EA Relationship Status

post by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-09-19T01:50:00.599Z · score: 37 (20 votes) · EA · GW · 28 comments

A friend observed that fewer people in the effective altruism movement are married than you might expect. I was curious: what are marriage rates like within the EA community? The 2018 EA Survey asked about relationship status, and we can look at how that varies by age:

I'm using "ever married" for people who are currently married or have ever been married, including people who are now divorced, widowed, or separated. Since some of these buckets might be pretty small, let's add sample size information:

The anonymized survey data doesn't have 35-44 data, and the 65+ group looks suspiciously like it has the 35-44 group lumped in with it. I've filed a bug and if they fix it I'll update the post. For now, probably ignore the 65+ group.

For comparison, here's 2018 ACS data (via) for US marriage rates, on the same scale:

And, at least in the US, people with more education are more likely to be married, after age 28:

Now, EAs are not all American, and even then they're different from Americans as a whole in many ways other than being interested in effective altruism. On the other hand, when I look at what fraction of my (Swarthmore) college friends are married, a group similar to EAs in many ways, it's not far from the graph for the US at large. (And it's off in the positive direction). I see similar numbers by school for people who were 30-34 in 2014.

There does seem to be something real here. Some guesses as to why:

Other ideas?


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by RyanCarey · 2020-09-19T08:20:42.368Z · score: 27 (19 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's a reasonable question. I take the observation to be that 60% of EAs over 45 have married, where we'd expect 85%.

I think a good hypothesis is religion. In general, 60% of atheists have married, versus 80% of the religiously-affiliated have, and ~55% of that effect persists after controlling for age (see the bottom two tables). 86% of EAs are non-religious. So almost half of the reason that EAs marry less is probably just that they're atheist/agnostic, so they don't think that cohabiting is living in sin!

The other half, well, I agree with your top two points - that EAs favour work over having kids. Apart from that, two guesses would be:

  • statistical artifact: that single people are more likely to spend time online, in the kinds of places they would discover the survey.
  • that single people are more likely to sign up to join a community (to try and meet someone).

Given all the available explanations, I don't feel that surprised about the observation anymore.

comment by AGB · 2020-09-19T11:48:41.394Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I take the observation to be that 60% of EAs over 45 have married, where we'd expect 85%.

FWIW, and without speaking for Jeff, for Denise and I the original observation was something like 'percentage of people in nesting relationships around our age range (25-30) anecdotally seems sharply different in our EA versus similar-demographic non-EA circles'.

I consider religion a weak explanation for that, since we're definitely counting cohabiting couples, but the observation is also less well-founded and I'm far from confident that it generalises across the community well.

comment by Linch · 2020-09-19T22:53:38.996Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I moderately think this is the wrong approach on the meta-level.

1. We observe a phenomenon where X demographic is less likely to exhibit Y characteristic.

2. You're coming up with a list of explanations (E1, E2, E3) to explain why X is less likely to have Y, and then stopping when the variance is sufficiently explained.

3. However this ignores that there might be reasons for why your prior should be does X is more likely to have Y.

And on the object level, I agree with the other commentators that EAs often draw from groups that are less, rather than more, likely to be single.

comment by RyanCarey · 2020-09-19T23:07:26.759Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that you should look at the things in order of the size of their prediction about the observation. But I think that a lot of the biggest effects would be in that direction.

comment by andyljones · 2020-09-20T08:08:47.336Z · score: 16 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think a big chunk of the discrepancy here comes from comparing against US expectations rather than a weighted average over countries.

Case in point, the 'ever married 25-34' stat (which is the one with biggest sample size) is

EA: 18%

US: 45%

UK: 22%

I can't find directly comparable stats for Australia, Canada or Germany - which make up the other major countries of the 2018 survey. What is available is age-at-first-marriage:

US: 29, UK: 33, DE: 33, AU: 32, CA: 31

Doing linear interpolation on the UK/US values, estimated ever-married 25-34 stats are

US: 45%, UK: 22%, DE: 22%, AU: 28%, CA: 34%

which, weighted by the survey fractions of .36/.16/.07/.06/.04 gives an expected ever-married 25-34 rate of 35%.

Some other things worth noting:

All in all I'd expect a properly-calibrated expected rate to be 25-30%-ish.

I'm also curious if the higher-education-higher-marriage-rate thing holds in the UK/Europe, but damned if I can find solid stats. Anecdotally it doesn't, but anecdotes are awful for this kind of thing. Sample bias'll kill you dead.

comment by AGB · 2020-09-22T06:21:07.087Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Source for the UK:22% figure? The ONS figures for 2019 (for married, not ever married) are:

Men 25-29: 15.7%

Women 25-29: 25.4%

Men 30-34: 42.4%

Women 30-34: 52.3%

These groups are all roughly the same size, so a combined 25-34 group would be around 34%. ‘Ever married’ should be 1-4 percentage points higher.



comment by andyljones · 2020-09-22T07:16:15.764Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I had trouble finding the ever-married stat, so I went to the 2017 marriages dataset. Table 12 is 'Proportions of men and women who had ever married by certain ages', and for the 1984 men's cohort - the last one with complete data - the rates are 6% for 25yos through 39% for 34yos. The average over that age range is 22%.

So upfront, I didn't notice it was the mens' cohort. My bad, and I'll fix my post once I've figured out the other problem: these figures are decidedly inconsistent with the figures you've found. It's not obvious to me what the difference is.

First, momentary thought was I'd been totally daft and averaged married-this-year data. Second thought was that I'd averaged over birth-cohort rather than reporting year. But that gives 20%, an even lower figure. Third thought was that 'married by 34' is different from 'married at 34', but shifting the age range up a notch only gets the figure up to 26%.

Any ideas?

comment by AGB · 2020-09-22T10:19:14.225Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The data I gave is ultimately survey data, the table you post is based on marriage certificates issued. This has advantages but has one large disadvantage, namely ignoring marriages that take place overseas, while possibly counting marriages between two overseas residents that take place locally. It's mentioned on the 'Table 12 interpretation' tab:

These statistics are based on marriages registered in England and Wales. Because no adjustment has been made for marriages taking place abroad, the true proportion of men and women ever married could be higher.

I followed that link to get any context on how big a deal this might be.

In 2017, an estimated 104,000 UK residents went abroad to get married and an estimated 8,000 overseas residents married in the UK.

To put that number in context, there are roughly 240k marriages per year in the UK, presumably involving around 480k people, so that's a large chunk of the total.

I think survey data is just better for our current use case since we don't much care about sample noise; apart from the 'destination wedding' issue, I definitely want to count two immigrants who arrived in the UK already married, and I think they'll also appear in the survey but not the certificate-counting.

comment by andyljones · 2020-09-22T10:49:09.929Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks very much for figuring that out! I've retracted my original comment; my estimate of the background rate is now 30-40%ish - I think the various perturbations'll near-enough cancel - and with that, the diff against the American rate is no longer the majority of the anomaly.

comment by Linch · 2020-09-20T03:12:42.834Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is interesting. The numbers here are not surprising based on my independent observations, but the phenomenon is in some sense fairly surprising. Several other considerations:

1. Anecdotally, conditional upon marriage, the rate of divorce in my EA friends seem much higher than among my non-EA friends of similar ages. So it is only not the case that EAs are careful/slow to marry because they are less willing to make long-term commitments that they cannot always keep, or because they are more okay with pre-marital cohabitation.

Obviously in any given case this should not be a cause of blame (in all the situations I have sufficient detail about, it appears that divorce was the best option in each of those cases). However, collectively the pattern should require some explanation.

2. Along with some of the other commenters, I share the anecdotes that my EA friends are much less likely to be married than my non-EA friends, or other groups. To add to the list of anecdotes, among Googlers who a) I know from non-EA contexts, eg former coworkers, b) are older than me and c) I know well enough to be >80% of confident of their relationship statuses, I think > 50% of them are married. I think the numbers are closer to 25-30% for Googlers of a similar age range I know through EA (with some nuances, like I know one person who probably would have been married if not for polyamory), and similar (if not slightly lower) numbers for non-Googler EAs I know well.

3. My inside view is that if you don't update on the observed data and just consider which characteristics will make EAs more or less likely to be married, I think there are a bunch of factors that push EAs towards "more"as opposed to less. Possibly controversial, but consider:

A. EAs are, on average, disproportionately high in traits that are seen as positive for long-term relationships/marriages in the broader population. This includes obvious traits like elite college attendance (speaking as someone who has not attended one), high earning potential, and intellectual engagement, but also subtler traits like having good relationships with their parents (which should be an indicator for being on average better at long-term relationships), general willingness to make sacrifices, communication ability, and willingness to try different things for conflict resolution.

B. You might expect this to be a signaling problem (maybe EAs have positive traits that are hard for others to discover), but I think the meta-level evidence is against this? For example, elite college backgrounds and intellectual ability are relatively transparent. You might also expect EAs to on average be healthier and more conventionally attractive than baseline (For example, Americans aged 20-39 are ~40% likely to be obese for both men and women, and I think the numbers are much lower in EA).

C. EAs are much more likely to be in international relationships than baseline, and the relative legal benefits of marriage are usually higher for international marriages than domestic marriages.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-20T07:16:28.900Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

1. Anecdotally, conditional upon marriage, the rate of divorce in my EA friends seem much higher than among my non-EA friends of similar ages. So it is not the case that EAs are careful/slow to marry because they are less willing with making long-term commitments, or because they are more okay with pre-marital cohabitation.

I'm not sure I understand why the observation in the first sentence supports the claims in the second sentence? Couldn't EAs tend to be less willing to make long-term commitments, or be more ok with pre-marital cohabitation, but then there's also some other factor (e.g., not feeling bound by conventions, regularly changing lifestyles such as by moving, disagreeablenss) meaning that if EAs get married they're more likely to get divorced? Or couldn't be that EAs tend to have those two features, but the EAs who get married are ones who deviate from those tendencies?

My inside view is that if you don't update on the observed data and just consider which characteristics will make EAs more or less likely to be married, I think there are a bunch of factors that push EAs towards "more"as opposed to less.

This seems true to me as well.

comment by Linch · 2020-09-21T11:39:59.526Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this was poorly phrased on my part. I meant to say "it is not only the case." I will edit the parent comment.

comment by Ramiro · 2020-09-20T15:22:23.450Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Did anyone stratify the data by gender? We seem to have way more males in EA.

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-09-20T18:34:52.155Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

See the discussion here: https://www.facebook.com/jefftk/posts/10100184609772372?comment_id=10100184674817022

It doesn't account for a very much of the data, unfortunately.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-19T21:53:56.701Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Other ideas?


1. EAs are pickier with partners, e.g. looking for someone with similar values? That EA skews so heavily male might make that harder, too.

2. EAs are more okay with long-term relationships (possibly including having and raising children) outside marriage? I guess this gets at your last suggestion about weirdness/standards.


  • EAs often highly prioritize their careers.
  • EAs are generally less interested in having children.

If I had to guess, these would play a big part. Career prioritization is mine (I'm 27). Specifically, I don't know where I'll want to live in the next few years, and I'd be worried about having a partner limiting my options (and I prefer non-remote work). 

I'm also just personally not that interested in having a relationship, and am satisfied on my own, not that I'm specifically aromantic or asexual (although I'd expect the prevalence of these to be higher in EA, too).

I also second everything RyanCarey said here [EA(p) · GW(p)].

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-19T10:14:41.665Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Epistemic status: Very anecdotal and probably unimportant.

I previously took part in a program called Teach For Australia (TFA), similar to the better known Teach First and Teach For America programs. I found the people in this program much more "like me" in a bunch of ways than any other group I'd encountered until then. I then discovered EA, and found EAs even more "like me", but in similar ways. And I have a loose impression that EA and TFA both disproportionately draw from fairly similar types of people. (E.g., ambitious, impact-oriented, career-prioritising, critical thinking, privileged young graduates of prestigious universities. Probably also more often non-religious than is typical - though by a smaller margin than is the case in EA - which is relevant in light of RyanCarey's comment.)

It also seemed to me that people in the TFA program were quite surprisingly often married or engaged, despite their young average age. I didn't do any systematic data collection, but of the group of me and the 3 other TFAs I was closest with, the average age is ~27, and 75% are married or would've had their wedding by now if not for COVID (and also started their current relationships 5-10 years ago, so there wasn't even much time in the "single" category).

This makes this data somewhat more surprising to me, as it seems to weakly suggest that some of the differences between EAs and society at large may increase marriage rates and reduce single rates, and that other differences are having to push hard to offset that. (Though I guess that that claim, as stated, should be fairly obvious.)

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-20T07:38:59.446Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd also be interested to find out what proportion of EA marriages are to non-EAs, and what proportion are relationships that began before either party discovered EA. I feel like that'd affect what the best explanation of this trend would be.

For one data point, I got married this year (~1.5 years after learning of EA), my relationship began before I discovered EA, and my partner is not an EA. 

And I'm 23, so apparently I might be ~25% of the married EA cohort in my age group. (Though I wasn't married in 2018 and may not have taken the survey then, so I'm not actually one of the four married 18-24 year olds shown there. Also, I'd guess that EA has grown and that this will slightly increase the size of each cohort.) So perhaps my one data point can be extrapolated from to a greater extent than one would intuitively assume.

comment by Ramiro · 2020-09-20T21:40:20.654Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you allow me a little joke, maybe this can be explained by people trying to follow the "marry to give" path?

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-21T06:56:32.997Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

(I'll indeed allow the little joke, and will furthermore add a link to the hilarious post which I think orginated that phrase, for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of encountering it yet.)

comment by Linch · 2020-09-20T03:28:51.743Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Information source: Not sure if this is the right reference class, but it's interesting to note that the most famous historical utilitarians seemed to have married late.

1. Jeremy Bentham was never married, and AFAIK has never had a romantic relationship.

2. John Stuart Mill married Harriet Mill (also a prominent utilitarian) when he was 45. She was 44. If his autobiography is to be believed, she was his first and only serious romantic interest.

3. Henry Sidgwich married at 38. (though some biographers think he was privately gay).

4. Bertrand Russell seemed to be a bit of an outlier, marrying at 22, 49, 64 and 80.

5. Derek Parfit married at 67.

6. Peter Singer (also an outlier) married at 22.

The earlier examples are especially interesting, because I'd expect the average age of marriage to be much lower, historically. Of course, they might also generalize less well.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-19T22:25:18.907Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe some EAs would only want to be married to a person until it no longer maximizes utility, but feel more is expected in a marriage, and don't want to commit to more. I don't expect this accounts for much of the difference, though.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-20T07:29:52.798Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Disclaimer: I notice that I felt weird about your comment to an extent that may not be reasonable, so my own comment here may be odd/have an odd tone. Also, I'm recently married, so maybe somehow I'm feeling defensive, but I really don't know why that'd be.]

My knee-jerk reaction is that that mindset, at least as phrased, would be quite naive consequentialism, for two main reasons: 

  • Getting married may itself change how much happiness a relationship provides and how long one wants to stay in it.
    • One part of what I have in mind is analogous to "burning one's boats", and the related notion in game theory that one can sometimes improve one's payoffs by cutting off some of one's own options.
  • Regularly running the decision procedure "explicitly try to work out what personal life decisions would maximise utility" will not necessarily be the best way to actually maximise utility.
    • Relatedly, Askell [EA · GW] writes: "As many utilitarians have pointed out, the act utilitarian claim that you should ‘act such that you maximize the aggregate wellbeing’ is best thought of as a criterion of rightness and not as a decision procedure. In fact, trying to use this criterion as a decision procedure will often fail to maximize the aggregate wellbeing. In such cases, utilitarianism will actually say that agents are forbidden to use the utilitarian criterion when they make decisions."
    • That said, whether to get married is a large decision that doesn't arise often, so it's plausible that that's the sort of case where it is worth thinking as a consequentialist explicitly and in detail.

(That said, even if this way of thinking would indeed be quite naive consequentialism, that doesn't rule out the possibility that many EAs think this way, so your comment could still be onto something.)

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-20T09:33:42.596Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think these are all good points, and I agree that these are good reasons for marriage. I didn't intend my comment as a good reason to not get married.

One thing I had in mind is that if someone feels that there's a good chance they'll divorce their partner (and the base rate is high, so on an outside view, this seems true), then marriage vows ("till death do us part") might feel like lying or making a promise they know there's a good chance they won't keep, and they might have a strong aversion to this. Personally, I feel this way. If I make a promise that I expect to only keep with ~50% probability, then this feels like lying. 90% probability feels like lying to me, too. I'm not sure where it stops feeling like lying.

However, this doesn't mean they shouldn't get married anyway; interpreting or rewriting the vows as slightly less demanding (but still fairly demanding) is better and not necessarily lying. I had this thread [EA(p) · GW(p)] (click "See in context" for more) in mind about the GWWC pledge. 

I don't know what's normally expected, but I'd rather be somewhat explicit that we can get divorced for any reason, as long as we make an honest effort to work through it (say for a year, with counselling, etc.), with exceptions allowing immediate divorce for abuse or one of us acting very harmful to the other or others.

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-20T10:27:58.121Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

That all sounds reasonable. And yeah, I wasn't interpreting your comment as actually intended as an argument against marriage (just a hypothesis as to why EAs may tend to be less inclined to get married).

One thing I'd note is that I'm not sure "till death do us part" is actually required or default. The celebrant for our wedding just said:

I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are about to enter. Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

(And this was just her default; we didn't have to request a move away from "till death do us part". Note that this was a non-religious ceremony and celebrant.) 

Maybe that has the same literal meaning as "till death do us part"; I'm not sure. But I feel like I'd naturally interpret the phrasing my celebrant used as meaning that the two parties have thought really seriously about this, and do presently intend for this to last for life - without it necessarily meaning they totally commit to sticking with it till death or that they predict a 100% chance of that. 

(My partner and I also had more explicit conversations about this sort of thing.)

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-09-20T12:48:06.392Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

"for life" sounds just as permanent to me, if less morbid, than "till death do us part"

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-20T12:59:14.563Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that's reasonable. Here's one example to illustrate what might be making my intuitions differ a bit; I feel like you could say "He has spent his life working to end malaria" when someone is alive and fairly young, and also that you could say "He spent his life working to end malaria" even if really he worked on that from 30-60 and then retired. (Whereas I don't think this is true if you explicitly say "He worked to end malaria till the day he died".) In a similar way, I have a weak sense we can "enter into a union for life" without this literally extending for 100% of the rest of our lives. 

But maybe my intuition is being driven more by it being a present-tense matter of us currently voluntarily entering into this union. Analogously, I think people would usually feel it's reasonable for promises to not always be upheld if unusual and hard-to-foresee circumstances arose, the foreseeing of which would've made the promise-maker decide not to make the promise to begin with. (But this does get complicated if reference class forecasting suggests an e.g. 50% chance of some relevant circumstance arising, and it's just that any particular circumstance arising is hard to foresee, as it was in many of those 50% of cases.)

In any case, I guess I really think that whether and how partners explicitly discussed their respective understandings of their arrangement, in advance, probably matters more than the precise words the celebrant said.

comment by Jeff_Kaufman · 2020-09-20T22:26:08.633Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

What do you think the "for life" adds to the pledge if not "for the rest of your lives"?

comment by MichaelA · 2020-09-21T07:20:57.763Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Backing up to clarify where I'm coming from

Again, a reasonable question. I don't think we disagree substantially. 

Also, again, I think my views are actually less driven by a perceived distinction between "for life" vs "till death do us part", and more driven by: 

  • the idea that it seems ok to make promises even if there's some chance that unforeseen circumstances will make fulfilling them impossible/unwise - as long as the promise really was "taken seriously", and ideally the promise-receiver has the same understanding of how "binding" the promise is
  • having had many explicit conversations on these matters with my partner

Finally, I'd also guess that I'm far from alone in simultaneously (a) being aware that a large portion of marriages end in divorce, (b) being aware that many of those divorces probably began with the couple feeling very confident their marriage wouldn't end in divorce, and (c) having a wedding in which a phrase like "for life" or "till death do us part" was used. 

And I think it would be odd to see all such people as having behaving poorly by making a promise they may well not keep and know in advance they may not keep, at least if the partners had discussed their shared understanding of what they were promising. (I'm not necessarily saying you're saying we should see those people that way.) One reason for this view  is that people extremely often mean something other than exact the literal meaning of what they've said, and this seems ok in most contexts, as long as people mutually understand what's actually meant. 

(I think a reasonable argument can be made that marriages aren't among those "most contexts", given their unusually serious and legal nature. But it also seems worth noting that this is about what the celebrant said, not our vows or what we signed.)

Direct response, which is sort-of getting in the weeds on something I haven't really thought about in detail before, to be honest

What do you think the "for life" adds to the pledge if not "for the rest of your lives"?

One could likewise ask what "He spent his life working to end malaria" means that's different from "He spent some time working to end malaria". There, I'd say it adds the idea that this was a very major focus for perhaps at least 2 decades, probably more than 3 decades. Whereas "some time" could mean it wasn't a major priority for him at any point, or only for e.g. 10 years. 

It seems to me perhaps reasonable to think of "entered into for life" as meaning "entered into as at one of the core parts of one's life for at least a few decades, and perhaps/ideally till the very end of one's life". Whereas "till death do us part" is very explicitly until the very end of one's life.

Out of curiosity, I've now looked up what dictionaries say "for life" means. The first two results I found said "for the whole of one's life : for the rest of one's life" (source) and "for the rest of a person's life" (source). This pushes against my (tentative) view, and in favour of your view. 

However, I'd tentatively argue that 2 of the 5 of the examples those dictionaries give actually seem to me to at least arguably fit my (tentative) view:

  • "She may have been scarred for life."
    • Obviously, people can say this as an exaggeration. But I think they can also say it in a more serious way, that people wouldn't perceive as an exaggeration, even if they actually just mean something like "scarred in a substantial way that resurfaces semi-regularly for at least 2 decades". (That's still a lot more than just "scarred" or "scarred for a while".)
  • "There can be no jobs for life."
    • Another dictionary tells me "job for life" means (as I'd expect) "a job that you can stay in all your working life"; not till the actual end of your life.

Two of the other examples are about being sentenced to prison for life; I think that also arguably fits my view, given how life sentences actually tend to work (as far as I'm aware). The fifth example - "They met in college and have remained friends for life" -could go either way.

(And again, I think it's common for people to not actually mean the dictionary definitions of what they say, and that this can be ok, as long as they understand each other.)