreading sexually transmitted infections, or deserving of the same legal rights as married couples. 

Another set of five questions asked about participants' own interest in trying out polyamory, including whether they found the idea intriguing, would be open to it, would consider discussing it with their partners, or would be upset if their partner brought it up.

For both scales, the responses could range from one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree), with higher ratings indicative of greater approval and interest.

As you can see from the left side of the graph below, participants who read the more elaborate definition of polyamory or were asked to critically examine monogamy later reported more positive attitudes toward polyamory than those who were provided with a simple, short definition. The change wasn’t drastic, about half a point on a seven-point scale, but the experimental manipulation itself wasn’t particularly dramatic either—just a couple of minutes of reading or thinking about this issue. Imagine what the effect could be if people were presented with detailed information or similar cognitive exercises on a more regular basis.

This suggests that perceptions of alternative romantic relationships follow similar patterns to those of any other stigmatized group: The more people know about it, the more accepting they become of the people who belong to it. Known as the "contact hypothesis," this principle has been found to apply to many other social groups, such as sexual or racial minorities. Indeed, in both this and a second Mechanical Turk sample of 100 people surveyed for this study, participants who before the study had already heard about polyamory (50 to 60 percent of the samples) or knew a polyamorous person (a third of the samples) held more positive attitudes toward polyamory to begin with.

Personal interest in trying out polyamory, on the other hand, wasn't affected by either providing more info about polyamory or asking people to consider the pros and cons of monogamy (right side of the graph above). After all, personal interest in doing something requires more than just positive attitudes toward that thing: biological predisposition, conducive upbringing, social acceptability, willingness of partner, practical feasibility...  

As one of the study authors explains, think of it in terms of homophobia: "One of the biggest predictors of people having a positive attitude toward gays and lesbians is whether they know even one person who is gay, but having a positive attitude toward gay people doesn't necessarily mean that people have a personal desire to be gay.”

How accepting of poly are people in general?

Together with a second study published in the same journal by the same group of authors, we also have information on the general level of people’s acceptance of and interest in polyamory. In addition to the two Mechanical Turk samples already mentioned, the authors also surveyed an undergraduate sample from a small liberal arts college in central Texas, for a total of 430 participants across the three samples.

As the graphs indicate, the average level of acceptance of polyamory in these samples was just slightly below the middle of the scale, suggesting there are some people who are completely accepting, some people who are completely unaccepting, and the majority of people who fall somewhere in between. Personal interest in trying out polyamory, on the other hand, was significantly lower, suggesting most people are happy to stick to monogamy themselves.

As expected, men expressed more personal interest in trying poly than did women. But if you thought men would be far more accepting of poly in general, you were wrong: The sex difference in attitudes was not statistically significant.

So who was more accepting of polyamory? Those who were:
- were younger,
- were same-sex attracted,
- were more positive toward sex in general,
- had more sexual partners and more unprotected sex,
- had higher general and sexual sensation-seeking (i.e., liked to have new and exciting experiences, even if they have to break the rules), and
- had higher sex drive (needed sex more often and with more partners).

Who was less accepting of polyamory? Those who were:
- politically conservative,
- right-wing authoritarian, and
- emotionally jealous (upset at the thought of their partner flirting with, dating, hugging or kissing someone else).

Acceptance of polyamory was not correlated with self-esteem or tendency to present oneself as more socially desirable.

What do you think of polyamory?

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Johnson, S. M., Giuliano, T. A., Herselman, J. R., Hutzler, K. T., & (2015). Development of a brief measure of attitudes towards polyamory. Psychology & Sexuality, online ahead of print. doi: 10.1080/19419899.2014.1001774

Hutzler, K. T., Giuliano, T. A., Herselman, J. R., & Johnson, S. M. (2015). Three’s a crowd: Public awareness and (mis)perceptions of polyamory. Psychology & Sexuality, online ahead of print. doi: 10.1080/19419899.2015.1004102

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