Cuckoldry more common in past generations

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2010 8:21 am

We have some data that in fact older generations were more sexually promiscuous, contrary to the moral panic perpetually ascendant. As a follow up to my previous post, there is some scholarship which suggests that misattributed paternity rates have been declining. Recent decline in nonpaternity rates: a cross-temporal meta-analysis:

Nonpaternity (i.e., discrepant biological versus social fatherhood) affects many issues of interests to psychologists, including familial dynamics, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, and fertility, and therefore represents an important topic for psychological research. The advent of modern contraceptive methods, particularly the market launch of the birth-control pill in the early 1960s and its increased use ever since, should have affected rates of nonpaternity (i.e., discrepant genetic and social fatherhood). This cross-temporal meta-analysis investigated whether there has been a recent decline in nonpaternity rates in the western industrialized nations. The eligible database comprised 32 published samples unbiased towards nonpaternity for which nonoverlapping data from more than 24,000 subjects from nine (mostly Anglo-Saxon heritage) countries with primarily Caucasian populations are reported. Publication years ranged from 1932 to 1999, and estimated years of the reported nonpaternity events (i.e., the temporal occurrence of nonpaternity) ranged from 1895 to 1993. In support of the hypothesis, weighted meta-regression models showed a significant decrease (r = -.41) of log-transformed nonpaternity rates with publication years and also a decrease, albeit not significant (r = -.17), with estimated years of nonpaternity events. These results transform into an estimated absolute decline in untransformed nonpaternity rates of 0.83% and 0.91% per decade, respectively. Across studies, the mean (and median) nonpaternity rate was 3.1% (2.1%). This estimate is consistent with estimates of 2 to 3% from recent reviews on the topic that were based on fewer primary studies. This estimate also rebuts the beliefs and hearsay data widespread among both the public and researchers which contend nonpaternity rates in modern populations might be as high as about 10%.

I don’t have academic access, so I can’t say much more than that (if someone wants to email me the paper, contactgnxp -at – gmail -dot- com will work). Obviously I don’t think this is implausible on the face it; the “good old days” were often a lot less “good” than we remember (or what our elders remember and tell us).

Addendum: If you are from the cuckold enthusiast community, yes, I am aware that your perspective on whether the good old days were good may differ….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Cuckoldry, paternity

Comments (14)

  1. jemand

    I’m sure step children and adopted children were excluded? Are the rates constant or increasing when taking into account step children?

  2. by definition they’re not misattributed (i.e., the father knows he’s not the biological father by definition). you have to pretty dumb to think that your stepchildren or adoptive children are your own biological offspring 😉 though perhaps there are morons out there demanding paternity testing on their stepchildren, i don’t know.

  3. Karthik Durvasula

    Actually, Razib, the opposite conclusion is surely warranted (unless I am missing some crucial piece of data).

    The rates 1%/ decade. But they are at least two major factors that could have decreased the rates:
    1) a variety of contraception methods ( a huge factor)
    2) single motherhood is also not as much of a taboo, anymore.

    Given that these factors influence the absolute nonpaternity numbers, we should not use the the absolute non-paternity rates as proxy for the degree of cuckolding in the culture.

    In fact, if you “correct” the absolute value for (1-2), then you will get a number that might be used as a proxy for “degree of cuckolding in the culture” – my guess is it will be far more than a “3%” increase – thereby lending some measure of credence to the traditionalist view.

  4. karthik, fair point. i did think of that and i didn’t view it as you do, but that’s a matter of taste.

  5. Fia

    Ha. This feels right, but once one ignores the fact that it’s about humans, its a somewhat unexpected result. Females are expected to seek extra-pair copulations for reasons of genetic quality, – thus siring of offspring is assumed to be the desired result of extra-pair sex, not undesired. In that case, the introduction of effective contraceptives should not affect non-paternity rates. But, in humans, of course, it is assumed that women seek extra-martial sex for the pure reason of pleasure.

  6. fia, don’t confound ultimate evolutionary ends for proximate bio-behavioral means. IOW, even assuming the logic of extra-pair copulation, all the biology is still in place, contraception just blocks the ultimate outcome. additionally, i’m moderately skeptical of the generalizability of drive toward females seeking genetic quality through extra-pair copulation among humans. it seems a high risk strategy for a species’ females when they don’t have that many gestations to expend. i suspect humans (male and female) have “front-loaded” a lot of these assessments pre-pairing since reproduction is a high investment task for both (more for females than males, but still for males).

  7. Jason Malloy

    When I linked this paper last year, Gregory Cochran made a comment that suggested extreme incredulity based on some genetic data:

    Jason Malloy: “A newer meta-analysis by Martin Voracek confirms that nonpaternity rates are about 2-3%, but also finds that nonpaternity has decreased by almost 1% per decade in developed nations, suggesting that the 5-10% estimate was more accurate in the not too distant past.”

    gcochran: “Adultery was a lot easier for farm wives
. except, obviously, if they were named Sykes.”

    He also seems to suggest it’s implausible that rural housewives in smaller, intimate communities are more adulterous than “liberated” women with jobs and independent social lives in larger, anonymous communities.

    But I find the Voracek review convincing.

  8. jason, did you send me a copy of the paper?

    one issue might be that over the long term cuckoldry might not matter much if these lineages are low status. sykes, the macdonalds, genghis khan haplotype, indicate the high fidelity rates of women who marry into high status lineages (or perhaps the high level of control and monitoring these lineages can employ).

  9. gcochran

    If we’re talking rates of cuckoldry, we probably need to be a bit more specific than ‘ the past’. Do I think that it was lower when the country’s population was primarily rural? Sure. What about 1970 compared to now? I don’t know. What about this meta-analysis? I think it’s probably nonsense.

    In the near future, ubiquitious sequencing applied to genealogy will supply the real numbers.

  10. Jason Malloy

    Logically, I would imagine nonpaternity rates over time map on to other positive social indicators which mostly move in unison. You can probably get a roughly accurate picture of how much cuckoldry is going on by simply knowing the murder rate (or GDP, HDI, IQ, etc).

    Even eye-balling the charts in the Anderson review, you get a sense of higher rates as you move backwards through the 20th century (see coldequation’s comment). Is this maybe an artifact of less accurate methods of testing paternity? Probably not.

  11. Given the disparate samples, testing technologies, and reporting accuracy, even a point estimate of “paternity discrepancy” or “nonpaternity” has a wide range of error (including definitional inconsistency). Here’s a review of the Anderson data collection (your previous post), and additional data, including non-human data and behavioral data:

    It seems to me that the most plausible estimate of the share of children in high-income Western countries who currently hold false beliefs about who their biological fathers are is roughly 5%. The share of men who don’t know who their biological children are likely differs from that figure by more than one or two percentage points. The Anderson paper doesn’t even recognize this important distinction.

  12. There was more pressure to marry the undesired man in the past.. because of economic dependence.. and thus more desire to have sex with the desired man..

  13. Douglas Knight

    It’s clear what conclusion to draw from Sykes, but what does Genghis tell us? All we know is that his Y chromosome is widespread, not that it’s correlated with a name, right? So it could be that it spread via cuckoldry.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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