The Psychology of Infidelity: Why Do We Cheat?

The Big Five Personality Trait Model – A Brief Explanation

Defining the human psyche and explaining human behavior has been a goal of psychologists and researchers for decades.

The pioneering psychologist Gordon Allport (1897–1967) once compiled a list of 4,500 different personality traits that he believed explained the human condition. Raymond Cattel (1905-1998), a British-American psychologist best known for his research on intrapersonal psychology, later explained a shorter personality model with 16 different types of personality traits.

In the 1970s, we were presented with what we now know as the Big Five. The Big Five were developed by two independent research teams who took different approaches to their studies of human behavior and came to exactly the same conclusion.

The first team was led by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae of the National Institutes of Health. The second was led by Warren Norman of the University of Michigan and Lewis Goldberg of the University of Oregon.

The Big Five (acronym OCEAN):

  • Openness to experience (willingness to try new activities)
  • Conscientiousness (an awareness of your actions and the consequences of your behavior)
  • Extroversion (open, socially confident behavior)
  • Compatibility (cooperative, friendly and sympathetic behavior)
  • Neuroticism (anxious, thinking too much, worrying behavior)

In 1998, Oliver John from Berkeley Personality Lab and Veronica Benet-Martinez from UC, Davis created the so-called “Big Five Inventory” – a 44-point questionnaire that measures a person using the Big Five factors and then divides these factors into facets of personality.

These factors are measured on a spectrum – a person can be very extroverted, highly introverted, or anywhere in between. A copy of the Big Five inventory can be viewed here.

How does our personality affect our likelihood of cheating in a relationship?

In 2005, researchers Tricia Orzeck and Esther Lung conducted a study in which participants voluntarily completed a questionnaire on personality traits about themselves and their monogamous partners. A total of 45 men and 59 women rated themselves and their partners (a total of 208 people took part in the study).

The results of this study have proven that there is a significant difference between cheaters and non-cheaters when it comes to the Big Five model of personality traits.

This was further explained by a 2018 study in which data from two separate studies looked at the personality traits and relationship dynamics of newly married couples. Both studies lasted 3 years and examined the relationship between personality and infidelity.

The results of this study indicated that these were the couples most likely to be affected by infidelity in their marriage:

  • Women with high (compared to low) extroversion traits were more likely to be unfaithful.
  • Wives who were with a husband who exhibited high (as opposed to low) neuroticism and / or extroversion traits were more likely to be unfaithful.
  • Husbands who were with a woman who had high (compared to low) neuroticism and / or extroversion traits were more likely to be unfaithful.
  • Husbands who were with a woman who had high (as opposed to low) narcissistic traits were more likely to be unfaithful.

The results of this study suggest that a person’s personality traits are insufficient to determine the likelihood of infidelity. Instead, infidelity requires an in-depth look at both the personality traits of each person in the relationship and the dynamics between them.

Why do we cheat?

According to a 2013 survey of 1,535 American adults, having an affair is considered “morally wrong” than gambling, human cloning, and medical animal testing. And yet – so many people still experience heartbreak from being unfaithful in their relationships.

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel wanted to understand why people cheat in relationships.

“Why are people doing this? Why do people, who have often been loyal for decades, one day cross a line they never thought they would cross? What is at stake? How do we understand this and how do we grow from it? ”

In her book “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity”, Perel, who has worked with couples for 33 years, does not take an evidence-based scientific view of infidelity, but rather from a sociological-anthropological point of view.

While it is very common to have fantasies about being with someone other than your partner, not everyone who does so will step over that line to cheat on their partner. In fact, according to a 2001 study, 98% of men and 80% of women have admitted to fantasizing about someone other than their partner, at least occasionally.

That is human nature to be curious – but what makes a person move from natural curiosity to moral ambiguity and cross the line into infidelity? While personality traits and the dynamics of your relationship play a key role, there is much speculation as to why people cheat.

Is technology to blame for “making cheating easier”?

Many people speculate that advances in technology (dating apps and websites like Ashley Madison that target married couples) could be one of the main reasons for infidelity.

According to a study by Dr. Justin Lehmiller in 2015, however, the prevalence of fraud is no higher today than it was 20 years ago before dating websites and apps were launched.

Instead, psychologists narrowed down some of the most common reasons for cheating on their spouse, including:

  • Lack of self-control or a feeling of disrespect for the relationship: impulsive behavior, not thinking about the consequences of your actions, and a lack of commitment to your current romantic partner.
  • Selfishness or anger: put your needs above your partner’s needs, don’t care if your actions hurt others, or want some form of “punishment” for your partner.
  • Attention-seeking: Feeling unmet, emotional or physical needs unmet in a current relationship.
  • Boredom and insecurity: feeling insecure, needing confirmation, or wanting a “thrill”, even if it comes from self-destructive behavior such as cheating.

These motives vary from how you perceive yourself to how you view your relationship and the context of the situation at hand. When it comes to labeling infidelity, very rarely does one factor play a role. It’s never just about a person’s personality traits or the dynamics in the relationship – it’s a combination of personality, events, and circumstances.

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