New research sheds mild on how untrue males scale back cognitive dissonance after committing infidelity
The study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examines the thought processes that bring comfort to perpetrators of infidelity. The study provides new information about how men who cheat on their partners frame their experience to reduce their own discomfort.
“In the past, when I wrote this research on infidelity, it was natural to discuss the feelings of guilt and shame that scammers often report,” said researcher Cassandra Alexopoulos, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I was very interested in the process of rationalizing a behavior to the extent that one would be willing to perform that behavior over and over again.”
For her study, Alexopoulos surveyed 1,514 male users of Ashley Madison, a dating site for those seeking infidelity. Participants were all married or in a romantic relationship and did not have a consensual non-monogamous arrangement with their significant other. A month later, a total of 425 participants took part in a follow-up survey.
Participants reported how often they had various online and face-to-face behaviors with someone other than their primary romantic partner. They were also asked how they use strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance, such as B. trivializing infidelity or denying responsibility for their behavior. In addition, they reported on their attitudes toward infidelity and whether infidelity had changed their self-image.
Alexopoulos found that greater engagement with online infidelity was associated with more acceptable attitudes toward infidelity and positive self-concept changes. “Attitude change and self-concept change may work as dissociative tactics for infidelity offenders struggling with mental health issues compared to the other strategies included in the current study,” she wrote in her study.
“Specifically, changing how you feel about being unfaithful (e.g., ‘Being unfaithful never hurt anyone’) and how you feel about yourself (e.g., ‘I feel energized for the first time in a long time,’ ‘ This ‘I is the real me’ ) can allow the perpetrator of online infidelity to separate their online self from their offline self.”
Contrary to expectations, greater infidelity was associated with less belittlement and less denial of responsibility. “For denial and belittlement to be effective and logical from the perpetrator’s perspective, the strategies are likely to be used after a one-off transgression has been committed (eg, ‘I didn’t want it to happen,’ ‘What I was wrong , but it says nothing about me as a person’)” explained Alexopoulos. “Once the perpetrator has become involved with multiple partners or has repeatedly cheated with a single partner, the strategy of denying one’s intention to cheat may become inappropriate.”
The change in self-image, meanwhile, was positively associated with personal infidelity. “The data suggest that changing self-concept as a means of justifying one’s behavior is the only strategy people find useful to get to the point where they engage in infidelity offline,” Alexopoulos said to PsyPost. “Additionally, this strategy was also associated with fewer negative outcomes. In other words, if you say to yourself, for example, ‘This new relationship makes me more exciting or fun,’ it seems to allow scammers to reduce their discomfort.”
Alexopoulos noted that future research could collect additional data on the cognitive states associated with committing infidelity. “I think a natural outcome of this project would be in-depth qualitative interviews to get a better picture of how infidelity offenders coach themselves through online and offline infidelity behaviors,” she explained. “This could potentially be useful in helping individuals mitigate future infidelities, or helping people who have cheated and their partners navigate the relationship repair process.”
“One thing I want to make clear is that from a personal perspective, I do not condone violating the boundaries within a relationship that have been set by everyone involved,” Alexopoulos added. “Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, so I help people find the right relationship that works for them.”
The study, Justify My Love: Cognitive Dissonance Reduction in Perpetrators of Online and Offline Infidelity, was published on August 12, 2021.