Forager Mating Returns

Based on Bryan’s recommendation, I’ve been reading the excellent Promises I Can Keep (quotes below), an ethnography of mating patterns among poor folks in Philadelphia. I greatly respect ethnographies, and intend to read more of them (suggestions welcome).

Bryan summarizes the book as saying:

Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind. That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

But that doesn’t seem quite right to me – the situation is better summarized as the poor having different social norms on appropriate kinds of romantic commitment. Yes these norms may promote and be better matched to low conscientiousness, but even so it is the norms that are the direct effect. Let me explain.

All societies have romantic/sexual pair-bonds, i.e., pairs of people with a special distinguished relation. But societies vary in their types and levels of commitment. Consider these options:

  1. We see each other recently more often than do random pairs.
  2. We act as if we expect our relation to be exclusive.
  3. We act as if we expect our relation to last a long time.
  4. We tell associates that we expect a long/exclusive relation, and will be embarrassed if we are seen to be wrong.
  5. We invest in shared kids, friends, habits which are degraded if we split.
  6. We spent lots on a feast/ceremony to signal our long/exclusive relation, and can’t afford to do that again for a long time.
  7. Our community will see us as immoral and somewhat shame us if we split.
  8. We invest in relationship-specific capital that is degraded if we split, such as housing or a division of labor.
  9. We have transferable assets held hostage that we forfeit if we leave.
  10. Our community will use force to prevent one of us from leaving, if the other asks.

Societies vary in which types of commitment they see as fitting when. Traditional farming cultures have used all of these ways to bond couples together. In contrast, traditional forager cultures typically only used levels #1,2 while young, and then added in only #3,4,5 when older. They didn’t use the rest.

The lower class US culture described in Promises I Can Keep have mostly reverted back to forager ways. When young they basically only use #1,2, and eagerly have kids in that mode, which adds some of #5. When older they often formally marry which adds #3,4,5,6,7, but not #8,9,10. This is all done on purpose. When young they talk explicitly about wanting kids but not wanting to be tied to a particular partner, so they can switch when the mood strikes them. They see marriage as a way to brag about life success, which must await their achieving most of their life goals, including a house, career success, etc. Usually men push for marriage, and women resist. Before marriage, women enjoy pretty complete control over kids.

Upper class US culture, in contrast, has a youthful dating period with only #1,2 but expects kids to wait for marriage which adds #3,4,5,6,7. This culture still has elements of #8,9,10, but those are increasingly disapproved, and this culture is moving away from those. So our entire culture has been moving from farmer toward forager norms as we’ve become richer, but the richer among us are those whose norms have moved slower in that direction. This is understandable if some people and subcultures more strongly feel the social pressures that made foragers into farmers, and if farming norms and styles tend to cause more wealth today.

The obvious near term prediction is that as wealth continues to increase, we’ll see a continuing move toward forager mating habits and norms within all classes.

Those promised quotes:

“In the beginning, when you first like a guy a lot, oh, you want to have his baby.” … Nearly everyone knows that a young man who proclaims his desire to have a baby by a young woman is offering high tribute to her beauty. …

The heady significance of the declaration “I want to have a baby by you” is also ruled by the extraordinary high social value the poor place on children. … Poor youth … often begin to eagerly anticipate children and the social role of parents at a remarkably tender age. … The desire to conceive can become so compelling that some young couples begin trying as soon as they feel it is minimally feasible to care for a child. … Now forty-seven, this African American mother of two growth children and a twelve year old remembers vividly how her mother wanted her to get a diploma first and “live her life.” “But to me,” she explains, ‘that [baby] was life!” …

Typically, young women describe their pregnancies as “not exactly planned” yet “not exactly avoided” either – as only a few were using any form of conception at all when their “unplanned” child was conceived. …Roughly half of the woman with accidental pregnancies said they were not doing anything too prevent a pregnancy at the time. Yet most know full well the facts of life ands realized that unprotected sex would almost inevitably lead to conception. …

Most … believe that it is unjust to penalize an unborn child for its parents’ poor planning, so they nearly always conclude that the “responsible” reaction is to “deal with it” and have the baby rather than seek an abortion. … Virtually no woman we spoke with believed it was acceptable to have an abortion merely to advance an educational trajectory. …

Some [men] immediately attempt to deny the child is theirs and accuse their mystified girlfriends of being “cheaters” or “whores.” … Though young women usually claim their boyfriends’ accusations are completely groundless, youth in these neighborhoods do move quickly form one relationship to another, and the rapid onset of sex means there is sometimes legitimate reason for doubt. … The sexual mistrust that is so palpable in the relationships of many poor couples fuels both women’s suspicions and men’s possessiveness. …

The mother will retain almost complete control over the child, regardless of whether he pays child support or not. Meanwhile, she can, on a whim block his access to the child. Even worse, from his point of view, she can introduce another man into the child’s life, one who may take the father’s place. …

When poor unmarried woman given birth, eight out of ten are still romantically involved with their child’s father, and four in ten are even living together. … When asked about their long-term prospect, almost all of the mothers and the fathers predict that they will stay together and eventually marry. However … few of these couples stay together long enough to watch their children enter preschool. …

Poor unmarried couples try hard to keep it together for the baby. Yet they … , even those who cohabit, believe that as long as the are not married, it is acceptable for either partner to walk away at any time, and for virtually any reason. … Walking away from a non-marital union is not viewed as betrayal of a vow, and it is more or less okay to hold oneself open to a better option, should one come along. …

Sex ratios in these neighborhoods are out of balance, women usually outnumbering men, … this means that a young father who is struggling to become a family man has ready access to scores of willing sexual partners who will not impose substantial burdens, at least at the start of a new romance. … Infidelity is much more common among men than among women. … Some mothers do admit that as long as he wasn’t “in my face with it,” they were willing to ignore the telltale signs for a time. …

“I like to do things right through, instead of cutting corners and doing everything half-assed. I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure .. the baby’s got a bedroom, [than get married now],” Deena adds, “And I get a yard with grass. [And] I want a nice wedding.” Patrick continues, “I’m not going nowhere. she knows I’m not going nowhere .. so why get married [right now]?” …

“I was with somebody for four years, engaged, had a kid, and then I wasn’t with him. I’m not gonna do nothing, like make any promises that I’m not gonna be able to keep.” Both Deena and Patrick say they worry that a premature marriage might put undue pressure on the relationship and lead to a breakup. … She explains, “Like I said to Patrick the other day, `You might fall in love with somebody walking down the street and not even know it, do you know what I mean? You could wanna be with that person forever. You might say that [you’ll be with me forever] now because you’re in love with me. But things happen – there’s people that might alter your relationships.’ … Deena then reveals that though she both hopes and plans to marry Patrick, she insists on hedging her bets by having an income and some assets of her own. …

Though virtually every mother we spoke with said she thought a woman should wait to marry until her schooling is complete and she has established a career … many believe that the ideal time for child bearing is between the late teens and mid-twenties. …. Nell … cautions her daughters: “Wait. Wait till you finish being out there in the world, exploring … yourself and other people.” … Dorothy believes that marriage should wait until one is “I’d say thirty … At twenty-five, you know, you might still want to go out with your friends.” She explains, “When you get married your life stops changing.” ….

Shante … her views about the ideal time for marriage also reveal that a young woman should be sure she’s had her fun, for marriage is about settling down to serious business. She says, “Have fun by yourself and then just explore …. Especially the people who want to travel a lot [need to] do all their traveling and then come hope to settle down. That’s when your’e like thirty, thirty-five years old.” … This forty-two-year old grandmother warns Natasha against an early marriage because she “didn’t live her life yet,” but says she herself is now ready to marry because she’s had all the fun there is to have. “The best time to get married its past forty. … If y’all wanna cheat, whatever, ya’ll done all that at a younger age. Once you get past forty it ain’t nothing else out there. … We tired. Ain’t nobody looking for nothing else. Ain’t nobody looking for no other man or woman. We tired now so we donna marry each other. … Elaine … says “The best time to get married is before you start getting old, before you start aging. … I don’t wanna get no later than thirty-five to get married. I do not wanna spend my old days by myself. …

Poor woman today almost universally reject the idea that marriage means financial reliance on a male breadwinner. Furthermore, it is vitally important that both they and their male partners be economically set prior to marriage. … These material things provide insurance against a marriage gone bad. …

Having the wherewithal to throw a “big” wedding” is a vivid display that the couple has achieved enough financial security to do more than live from paycheck to paycheck, a stressful situation that most believe leads almost inevitably to divorce. Hosting a “proper” wedding is a sign that the couple only plans to do it once, give the obvious financial sacrifice required. …

Though women like Deena Vallas seem to genuinely aspire to marriage, they fear marriage will alter the balance of power they’ve achieved in the relationship so far and activate more traditional sex roles their male parters tend to hold. When Jen Burke was still together with Rick, she shared this concern. “He [already] tells me I ‘can’t do nothing, I can’t go out. What’s gonna happen when I marry him? He’s gonna say he owns me.” … Alena [says] … “That’s exactly they way they treat their woman nowadays, you know. ‘She’s my woman don’t you touch [her] or I’ll beat you with my night stick.’” … “
… Demi [says] … “When you get married … the guy is more protective, starts getting jealous.” ….

“I guess I’m going to have to be married [eventually] but marriage is like, its too much. It’s like a husband is always there. Like one man, just one man that you with forever and ever and ever! No! Not yet!” She exclaims, “Maybe when I’m like forty, … because then, who wants to date a forty-year-old? You have no choice but to get married [then]. You have to find somebody to settle down with before [nobody wants you anymore].” …

Many young women we spoke with believe that adolescence is an unsettled time when young people wander in and out of romantic relationships because that is simply the nature of youth. … Men are more likely to raise the question of marriage than women are, if mothers’ accounts are accurate, and they are far more favorably disposed the the idea of marriage in general. …. The community thus holds married couples to a higher standard of behavior than their unmarried counterparts. Equally important, however, is that the pair expect more of themselves. In some sense, marriage is a form of social bragging about the quality of the couple relationship, a powerful symbolic way of elevating one’s relationship above the others in the community.

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  • JS

    “many believe that the ideal time for child eating is between the late teens and mid-twenties.” Modestly…

  • 童貞

    There are a truly prodigious number of typos in this post. Please proofread…

    • financial security to doe more
      struggling to become a gamily man

  • spandrell

    I always wonder where do you get your data from forager societies. How sure are you of any of this? Any specific books you’ve read? Or you have an old-school anthropologist who you trust

  • Would you (or Caplan) say that foragers are unconscientious?

    • Foraging requires less planning ahead, and less conscious resisting of natural feelings.

      • IMASBA

        To be fair forager values do require a high degree of tolerance and a realization that “traditional (farmer) values” are not obvious or necessary. That does require conscientiousness when you grow up in a society that is still ruled by farmers and has its culture steeped in farmer values, which is why forager values tend to be associated with the educated and the cultural (though not financial) elite in most of the Western world (the US is actually not very representative on this subject).

  • Paul Gowder

    Caplan has just totally failed to attend to the possibility that poverty causes “low conscientiousness” behavior, not he other way around. E.g. the Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir scarcity work.

    • IMASBA

      You’re right, though this is about people in the ghetto (probably white trash too, both of course being specific to the US though white thrash equivalents do exist in Europe and Australia). These people are a subset of the poor (a college grad working a minimum wage job to pay off debts would not be included for example nor would a storeowner who just went bankrupt after 20 years) and most likely were born with low conscientiousness or became that way through their upbringing (the cultural part, not the poverty part), but there are of course always exceptions, especially in countries with low upward social mobility such as the US.

  • Julia Wise

    Not ethnography exactly, but you might enjoy “Lust in Translation” by Pamela Druckerman, which is a cross-national comparison of adultery.


    This is a look into American ghetto culture, which is not a placeholder for “the poor in the West” in general. I think you might want to read the BBC News piece about the seven classes that replaced the three classes of old (the piece is called “the great British class survey). Importantly the sociologists use social capital and education in addition to material wealth to base their classes

    The people from the book come closest to one of the seven classes called the “precariat”: poor and with few education and probably with low conscientiousness (though it is perfectly possible for children to escape this class, but more so in Europe than in the US). There is another group of poor people but have better education and high social capital, these would be students, un- of underemployed graduates and so on, the so-called “emergent service workers”, they are the posterchild for forager values. Then there is a third group who is relatively poor but not precariously so, have moderate education levels and are probably the posterchild for farmer values, the “traditional working class”.

    This was a British piece but it is eerily accurate for continental Europe, Canada, Australia and blue America as well. Red America is an anomaly that will disappear and it is the cause of America’s strange situation with the relatively well-off having strong farmer values (in those other regions the very rich do have farmer values but your average doctor or HR-manager doesn’t).

    If you want to know how far social forager values can go you should visit the Netherlands where social forager values are the norm except among the very poor and the very rich, plus a few old farts. Parents will let their teenage child and their boyfriend or girlfriend sleep in the same room, the average marriage age is several years higher than in the US (the divorce rate is lower) and it was the first country to legalize gay marriage. This has not destroyed economic productivity and is likely what many other nations will be like in the future. It’s probably also more in tune with fundamental human nature, that’s why foragers had these norms in the first place.

    • Doug

      Simply saying that the Netherlands is further along the forager spectrum as a whole doesn’t invalidate Robin’s point. Even among the Dutch it seems highly likely that there is a positive correlation between income level and farmer like values. Especially considering that many Dutch high earners probably comprise upper management in multinationals that look very similar to American corporations. Which in turn highly select for farmer like values among their executives.

      • IMASBA

        I wasn’t trying to invalidate his point (whatever that would be, I can’t find it). He did speak of increasing forager norms and I supplied him of a picture of what a more forager-like country looks like. I was talking about social forager norms by the way (which aren’t so clearly correlated with income level in the Netherlands and blue America alike), economic norms are more correlated with income but is important not to lump all the poor together, which is why I included the reference to the BBC News piece. You were talking about thevast majority of the impoverished not working but that’s only true if you look at ghetto and white trash culture in the US. The lower income levels as a whole in the US and other Western countries do actually feature a much broader range of people, most of which work or are desperately looking for paid work (think about that graduate working a low wage internship or the middle aged man who lost his office job and now works at Walmart).

  • For the poor, the slightest thing (say, buying groceries) is a major production. How will they get to the store? What necessity will they forgo? What “luxury” that makes life worth living?

    As a result, they’re in a chronic state of willpower depletion. (Baumeister.) This promotes long-term characterological disintegration along with an immediate narrowing of horizons to the present.

    I don’t see this as having much to do with forager values. The “white trash” part of the poor tend to be politically rightist. More than resenting authority, they idolize it, seeming to need the continuous intervention of the cops in their lives (which they welcome despite going to jail as a result) as a support to their fragile egos.

    Caplan’s essay seems little more than signaling that he thinks the poor are undeserving. On top of an ego-depleting environment (the worst thing about poverty in America), the “white trash poor” do tend to be low IQ, very poorly educated, and inadequately parented.

    Isn’t it outrageous that the worst-adapted citizens are placed under the most trying circumstances?

    • Doug

      Willpower depletion would be plausible if it wasn’t for the fact that the vast majority of the impoverished in the US don’t work at all. Labor force participation for the lower classes in the West is lower than basically any point in history. Not having to show up to a job does kind of lower your stress.

      Investment bankers or neurosurgeons may have a little less stress during the two hours a week that comprise grocery shopping, but I’m guessing the 60 hours of a stressful job would probably deplete willpower a little more.

      • Forced leisure increases willpower depletion. Going to work allows the worker to use habit and routine to avoid decision making.

        Surgeons, etc. get acute willpower depletion. Only chronic willpower depletion is (in my view) long-term debilitating.

      • stevewfromford

        “Forced” leisure???

        Really? “Forced”? Think about that in today’s America.
        Almost impossible.

    • JW Ogden

      Stephen from my discussions with low income people I get the feeling that most do not worry about anything and if they did they would not be poor for long.

  • blink

    Fascinating results; thanks for the many quote. By way of explanation, there seems to be a tension, though — if we are moving more toward forager norms as we get richer, why do we see shifting norms first among the poor?

    • As I said in the post, society wealth causes a move toward forager values, but farmer values better cause wealth.

      • IMASBA

        Economic farmer values create more wealth, social farmer values do not.

      • Ilya Shpitser

        The latter assertion is not obvious.

      • IMASBA

        So business suffers when people are allowed to have premarital sex and the occasional booty call? That explains why Pakistan and red America are so much more wealthy than the Netherlands and blue America!

        The accusation that you need social farmer values to be professionally successful really turns the burden of proof upside down and it’s something only an entrenched farmer personality seeking desperately to validate their unnecessarily restrictive worldview would even think of.

      • Social farmer values are those that strengthen an authoritarian nuclear family, which has (previously?) driven accumulating personal wealth.

        The sudden acceptability of gay marriage seems like it might mark a turning point, where the role of the family as economic unit has atrophied.

      • Guest

        Couldn’t we view gay marriage as a modern formalization of what already existed in Rome?

      • Jeremy Bentham was educated in the history of the ancients, and he didn’t even seem to be able to conceive of such a thing in his “Offenses”. He wrote that the birth-rate would not be affected by tolerance of the practice because once boys aged up only women would want them.

      • As is obvious in the pattern where reactionary capitalists produce liberal (but financially feckless) offspring. (See, for example, the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair.)

      • Peter David Jones

        And which cause utility? My theory is that people lapse into forager values when circumstances allow because the forager lifestyle is enjoyable, because humans adapted to it over a long period.

        Farmer values, by contrast have to be learnt by rigorous discipline, and the lifestyle does not feel like fun — conservatives seem oddly miserable to liberals.

        So happiness peaks where there is enough wealth to allow widespread foraging, not at maximum wealth.

  • Paul W Sas

    I’ve not read a lot of ethnographies, but one that I really enjoyed: Beamtimes & Lifetimes [SLAC]

  • almondguy

    Thanks for this reminder of the Sex at Dawn take. If we accept their view, I’m interested in what “traditionalism” or “family values” would end up meaning, if anything. (Suppose we define “traditionalist” social priorities as those seeking to recreate family structures of past eras.) Are there any commonalities between farmer and forager structures, not shared by modern ones, that the clock could be turned back to?

  • I would also like to hear recommendations for good ethnographies.

  • Mark Power

    Unwed mothers should be fined and shamed, not given ANY money.

    • Peter David Jones

      Even if that leaves them unable to feed their infants?

      • Mark Power

        White-knight manginas like you encourage their bad behavior, leading to dystopia.

      • Peter David Jones

        And the answer is?

      • Brent Dill

        Let the infants die. They’re inferior anyways. Societies who buy the slave morality they are sold by the parasites will always be burdened by life unworthy of life, until their vitality and virility are sucked away. The strong must rely on themselves and their fatherland – the unity of blood and soil – to rise above the immorality being sold to them in the name of progress.

        How’d I do?

      • Peter David Jones

        Scary enough.

    • Of course you’d say that: maybe you can get one of them to marry you.

  • Brent Dill

    To me, 2 is the only one that doesn’t quite fit the spectrum; I think it’s an artifact peculiar to monogamous feudal cultures. I think the more general case is:

    2. We act as if we expect to have control over our partner’s selection of other partners.

  • Andy Gaudreau

    My hypothesis has always been that this was a resource/risk dynamic associated with class: that the very lowest and very highest classes have always exhibited the “forager” behavior most because, at the one end, the rich can afford the risk, having more status to spend on and power to fix unsuccessful wagers, and at the other, the poor have less to lose and more to gain by taking chances. According to this view, the middle classes are the “farmers” exhibiting the most stability (which is plausible given their aspirations toward an ideal of high stable social status), and the reason we might be seeing a change now is that the middle class (in the U.S.) is currently disappearing from both ends, and so the farmers are losing numbers to foragers above and below.

    • An alternative to the resource/risk theory is a signaling/countersignaling explanation.

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