The Selection of Monogamy

By: Cameron Mittelman, M.A., BCBA, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology


Monogamy is one of the most common relationship forms in the contemporary western world and has been observed in many countries and societies around the globe.  Although several statistics have been reported (Burton, Moore, Whiting, & Romney, 1996; Marlow, 2000; Murdock, 1967; Rubin, 2001), the wide variety of categorical definitions of monogamy, among other reasons, makes it difficult to determine accurate rates of occurrence in various cultures.  Care should be taken in drawing strict conclusions from any of these reports, as many rely on self-report rather than specific observed behavioral practices.  In addition, many of these reported numbers actually refer to practices related to marriage rather than mating patterns or sexual activity (Low, 2003).


Monogamous behavior, like all behavior, can be examined as resulting from combined contingencies of survival, individual reinforcement of behavior, and the contingencies maintained by a social community (Catania, 2001; Skinner, 1966; Skinner, 1981).  These processes are collectively referred to as selection by consequences.  Selection by consequences works by reinforcing traits and behaviors that improve fitness while extinguishing those that do not, and are typically separated into three levels (Skinner, 1981).  The first level of selection, referred to as the phylogenic level, involves the selection of innate behaviors of a given species.  These instinctual, unlearned behaviors that allow an organism to better survive in its environment or allow for increased reproductive access are genetically passed on to future generations.  The second level of selection, referred to as the ontogenic level, involves the operant conditioning of the acquired behavior of an individual organism.  Behavior that is followed by reinforcing consequences will increase in frequency while behaviors that are not followed by reinforcing consequences, or are followed by punishing consequences, will decrease (Skinner, 1953).  The final level, selection at the cultural level, is similar to selection at the ontogenic level, except that it is the cultural practices that contribute to a group’s ability to solve problems and promote the group’s wellbeing that are selected, not specific behaviors of individuals (Biglan, 2003; Moore, 2008).  Behaviors selected at the cultural level are passed along via verbal behavior and language, with many formal (e.g., public education, government, religion, media) and informal institutions developed that ensure such practices are communicated and reinforced (Glenn, 2004).


At the phylogenic level, there are several potential advantages of monogamous relationships that may allow for increased survival and reproduction.  Organisms that require significant parental effort to raise offspring, either due to limited resources of the environment or due to an offspring’s prolonged period of development, may benefit from monogamy (Low, 2003).  Under these conditions, it may be a better long-term reproductive strategy for both the male and the female to produce fewer numbers of offspring that have a great change of surviving to adulthood with the added assistance of both parents.  Having both parents around allows for a more efficient division of labor; the mother does not need to provide both food and protection if another is available to assist.  In addition, Monogamy may allow the organism to engage in more efficient “mate guarding” that allows an organism to prevent others from mating with its partner.  Monogamy in this sense may arise, if mate guarding of multiple females is more difficult than guarding one.


Because ontogenic selection works at the level of the individual, countless reinforcing and aversive contingencies may maintain monogamous behavior.  Social reinforcement (e.g., praise, attention) is often provided at an early age for “pretend behaviors” that mimic monogamy (e.g., the 6-year-old who declares that one of his kindergarten classmates is his girlfriend, the little girl who has a make-believe wedding when playing).  Such behaviors are encouraged and strengthened by the parents who exclaim how “adorable” these children are.


Individuals may also have increased access to reinforcement for engaging in monogamous behavior.  The faithful, upstanding spouse is considered to be “good” and may receive social reinforcement from the community for being so.  Similarly, the unfaithful spouse may be considered “bad” and met with social punishment (e.g., scorn, reprimand, ostracism) from the community or the individual’s partner.  Furthermore, the presence of these aversive contingencies may serve to further strengthen monogamous behavior through negative reinforcement.  Behaviors that allow the prevention or escape of such punishment will be more likely to occur in the future.  Thus, a person may engage in a pattern of monogamous behavior as it is incompatible with behavior that is likely to be punished.


Evidence for the fact that monogamy may be selected at the cultural level can be seen in the fact that different cultures across the globe have different levels of monogamy in their society and many cultures have had different relationship and mating practices at different points in their history.  Cultures in which monogamy is the norm often create societal institutions that promote the reinforcement and punishment of such practices (the same can be said of cultures that promote other relationship forms).  Such organizations create contrived contingencies that lead to rule governed behavior (e.g., “if you are not monogamous you will go to hell).  Governments play a similar role by creating laws that reinforce monogamous behavior and punish non-monogamous behavior.


In addition, certain behaviors are labeled as sinful, immoral, or unacceptable (e.g., non-monogamous relationships) and subsequently paired with reprimands and other stimuli that evoke negative emotions.  Thus, overt actions and private thoughts related to things branded as sinful come to evoke these same negative emotions.  Stimulus pairing may lead the very act of engaging in the behavior (e.g., cheating on one’s spouse) to evoke aversive stimulation, further leading people to further shy away from them (Skinner, 1953).


Another source of this cultural transmission is through education provided in school systems, particularly during sex education where monogamy is often directly or indirectly portrayed as “standard.”  Few sex education curricula are likely to even reference alternative forms of relationships such as ethical non-monogamy, or a concept of singleness.  Similarly, the media frequently depicts monogamy as the ideal or desired outcome (e.g., Disney films that invariably end with the protagonist “getting together” with another character).


It is likely, however, that monogamy, particularly human monogamy in the modern industrial age, is a phenomenon developed and maintained by the combination and interaction of the three levels of selection.  Innate behavior selected at the phylogenic level may be later refined as behavioral operants, and certain innate behaviors may also allow for the organism to engage in environmentally controlled behavior (e.g., the throat musculature of human beings which allowed language to emerge).  Individual operant behaviors that, when combined and intertwined, allow for greater access to reinforcement may in time lead to the development of cultural institutions.  Similarly, cultural institutions create additional means through which individual operant behaviors can be reinforced or punished.  In any case, by examining behaviors that are often considered inherent or intrinsic, as is often argued with human relationship and sexual practices, we can see that such behaviors are at the very least are greatly affected by external factors and contingencies.


Biglan, A. (2003). Selection by consequences: One unifying principle for a transdisciplinary science of prevention. Prevention Science, 4(4), 213-232).

Burton, M. L., Moore, C. C., Whiting, J. W. M., & Romney, A. K. (1996). Regions based on social structure. Current Anthropology, 37, 87-123.

Catania, A. C. (2001). Three types of selection and three centuries. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Theory, 1(1), 1-9.

Glenn, S. S. (2004). Individual behavior, culture, and social change. The Behavior Analyst, 27, 133-151.

Low, B. S. (2003). Ecological and social complexities in human monogamy. In U. H. Reichard & C. Boesch (Eds.), Monography: Mating strategies and partnerships in birds, humans, and other mammals. (161-176). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Marlow, F. (2000). Parental investment and the human mating system. Behavioral Processes, 51, 45-61.

Moore, J. (2008). Conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan.

Murdock, G. P. (1967). Ethnographic atlas. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rubin, R. H. (2001). Alternative family lifestyles revisited, or whatever happened to swingers, group marriages and communes? Journal of Family Issues, 7(6), 711-726. doi: 10.1177/019251301022006003

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1966). The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior. Science, 153, 1205-1213.

Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. Science, 213, 501-504.










This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2014 SBRP SIG Newsletter.

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