Most people believe that infidelity is a very bad thing,1 yet a majority of people admit they have cheated on a romantic partner. In fact, studies have shown that about 75 percent of men and 68 percent of women have cheated at some point in a relationship.2,3
There are many reasons why people are unfaithful to their partners, but one possibility is that cheating may seem like a more acceptable behavior for us to engage in if we think it’s commonplace and widely accepted. If we think that our own cheating is less frequent or severe than the norm, we’ll be more likely to let ourselves slide and succumb to temptation. “Everyone else is doing it, so if I have one little dalliance that wouldn’t be so bad."
We often compare ourselves to others and compare ourselves to what we believe is typical behavior. According to social comparison theory, if we want to know where we stand on a particular behavior, we compare ourselves to our peers.4 So if you want to know if your faithfulness to your partner is typical, you can compare yourself to others.
Research has shown a correlation between our own cheating attitudes and behaviors and the faithfulness of our friends. A study conducted in the Netherlands found that the greater the proportion of their friends people believed to have cheated, the more likely they were to have cheated in the past, and the more likely they were to say that they would be willing to cheat in the future.5 These effects were even stronger when asking about their friends’ perceived attitudes toward cheating, rather than actual cheating behavior. That is, if we think our friends are cheating, or especially that our friends think it’s OK to cheat, we’re more willing to do so ourselves.
Believing that our friends are unfaithful can make these behaviors seem both more desirable and more likely to occur.6 The researchers argue that these unfaithful friends are providing information about the merits of cheating, and that people assume, based on the frequency of friends’ infidelities, that it must be worth the costs.5 It should be noted that these findings are purely correlational. Therefore, it’s possible that like-minded individuals simply befriend each other - Cheaters hang out with other cheaters. But it is also possible that we are influenced by our friends’ attitudes.
We are not just influenced by our friends, but also by whatever we believe is typical behavior among our peers. But sometimes our perceptions of the norms can be wrong. Pluralistic ignorance is when people believe that their own behavior is very different from the norm, when in fact, it is not.7 This can lead people to change their own behavior to make it closer to these perceived norms.
We are likely to overestimate the prevalence and acceptability of infidelity for several reasons.8 Typically, it is unfaithfulness, not faithfulness, that makes the evening news. Sex scandals involving politicians and celebrities are frequently brought to our attention, whereas faithfulness is not. Another reason is that if you have been relatively faithful, it’s easier to think of examples of other people’s infidelities than yours. If your only cheating experience was kissing an ex-boyfriend at a party, but you have some friends who have engaged in more frequent or severe infidelities, you may see yourself as especially faithful. In addition, people are highly motivated to view themselves positively, so we have a bias toward seeing ourselves as especially good, moral people, who would not betray our partners.
In two studies, researchers asked undergraduate students about their own attitudes toward infidelity among students at their university (that is, the extent to which they felt it was acceptable for college students to cheat on their partners), as well as what they thought the average student’s attitude was. They were also asked how often they had been unfaithful to a dating partner, and were asked to estimate how often the average student had been unfaithful. These results showed that pluralistic ignorance about infidelity norms was quite common. The average student felt that their own attitudes toward infidelity were less favorable than the typical attitude and that the typical student had cheated three times as often as they themselves had.8
These studies did not address whether those displaying pluralistic ignorance were more likely to eventually bring their own behavior in line with these false norms. But other research on pluralistic ignorance suggests this is likely to happen. For example, one study found that those who overestimated the amount of alcohol consumption on their campus eventually increased their own drinking to come closer to what they falsely believed was the norm, and that this pattern reversed when they were educated about the true norms.9 This suggests that pluralistic ignorance of infidelity norms could follow the same pattern. Thus, even if no one in the peer group believes that cheating is ok, the fact that people falsely believe it’s acceptable could make them more willing to give into temptation.8 So this could eventually lead to more cheating.
So, if you’re thinking that you might as well cheat because people do it all the time or because most people think it’s not so bad, you should think again. You are likely to be overestimating just how acceptable it is.
A version of this article orginally appeared on Psychology Today.
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1Lieberman, B. (1988). Extrapremarital intercourse: Attitudes toward a neglected sexual behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 24, 291–299. doi:10.1080/00224498809551427
2Sheppard, V. J., Nelson, E. S., & Andreoli-Mathie, V. (1995). Dating relationships and infidelity: Attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 21, 202–212. doi:10.1080/00926239508404399
3Wiederman, M. W., & Hurd, C. (1999). Extradyadic involvement during dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 16, 265–274. doi:10.1177/0265407599162008
4Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations, 7(2), 117-140.
5Buunk, B. P., & Bakker, A. B. (1995). Extradyadic sex: The role of descriptive and injunctive norms. Journal of Sex Research, 32, 313–318. doi:10.1080/00224499509551804
6Thompson, A. P. (1983). Emotional and sexual components of extramarital relations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 46, 35-42. doi: 10.2307/351861
7Katz, D., & Allport, F. H. (1931). Student attitudes. Syracuse, NY: Craftsmen Press.
8Boon, S. D., Watkins, S. J., & Sciban, R. A. (2014). Pluralistic ignorance and misperception of social norms concerning cheating in dating relationships. Personal Relationships, 21, 482-496. doi: 10.1111/pere.12044.
9Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1993). Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman - Science of Relationships articles | Twitter
Gwen’s research focuses on self-presentation on the Internet, particularly the expression of hidden self-aspects online and the presentation of romantic relationships on social media. She also studies social support in couples, and the role of romantic partners’ perceptions of one another in relationship satisfaction and conflict. Gwen teaches courses on social psychology, the self, and close relationships, and also has a blog at Psychology Today called Close Encounters.