Friday, May 13, 2011

The Unfaithful: Who is most likely to cheat?

Another celebrity love child scandal
As a culture, we are fascinated with infidelity - philandering politicians and celebrities always make headlines, and everyone has an opinion on the matter. We are desperate to understand who cheats and why, and for good reason: infidelity can destroy relationships, break up families, and impair mental health

So what does psychology research have to say? Are men more likely to cheat? Does power increase infidelity? Is there a cheating gene? 

Power players. According to a new study soon to be published in Psychological Science, the presumed gender difference in cheating underestimates the role of power. Power at work turned out to be the strongest predictor of cheating (in part because of its association with confidence), and there were no gender differences in actual and desired cheating. The authors predict that as women gain more power in society their cheating rates may rival men's. Other research suggests, however, that mean may also cheat when they lack power - especially when they feel inferior to their wives and girlfriends (think Jesse James, Sandra Bullock's ex). Apparently men who earn less than their female partners, especially if they are financially dependent on them, are more likely to cheat. This pattern seems to be related to a sense of threatened masculinity that triggers compensatory behaviors. Of course, this finding does not apply to all men - some may respond to their spouse's generosity with appreciation and a willingness to compensate on the domestic front instead. 

In our genes? A controversial but provocative finding suggests that people with a variant of the DRD4 gene (dopamine receptor polymorphism) are more likely to be unfaithful. This gene is also associated with addictive behaviors, which operate through the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for motivating pleasure-seeking behavior. According to the researchers, people who possess this particular genetic variant need more excitement to feel satisfied, which may lead them to stray. But the authors make sure to note that possession of the gene does not excuse dishonesty - it just might mean that certain people have to exercise greater self-control in the face of temptation if they wish to be in a monogamous relationship. Interestingly, the authors suggest that there might be some advantages to possessing the gene - it's also associated with creativity and novelty-seeking. These qualities can be useful in other domains of life, and may even be helpful in relationships when it comes to keeping the excitement alive. So should you make your partner get tested? Probably not. There are still many unknowns in the field of behavioral genetics, and not everyone who possesses this gene is going to be a cheater. Knowing that you or your partner has it could create unnecessary suspicion and even result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dissatisfaction. Relationship satisfaction plays a less important role than you might think - it accounts for only a small proportion of the variance on cheating behavior. In fact, claiming dissatisfaction may be more of an excuse that people use after the fact to make them feel more justified in their behavior: in most studies, participants are asked how happy they were in their relationships after the infidelity has already occurred, increasing the likelihood of inflated dissatisfaction ratings. Based on what we know about cognitive dissonance and our boundless capacity for self-justification, such findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Longitudinal studies that assess satisfaction levels before cheating takes place are more informative, but even then, people might already be justifying their desires or intentions. Of course, there are certainly instances where dissatisfaction and communication break-downs breed infidelity - the point is just that this is often only part of the story. For example, a major determinant of infidelity is simply the presence of opportunities in the environment - propinquity (i.e., convenience) plays just as much of a role in affairs as it does in normal relationships. At least half of all the affairs reported in one (older) study took place with co-workers. Nowadays the internet allows would-be cheaters a much broader range of opportunities. 

Too much testosterone?
Personality. Are there cheating-prone personality types? Research suggests that people with insecure attachment styles, not surprisingly, are more likely to struggle with fidelity, though for different reasons depending on the type of insecurity. Women with anxious attachment styles - those who doubt their partner's love and need excessive reassurance - cheat more as a means of seeking greater intimacy. Avoidant attachment styles - characterized by discomfort with closeness - are associated with cheating as a means of gaining space and freedom from a partner. Other individual differences that are associated with infidelity: men with higher testosterone levels are more likely to cheat, and some studies show that cheaters have higher IQs than non-cheaters. Religiosity tends to be associated with lower levels of infidelity - in one study, participants who were randomly assigned to pray for their partner every day for four weeks were less likely to be unfaithful. Even if you are not religious, looking out for your partner's well-being is likely to deter you from behaving in a way that could hurt them.

There are many other interesting studies on what makes people more likely to cheat, some of which we will be sure to discuss in future posts. An important caveat to much of the research on infidelity, as for other research topics, is that both correlational and experimental findings have limitations and can't necessarily generalize to all people. Another caveat is that as much as we would like to be able to spot cheaters, the truth is we are not very good at detecting liars - some estimates say we're no better than chance, aside from a few pros. Rather than investing in genetic testing and shunning stay-at-home dads, we are better off building relationships based on trust and open communication, treating each other as we hope to be treated, and being honest when we do make mistakes.

Blow, A., & Hartnett, K. (2005). Infidelity in committed relationships: A substantive review Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 31 (2), 217-233 DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2005.tb01556.x

Garcia JR, MacKillop J, Aller EL, Merriwether AM, Wilson DS, & Lum JK (2010). Associations between dopamine D4 receptor gene variation with both infidelity and sexual promiscuity. PloS one, 5 (11) PMID: 21152404

Fincham FD, Lambert NM, & Beach SR (2010). Faith and unfaithfulness: can praying for your partner reduce infidelity? Journal of personality and social psychology, 99 (4), 649-59 PMID: 20718545

Lammers, J., Stoker, J. I., Jordan, J., Pollmann, M. M. H. & Stapel, D. A. (2011). Power increases infidelity among men and women Psychological Science.


  1. For me,there are no inborn cheaters. They cheat because they have reasons why they do that.
    Anyways,whatever reasons it maybe cheating is still a sin and it's can really destroy a family.

    It's really interesting and I do admire your effort in making a research for this one.

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  3. It's a wonderful article.All relationships have their ups and downs, but you should know how to spot if your partner was cheating.

  4. Awesome post. I’ve been browsing online more than three hours today, but I by no means found any fascinating article like yours.
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  5. Cheating is one of the most common problems but we don't even know what's the best reason for this issue. I think it is because of dissatisfaction and I agree that men with higher testosterone levels are more likely to cheat. Partners should open up their problems to avoid cheating.

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