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A “Double-Shot” of Cheating

The need to belong is a basic human drive; we as humans have a pervasive desire to form and maintain lasting, positive relationships.1 Relationships are important for our well-being, as their initiation is often associated with happiness, elation, love, and joy. Marital relationships serve as important buffers against stress;2 and marital quality is associated with better health.3 The benefits of being in a relationship, such as those just mentioned may explain why people are often very resistant to breaking social bonds and experience strong negative emotions when they feel as if their relationships may be compromised.

Cheating (or being cheated on) is one of the most detrimental behaviors for the survival of a relationship. Infidelity shakes the ground upon which the relationship was built, as it creates a violation of trust and breaks the commitment each partner made to one another. Not only does the act of cheating create tension and potentially destroy the relationship, but the perception that a partner may be cheating is also problematic. If there is suspicion of infidelity, that suspicion often creates a rift between couple members. Therefore, it is important to know how people view cheating and what behaviors people believe violate the terms of a committed relationship. 

In the famous paradigm used by Buss, Larsen, Westen, and Semmelroth,4 college aged participants were forced to choose between two alternatives when asked, which behavior is more distressing?: (a) your partner forming an emotional attachment with another individual or (b) your partner having sex with this other individual. Females largely found the thought of their partner forming an emotional entanglement with another individual more painful, while males selected the sexual infidelity option as being more troublesome.

The Evolutionary Perspective

From an evolutionary perspective, this difference is due to the selection pressures placed on the individuals of each gender. Women fear that when a man has become emotionally involved with another, these women may lose some of the resources they have secured from their male partners. The man, however, fears that if the woman is having sex outside of the relationship, he is expending his resources on kin that potentially are not his, and as such paternity certainty becomes very important. Basically both are weary of a circumstance in which their genetic offspring are not getting the resources needed. 

Jealousy may have evolved as a result of the unique reproductive challenges that our ancestors faced.5 Men, in particular, had to struggle with paternity certainty. Women, on the other hand, respond with jealousy when they suspect that the resources provided by their men and reserved for their offspring are being diverted elsewhere. Therefore, they would worry most when their mates develop emotional connections with others as this signals the potential to re-allocate the resources to new women.

An Alternative View

However, not everyone agrees with this summary. Social-role theorists argue that the evolutionary-based argument is incorrect and the data are a result of the nature of the format in which the participants were polled. The “double-shot hypothesis” suggests that when forced to select an answer, participants will pick the infidelity choice they assume co-occurs with the other type of infidelity, meaning that they will choose the option that they feel incorporates the other.6 Specifically, men make the assumption that for a woman to have sex with someone, she must have already fallen in love; women suspect that for a man to have fallen in love, he must have already had sex with that outsider.  Once the forced choice was removed and participants were able to rate their views on infidelity on a continuous scale (a scale of 1 to 5 indicating how upsetting they found the infidelity to be), gender differences disappeared. This demonstrates that the differences may partially have been a result of the question format.

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1Baumeister, R. & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachment as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

2Maestripieri, D., Klimczuk, A.C.E., Seneczko, M., Traficonte, D.M., & Wilson, M.C. (2013). Relationship status and relationship instability, but not dominance, predict individual differences in baseline cortisol levels. PLoS ONE, 8(12), e84003. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084003

3Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., & Newton, T.L. (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 472–503.

4Buss, D.M. (2000). The dangerous passion: Why jealousy is as necessary as love and sex. New York: Free Press.

5Bassett, J. F. (2005). Sex differences in jealousy in response to a partner's imagined sexual or emotional infidelity with a same or different race other. North American Journal of Psychology, 7(1), 71-84.

6DeSteno, D. & Salovey, P. (1996). Evolutionary origins of sex differences in jealousy: Questioning the “fitness” of the model. Psychological Science, 7, 367-372.

Dr. Marisa Cohen

Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.

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