Science Of Small Talk

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The Dirty Truth About Sex, Power, and Extramarital Affairs

Who's really cheating on their partners? And why?

Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bill Clinton and David Letterman.

John Edwards and Newt Gingrich.

Anthony Weiner (sort of) and... well, Tiger Woods again.  And then again a few more times after that.

When we think about extramarital affairs, this is who we think of. Men. Powerful men. Rich, famous, powerful men.

Why would men of status be more likely to step out on a spouse? The answers we give to this question usually have to do with biology or evolution. As in, that's just how men are wired. It's just boys being boys, with these famous men simply acting out the fantasies that most any man would if given the opportunity.

It's a straightforward explanation with intuitive appeal. And when you add to the mix the idea that men who achieve powerful positions often do so thanks to self-confidence and a propensity for taking risks–not to mention that women seem drawn to men of high status–the formula for cheating appears rather simple:

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Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, and there's nothing like a bit of male social status to fuel extraterrestrial extracurriculars.

But what if the presumed sex difference in infidelity isn't as set-in-stone as we assume it is? What if power does predict unfaithfulness, but no more so for men than women? Do we think of extramarital affairs in terms of powerful men simply because there are more men than women in contemporary positions of power?

In a study published this summer in the journal Psychological Science, Dutch researchers surveyed over 1,500 professionals to explore the relationship between power, gender, and infidelity. Respondents were asked to indicate their own position in their organization's power hierarchy using a continuum ranging from 0 to 100. They were then asked questions about their intended infidelity (e.g. "Would you ever cheat on your partner?") as well as their actual infidelity (e.g., "How often have you secretly had sex with someone other than your partner?").

Of course, there are limitations to studying a behavior like infidelity through surveys. Those who have been unfaithful might, in large numbers, decline the offer to participate, leaving behind a misleadingly faithful sample of respondents. Respondents may also just flat-out lie, painting a more positive picture of themselves than really exists.

More ideal would be an investigation that looks at actual behavior–one that observes people under circumstances in which they have the opportunity to cheat or not, and then determines the factors that influenced these actions. Alas, Dateline NBC and The National Enquirer only have so many cameras to go around, and few of them seem to be available for behavioral science research. So to the survey data we must turn.

We can take some solace in the fact that all but 2% of the Dutch sample provided a response to the questions about infidelity (intended and actual). Moreover, it was not the case that these anonymous respondents refused to admit to their own peccadilloes: more than 26% of the sample confessed to having cheated on a partner at least once.

Did power predict infidelity among these respondents? Absolutely–for both intended and actual cheating. And this relationship was mediated by confidence, indicating that much of the association between power and infidelity comes from the increased faith that the powerful have in their ability to successfully attract potential sex partners.

Interestingly, though, these results were no different for men versus women. That is, more powerful men were more confident and reported having (and seeking) more affairs. But the same was true for women. Even controlling for factors like age and level of intelligence, the patterns for male and female respondents were comparable.

So the dirty secret about sex, power, and extramarital affairs is that while the relationship that many of us assume to be there does exist, it's little different for men than for women. At least among this sample of working professionals, in which all the respondents had their own income, cheating was no more of a hard-wired tendency for males than for females.

All of which leads to the intriguing possibility that as women continue to make contemporary gains in status and power across domains, so, too, might our list of famous Lotharios start to become more gender balanced. The orbits of Mars and Venus might be a whole lot closer than we thought.

 

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Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order).  You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here.  Book trailer video below:

 

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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