Editor's note: There's been so much talk about the "Weiner affair" lately, and we've had several request to cover it on the site, so we're running two articles on it today.
The recent scandal involving Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York (the guy who "accidentally" sent provocative photos of himself to attractive young females over Facebook and Twitter) has become a media sensation. This probably has something to do with the fact that this guy’s last name is, well, hilarious given the nature of the photos he was tweeting, but also because this guy seemed to have it all. He has served in Congress for over a decade, he was gaining national recognition, and just last year, he married a beautiful and accomplished woman who works for the Secretary of State. You can’t help but wonder why Weiner would do something that could put all of this in jeopardy. The same goes for that politician and former Presidential candidate from North Carolina who is being investigated by the feds for using campaign funds to conceal his mistress and love child from the public.
This list goes on and on, but that’s not the point of this article. The point is that cheating happens all of the time and the media seems to be fascinated by it. So, perhaps now would be a good time to address some common questions people have on this topic.
What is cheating? If you’re looking for a clear cut answer to this question, I’m going to disappoint you. There is no universally accepted definition of “cheating” because people view this issue very differently. Each of us has what I call a “cheating threshold,” which refers to the point at which you start to feel that a certain action is wrong. For some people, the bar is set pretty low and they get upset if you simply look at another person of the desired sex. For others, however, looking around, fantasizing, or flirting through “sexts” and tweets might be perfectly acceptable behaviors. Others may even go so far as to say it’s not cheating unless it happens in your own bed! Given this variability, it’s important that you and your partner discuss your cheating thresholds up front so that each of you has a clear understanding of what upsets the other.
Who cheats and how common is it? Despite the fact that we only seem to hear about male cheaters, it’s important to note that this is a behavior that both men and women engage in (although men certainly seem to do it more often—or at least they are more willing to admit to it). Estimates for the prevalence of cheating range widely, depending upon who you’re asking and how “cheating” is defined, but results from nationally representative, random samples have found the percentage of cheaters to range as high as 37.5%!1 Studies of college students often report even higher numbers.
Why do people cheat? There could be any number of motivations behind cheating, and we’ve already addressed a few on the site concerning celebrity cheaters in particular (see here). One additional explanation for cheating behavior comes from evolutionary psychology2 (for a brief primer on this topic, see here). The basic idea is that men and women want to maximize their chances of successful sexual reproduction and, to that end, may have evolved behavioral tendencies to help achieve that goal. Specifically, men and women who are currently in relationships may be inclined to “trade up” when they have the opportunity to mate with a partner who is more genetically fit and/or capable of reproduction.
See here for our other article inspired by Mr. Weiner, or here for other topics on the Science Of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.
1Luo, A., Cartun, M. A., & Snider, A. G. (2010). Assessing extradyadic behavior: A review, a new measure, and two new models. Personality and Individual Differences, 49, 155-163.
2Drigotas, S. M., & Barta, W. (2001). The cheating heart: Scientific explorations of infidelity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10, 177-180.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.