Infidelity May Be Contagious, One Study Finds

Infidelity May Be Contagious, One Study Finds

Many things can lead to infidelity–a lapse in judgment, one too many drinks, a long time coming. But researchers from one study say that it could be something that rubs off on you.

In a study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior in August, researchers found that exposure to others’ infidelity predisposed people to be unfaithful in their own romantic relationships.

The thinking is as follows: Learning about the supposed prevalence of infidelity might decrease a person’s commitment to their own relationship and increase their desire for an alternate partner.

“In our latest research, we focused on the circumstances under which people are less likely to use [strategies that help them avoid the temptation to cheat]. We suggest that a peer environment that gives the impression that infidelity is acceptable may be one such circumstance, as knowing that others are having affairs may make people feel more comfortable when considering having affairs themselves,” wrote Gurit Birnbaum, one of the authors of the study.

Birnbaum and the other researchers conducted three different studies on heterosexual monogamous relationships. All three studies exposed participants to cheating behaviors and documented their reactions.

In the first study, undergraduate students who were in committed relationships lasting at least four months watched one of two videos–a video that estimated that infidelity was present in 86 percent of relationships, and a video that estimated that it was present in 11 percent of relationships. Researchers then asked participants to describe a sexual fantasies. Independent judges evaluated these fantasies for levels of desire towards the current and alternative partners.

The study showed that learning that the prevalence of infidelity was either high or low through the videos did not affect the participants’ desire for their current or alternative partners.

But the subsequent studies returned different results.

In the second study, involving undergraduate students who were in committed relationships lasting at least 12 months, the researchers exposed participants to either an act of infidelity or another act of “unethical behavior in general,” like cheating on schoolwork.

For example, participants in the infidelity condition read:

“I met a gorgeous man during an interview at his workplace. He offered me the job, and I accepted. He invited me to dinner after a few [sic] week. I didn’t think twice and accepted his invitation. After dinner, we kissed deeply. It was the best kiss ever! I don’t live with my boyfriend so he knows nothing about it.”

While participants in the academic cheating condition read:

“I’m a student who works around the clock to fund my studies. So sometimes when I have to write an essay, which I find challenging or time consuming, I copy it from other students. Sometimes it is possible to pay an essay writer for help if things are difficult. I just want to graduate and get this degree.”

The participants then viewed pictures of “attractive strangers of the other gender,” and indicated whether they would consider the pictured individuals as prospective partners. As an indicator of their interest in other partners, the number of individuals they indicated they were willing to consider was taken into account.

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 at whether being exposed to infidelity by others would make participants more interested in other partners. They also examined whether the participants would be willing to put in greater effort in order to find these new partners.

To do so, undergraduate students who were in committed relationships lasting at least four months read the results of either one or two surveys. One estimated that the prevalence of romantic infidelity was 85 percent, while the other estimated that 85 percent was the prevalence of academic cheating.

The participants then used an instant messaging platform to interact with a research assistant whose photo was an “attractive” member of the opposite sex. The research assistants asked about the participants’ hobbies and interests, and at the end of the interview said, “You definitely raised my curiosity! I hope to see you again, and this time face to face.” The participants were then asked to respond to that message as well as rate their interviewer’s sexual desirability and their commitment to their current relationship. The responses of the participants were evaluated by independent judges for how they responded to the question.

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 who were exposed to romantic infidelity also indicated less commitment to their current relationships compared to those exposed to academic cheating. Researchers also found that women were more committed to their relationships than men, regardless of whether or not they had been exposed to academic infidelity.

The researchers interpreted these findings to indicate that people who are exposed to infidelity by others tend to be less committed to their relationships, and to look for new partners.

“Following exposure to others’ infidelity, participants experienced less commitment to their relationship and greater desire for alternative partners. This suggests that infidelity is more common than you might think, and that it can make it harder to maintain a close relationship with your current partner. Birnbaum said that such environments could make individuals more susceptible to infidelity, or even ‘infect’ them.

Having an affair is different from having a partner. Researchers wrote that infidelity can be justified by “abandoning long term priorities of relationship maintenance” . However, they suggested that people who say that they would like to see another person in person or are open to learning about other infidelity may not have an affair.

“Environments in which infidelity is prevalent do not necessarily turn people into cheaters. Even so, if someone is already vulnerable to cheating or if opportunities for infidelity arise, these environments can give the extra push needed to resolve the conflict between following moral values and succumbing to short-term temptations in a way that promotes infidelity,” Birnbaum wrote.

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