The Relationship Bias: Uncovered Attitudes Toward Consensual Nonmonogamy

BY: Elle Moore, M.Sc.

Historically, research has shown that people have negative views toward those in consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNM; sexually and/or emotionally nonexclusive romantic relationships, Thompson, Bagley, & Moore, 2018; Cohen, 2016; Conley et al., 2013). However, some more recent research seems to suggest that these views are changing, and that society is becoming more accepting of these types of relationships (Grunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016; Thompson, Hart, Stefaniak, & Harvey, 2018)).  As a research team, we thought that this warranted further investigation. Were our views towards CNM changing, or was this a result of the type of design used by these studies? All of the prior studies utilized self-report, or explicit measures, in which participants consciously share their attitudes, beliefs, or judgments. These measures pose a potential problem because participants can choose to respond in a socially desirable way (i.e., ways that make them look good, accepting, or tolerant).

Therefore, we designed a study in which we assessed participants’ implicit attitudes (or biases) toward consensual non-monogamy (Thompson et al., 2018). An implicit bias is an automatic and involuntary response that occurs outside of our conscious awareness. This means that we may not even be aware of these associations and how they affect our judgments, beliefs or actions. So, we asked participants to come into our lab and complete surveys assessing their explicit attitudes toward CNM. We also had these same participants complete the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998), which is a computer-based test that assesses reaction time when categorizing stimuli (in order to assess implicit biases). Essentially, participants are asked to pair category stimuli (words or images related to CNM or monogamy) with attribute stimuli (positive or negative words). If a participant can more quickly monogamy stimuli with positive attributes (as compared to CNM stimuli), then proponents of the IAT would argue that this person has an automatic bias favoring monogamy over CNM. If you want to test out different types of IATs, follow this link.


What did these tests tell us? For one, we found that explicit attitudes toward CNM were neutral – participants didn’t really have negative or positive views toward CNM. However, implicitly, participants strongly preferred monogamy in comparison to CNM (i.e., they paired monogamy stimuli with positive attributes more quickly than CNM stimuli with positive attributes). Interestingly, people who were less likely to respond in a socially desirable way (in the way they thought they should respond to a situation) had implicit and explicit attitudes that were more closely aligned than people who were more likely to respond in a socially-desirable manner. In other words, people who are likely to distort their responses on the explicit measure saw no correlation between their performance on the explicit and implicit measures. However, for those who didn’t succumb to the pressures to respond in socially desirable ways, their performance on the explicit and implicit measures were positively correlated. Another fun finding? Men and women didn’t differ in their attitudes toward CNM!

So, what does this mean? Well, the results from this study mean that despite what people report consciously, most people have an automatic bias favoring monogamy over CNM. For researchers, theses results are important and provide support for the incorporation of more diverse methods when studying attitudes and judgments. For educators, the results from this study can be used to educate the public about CNM. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), for all of you, these results indicate that conversations need to be started, get people talking! After all, the best way to reduce bias is to normalize the behavior.


Cohen, M. T. (2016).  The perceived satisfaction derived from various relationship configuations. Journal of Relationships Research, 7, 1-7.

Conley, T., Moors, A., Matsick, J., & Ziegler, A. (2013). The fewer the merrier?: Assessing stigma surrounding consensually non-monogamous romantic relationships. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13, 1-30.

Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L., K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1464-1480.

Grunt-Mejer , K., & Campbell, C. (2016). Around consensual nonmonogamies: Assessing attitudes toward nonexclusive relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 53, 45-53.

Thompson, A. E., Bagley, A., J., & Moore, E. A. (2018). Young men and women’s implicit attitudes towards consensually nonmonogamous relationships. Psychology & Sexuality, 9, 117-131.

Thompson, A. E., Hart, J., Stefaniak, S., & Harvey, C. A. (2018). Exploring Heterosexual Adults’ Endorsement of the Sexual Double Standard among Initiators of Consensually Nonmonogamous Relationship Behaviors. Sex Roles, 79, 228-238.