Do We Drink Because We’re Monogamous, or Are We Monogamous Because We Drink?

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” It features some research presented by the American Association of Wine Economists, whose members include Karl Storchmann, managing editor of the group’s Journal of Wine Economics.

Storchmann wrote to us the other day about an interesting working paper the AAWE has just posted: “Women or Wine? Monogamy and Alcohol,” by Mara Squicciarini and Jo Swinnen. From the abstract:

Intriguingly, across the world the main social groups which practice polygyny do not consume alcohol. We investigate whether there is a correlation between alcohol consumption and polygynous/monogamous arrangements, both over time and across cultures. Historically, we find a correlation between the shift from polygyny to monogamy and the growth of alcohol consumption. Cross-culturally we also find that monogamous societies consume more alcohol than polygynous societies in the preindustrial world. We provide a series of possible explanations to explain the positive correlation between monogamy and alcohol consumption over time and across societies.

And the conclusion:

We provide several hypotheses to explain these observations. In pre-industrial societies we find that the correlation is related to the nature of the economy. Comparing hunting, gathering and fishing (HFG) societies that practice agriculture and animal husbandry we find that the former drink more alcohol and are more monogamous. The reason can be higher subsistence insecurity or less hierarchical and structured organization, that characterize HFG societies. On the one hand, there are relatively small differences among men in the control over crucial resources to support multiple women; on the other hand, they may consume a higher quantity of alcohol as a relief and as a way to get rid of their anxiety or to face less social constraints in their society. This relationship is particularly strong for indicators of excessive alcohol use (drunkenness). Lower income in HFG societies may have reduced average demand.

Historically, the global transition from polygynous to monogamous societies and the growth of alcohol consumption finds its basis in some crucial moments of the world history. The Greeks and Romans spread both formal monogamy and viticulture across the ancient world. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Christian Church maintained and reinforced formal monogamy, albeit that effective polygyny remained widely practiced. At the same time monasteries became centers of brewing and winemaking techniques and spread viticulture around Europe. The industrial revolution brought about the major and definitive change towards effective monogamy and popularization of alcohol consumption. Both changes (in alcohol consumption and in marriage arrangements) were induced by changes in social structures, economic developments and technological innovations associated with the industrial revolution.

I wrote to Swinnen with a few questions; here are his answers.

What was your inspiration for this paper; i.e., where’d the idea even come from?

The inspiration came from a casual observation (over a glass of wine) that the two social/religious groups that do allow polygamy ((parts of) Mormonism and Islam) also do not consume alcohol. So we wondered whether this was a coincidence or not. We collected information on the historical evolution of both (mono/polygamy and alcohol use) and on cross-cultural/country evidence. We found that there is a positive correlation between alcohol consumption and monogamy both over time and across (pre-industrial) societies

Given the difficulty of the empirical work involved here, how confident are you in the conclusion?

I think we are pretty confident on the empirical correlations. Our explanation of why that is the case is a set of hypotheses, some of which we could test and some of which remain hypotheses because we did not find data to test them (so far — we keep thinking and looking).

Depending on your confidence: would you posit that alcohol consumption is a means of preserving monogamy in a culture that already practices it?

Our explanation/hypothesis in the paper is that the correlation is “spurious” in the sense that we do not find evidence/arguments for direct causality between both, but that other factors affect both alcohol consumption and the shift from polygamy to monogamy.

So when/if you pop a cork with your loved one this week to christen the New Year, you might want to ask yourself: do we drink because we’re monogamous, or are we monogamous because we drink?

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  1. Eileen Wyatt says:

    Are we to take it that the next step in Freakonomics’ campaign to reduce the drunk driving rate to zero will be a movement to legalize polygyny?

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  2. Chris says:

    Did somebody (or the taxpayer) pay for this inane piece of research? I hope not.

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    • Ted says:

      Perhaps you should publish your list of “approved topics” that are acceptable for research, and also a list of “forbidden topics” that you do not approve of. Doing this would greatly simplify the work of scientists so they wouldn’t have to guess what they should take an interest in.

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  3. James says:

    As a personal observation: singles (or semy-poligamous) tend to drink more but softer/cheaper alcohol (beer, highballs) and couples (married or informal) tend to drink less but harder/expensive alcohol (wine, cocktails, spirits).

    w/ kind regards!

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  4. Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team says:

    Ancient biblical cultures like Judaism and Islam all practiced polygamy like Abraham. And modern fundamentalist go back to the stern old ethics of alcohol and drug abstinence, no sex outside of marriage, no homosexual deviancy, and maintaining four wives.

    Polygamy is old School, just like avoiding alcohol and homosexualism. Despite conservative qualms, some fundamentalist go overboard and embrace the whole bibilical package including the mulitple-wivery.

    Who would need a stiff drink more than the husband of 4 nagging wives? Bin ladin probably has a bottle of extra dry vodka hidden somewhere in his cave.

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  5. Ian Kemmish says:

    Is it the men who drink more or the women? If the men, then any music hall comedian could have given you the explanation. What do the authors have to say about Tibetans who drink almost nothing that isn’t fermented and practice polyandry? Was there an outbreak of infidelity during the Temperance movement in 19th century England? During Prohibition in the US? Were Puritans randier than Royalists?

    It seems to me that if anything they have a surfeit of data, rather than a lack….

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  6. David Chowes, New York City says:

    If your hypothsis is true (to some degree, at least), then consumption of alchohol should decrease if gay couples marry.

    But, as marriage among hetereosexuals is now becoming far less common in the West — well, put the booze in the safety deposit vault!

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  7. Pisaac says:

    Has no one at Freakonomics ever been married? The answer is painfully obvious.

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  8. Byron says:

    One thing I learned in my statistics class back in high school was that correlation does not equal causation. I think that might be what’s going on here.

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