Are you the society you lead? Photo: Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash
Many things can lead to infidelity – a misjudgment, one drink too many, a long wait. But researchers from one study say it could be something rubbing off on you.
In a study published in August in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found that exposure to the unfaithfulness of others leads people to become unfaithful in their own romantic relationships.
The reasoning is this: Learning about the supposed prevalence of infidelity might decrease a person’s commitment to their own relationship and increase their desire for an alternative partner.
“In our latest research, we focused on the circumstances in which people are less likely to use [strategies that help them avoid the temptation to cheat]. We suggest that a peer environment that creates the impression that infidelity is acceptable might be one such circumstance, since knowing that others are having affairs can make people feel more comfortable contemplating having affairs myself,” wrote Gurit Birnbaum, one of the authors of the Lern.
Birnbaum and the other researchers conducted three separate studies of heterosexual monogamous relationships. In all studies, they exposed participants to the cheating behavior of others and recorded their subsequent reactions while thinking about or interacting with others.
In the first study, undergraduate students who were in committed relationships lasting at least four months watched one of two videos — a video estimating that infidelity was present in 86 percent of relationships and a video estimating that it was present in 11 percent of relationships. The researchers then asked participants to write about a sexual fantasy. Independent judges scored these fantasies for current and alternate partner desires.
The study showed that learning through the videos that the prevalence of infidelity was either high or low did not affect participants’ desire for their current or alternate partners.
However, subsequent studies came to different conclusions.
In the second study, which involved undergraduate students who had been in committed relationships of at least 12 months, the researchers exposed participants to either an act of infidelity or another act of “unethical behavior in general,” such as cheating schoolwork.
For example, in the infidelity condition, participants read:
“I met a gorgeous man during an interview at his place of work. I got the job and started working with him. After a few of [sic] week he invited me to dinner. I didn’t think twice and accepted his invitation. After dinner we kissed passionately. It was the best kiss ever! I don’t live with my boyfriend so he doesn’t know about it.”
While participants in the academic cheating condition read:
“I am a student who works 24/7 to fund my studies. So sometimes when I have to write an essay that I find challenging or time consuming, I copy it from other students. If things get difficult, I might even pay someone to write the essay for me. I just want to graduate and get this degree.”
Participants then looked at pictures of “attractive strangers of the opposite sex” and indicated whether they would consider the people depicted as potential partners. The number of people who would consider them as partners was used as an index of interest in alternative partners.
Those who read about romantic infidelity responded “yes” to more photos than those who read about academic cheating, indicating an interest in more new partners.
In the third study, the researchers looked not only at whether exposure to the infidelity of others would increase participants’ desire for other partners, but also whether they would make more of an effort to see those other partners in the future.
To do this, undergraduate students who have been in a steady relationship for at least four months read the results of one or two surveys. One estimated the prevalence of romantic infidelity at 85 percent, while the other estimated that 85 percent was the prevalence of academic cheating.
Participants then used an instant messaging platform to interact with a research assistant whose photo featured an “attractive” member of the opposite sex. The scientific staff asked about hobbies and interests of the participants and said at the end of the interview: “You definitely made me curious! I hope to see you again, and this time face to face.” Respondents were then asked to respond to this message, as well as to rate their interviewer’s sexual desirability and their commitment to their current relationship. Independent judges evaluated participants’ responses in terms of the effort participants reported making to see their interviewers in person.
Results showed that participants who were exposed to the romantic infidelity survey and found their interviewer attractive were more likely to send messages to their interviewer expressing a desire to meet again. Participants exposed to romantic infidelity also reported less commitment to their current relationships than those exposed to academic cheating. Additionally, the researchers found that men were less committed to their current relationships than women, regardless of whether they faced romantic infidelity or academic cheating.
The researchers interpreted these results to mean that exposure to the infidelity of others makes people less likely to commit to their current relationships and more likely to seek out other partners.
“After participants were exposed to the infidelity of others, participants experienced less commitment to their relationship and a greater desire for alternative partners. These results suggest that environments that promote greater prevalence of infidelity reduce motivation to protect attachment to the current partner, potentially setting the stage for unleashing desire for alternative partners. Such environments can make people more vulnerable to infidelity, if not “infecting,” Birnbaum wrote.
A person who says they would seek an alternative partner or shows signs that they would like to see another person in person is not the same as having an affair. However, the researchers wrote that settings where infidelity is common might justify abandoning “long-term priorities of nurturing relationships and pursuing enticing alternatives.”
The authors reportedly speculate that “exposure to adultery norms, for example, may de-emphasize long-term goals and thereby reduce feelings of guilt or mitigate resistance to infidelity by reducing motivation to protect the current relationship”. However, they also said that more research is needed to clarify exactly how knowing or being present that others are unfaithful affects people’s own willingness to be unfaithful.
“Environments where infidelity is prevalent do not necessarily turn people into cheaters. However, when someone is already vulnerable to cheating or opportunities for infidelity arise, these environments can provide the extra boost needed to resolve the conflict between following moral values and succumbing to short-term temptations in a way that encourages infidelity.” , Birnbaum wrote .
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