Demographics and Attitudes about Polygamy

I've begun to analyze the data from my survey on religion and people's attitudes about marriage. One of the main reasons for doing the study was to learn what people thought about polygamy. Here is the summary that I am sending to participants who requested one:

Some time during the past year you participated in my research on people’s attitudes toward polygamy. I want to take a moment to thank you for your help, and to offer the following summary of the results of that project. This is a brief version of a paper I will present at the upcoming meeting of the American Psychological Association in New Orleans, August 11, 2006.


Despite estimates that tens of thousands of people in the Western United States are either involved in polygamous marriages or belong to churches that advocate such marriages (Adams, 2005), psychological research on polygamy is limited. Most studies have examined communication patterns in such families (e.g., Altman & Ginat, 1996), children in polygamous families (e.g., Elbedour et al, 2002), or evolutionary rationale for the existence of polygamy (e.g., Jankowiak & Diderich, 2000). One important study of family structure that considers polygamy was conducted recently by Reginal Bibby. He surveyed Canadians’ views regarding polygamous marriages and found that men, younger adults, and residents of Quebec and British Columbia were more open to such marriages. The present study is an attempt to examine potential demographic predictors of religiously-motivated polygamy. Because of its unique history regarding polygamy, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints received special focus in the present study.


A sample of 2433 respondents was obtained by soliciting participants at websites devoted to psychology, religion, and polygamy. Participants were predominantly female (N = 1420), U.S. residents (N = 2106), members of the LDS Church (N = 1239) or had some association with the LDS Church. They responded to several questions regarding four general facets of polygamy: their tolerance for polygamy, its treatment of women, polygamy as a social phenomenon, and the ability of teens to decide for themselves regarding polygamy. Demographic variables included age, gender, education, marital status, state/country, and worship service attendance. Respondents also indicated if they have known a polygamist (N = 518) or are polygamists themselves (N = 47). It is important to note that because of the way the study was conducted, we cannot use these data to make conclusions about the populace as a whole.


Attitudes toward polygamy are generally negative, and were associated with several demographic factors. Consistent with the findings of Bibby (2004), men were more likely than women to view polygamy favorably. Attendance at worship services also predicts negative attitudes in general, although among the LDS sample worship service attendance also was associated with beliefs that polygamous women are treated fairly.

The effect of age on attitudes was inconsistent in the Never-LDS sample, but tended to be more consistent in the LDS sample. In general, attitudes were most negative among younger LDS churchgoers, rose, and then tended to level off among LDS respondents in their 40s and 50s.

To the extent that education affected attitudes, it tended to make people more tolerant of polygamy. Region of the country generally was not associated with attitudes, with three interesting exceptions. First, in the LDS sample people living outside the U.S.A. did not see a link between polygamy and gay marriage. Secondly, compared to people living elsewhere LDS Utahns were more likely to agree that polygamists abuse government welfare programs. Third, Never-LDS Utahns are less likely than their counterparts elsewhere to endorse granting employee benefits to polygamous spouses.

Among LDS respondents men, polygamists, and those living outside the United States are more likely to believe that teen boys are able to leave a polygamous lifestyle if they wish. LDS respondents who were polygamists, frequent churchgoers, less educated, young, or living outside the U.S. are more likely than others to believe that teen girls can leave a polygamist lifestyle. Among Never-LDS respondents, no demographic variables reliably predicted a teen’s ability to leave polygamy.

Finally, knowing a polygamist or being polygamist results in the most favorable attitudes toward polygamy, as was expected. Such people were more likely to accept polygamy, seek its legalization, consider it fair to women, and to want polygamists to have access to employee health benefits.

Limitations & Future Research

Although the results are basically consistent with those of Bibby (2004), the nature of this sample precludes generalizations about the population of the whole. Additional research will need to be conducted in order to understand how specific groups might view polygamy.

Future research will investigate the role of psychological factors on people’s attitudes toward polygamy. I will post updates on my blog (http://psyrel.blogspot.com) as I continue to do additional analyses. Please feel free to visit periodically if you are interested in this research.

Again, thank you for participating in this project. I deeply appreciate your help, and I hope that you found it interesting and beneficial.

Best wishes,
Michael Nielsen, Ph.D.


Adams, B. (2005, August 9). LDS splinter groups growing. Salt Lake Tribune, vol. 270, #117, p. B1.
Altman, I., & Ginat, J. (1996). Polygamous families in contemporary society. New York: Cambridge.
Bibby, R. (2004). The future families project: A survey of Canadian hopes and dreams. Retrieved July 19, 2006, from http://www.vifamily.c/library/future/future.html.
Elbedour, S., Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Caridine, C., & Abu-Saad, H. (2002). The effect of polygamous marital structure on behavioral, emotional, and academic adjustment in children: A comprehensive review of the literature. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 5, 255-271.
Jankowiak, W., & Diderich, M. (2000). Sibling solidarity in a polygamous community in the USA: Unpacking inclusive fitness. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21, 125-139.

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