The American Way

What does it mean to be a U.S. citizen? Understanding the American psyche.

Americans’ Cheating Hearts: Results from Decades of Research

Do you know what scientists do about infidelity?

A week or so ago, I wrote about the study showing that people in a serious romantic relationship, compared to single (uncoupled) people, have 2 fewer people they believe they can call on in times of severe crises. At the time, I read some of the other opinion pieces written about the study, and one of my favorite's was again by Laurie Essig. She addressed the question of why this even matters. One of her answers was that romantic partners are not always faithful. Those who are betrayed and feel hurt and abandoned would do well to have people in their lives they did not neglect in order to focus on The One.

So just how often do romantic partners stray? We can never really know, of course. For the purposes of representative national surveys, all we can go by are people's own admissions of their own infidelity. Happily, though, in a recent issue of the journal Contexts, Deborah Carr reported the results of a national survey that has been ongoing for decades.

From 1973 through 2008, a representative sample of Americans has been asked to give their opinions about infidelity. (They are not the same people each year.) For example, they respond to the question, "A married person having sexual relations with someone other than their spouse is..." with the answer "always wrong," "almost always wrong," "sometimes wrong," or "not wrong at all."

From 1991 through 2008, those participants who had ever been married were also asked to indicate whether they had ever cheated on their spouse.

See how accurately you can guess the results of the research by answering these 5 questions. The answers are below the pictures. If you get all 5 right, feel free to boast about it in the comments section.

Over time, Americans have become less judgmental about cheating. Specifically, from 1973 through 2008, the percent who say that "a married person having sexual relations with someone other than their spouse is always wrong" has steadily decreased.

The number of ever-married men who admit to having cheated on their spouse is nearly 50%.

Among those who have ever been married, more men than women admit to having cheated on their spouse.

4. Men and women are becoming more similar in their rates of cheating (or at least in their self-reports of their rates of cheating).

5. Fewer than half of all cheaters believe that marital infidelity is always wrong.














False. The percent of Americans who say that cheating is always wrong has actually increased, from around 65% in 1973 to about 81% in 2008. (Data are from the first graph in the article.)

Between 1991 and 2008, somewhere between about 20 to 25% of men admit to having cheated on their wives.

True. Rates of admitted infidelity for women have ranged between about 10 and 15%, compared to the 20 to 25% for men.

True. Among people 65 and older, women were only half as likely as men to say that they cheated. In the younger generation (ages 18-24), women were 81% as likely as men to admit to infidelity.

False. Among people who have admitted to cheating, 64% say that infidelity is always wrong. Of those who claim to have always been faithful, though, the corresponding number is 86%.


The American Way