My inaugural post on the evolutionary foundations of popular culture will explore how my two recent studies of jealousy were inspired by a riveting movie and facilitated by a reality TV show. But first, a question. Upon discovering that a mate has been unfaithful to you, which are you more likely to ask him [or her]?
Keep your answer in mind...
A few years ago my wife (aka The Jenny) and I (aka me) watched Closer, a 2004 romantic drama starring Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law, and Natalie Portman (aka Psychology's Hottest Peer-Reviewed and Published Author Ever). In a savagely vivid scene,Owen's character Larry interrogates Anna (Roberts) about her confessed infidelity. The dialogue left The Jenny befuddled and me inspired. (Reader beware: unless you work for Trey Parker or Matt Stone, all clips in this post are decidedly NSFW.)
The Jenny was aghast and perplexed by Larry's barrage of questions about the frequency, timing, whereabouts, type, quality, and orgasmic nature of the sex Anna had with the interloper. Like Anna, The Jenny asked, "Why is the sex so important?" Thankfully, the husband in me prohibited the professor in me from responding, "Uh, helloooooo? Have you not read Buss et al., 1992?" I was somehow smart enough to say, "That's a terrific question honey, and one worthy of study."
And that's how my collaborators and I came to study sex differences in the nature of jealousy-fueled interrogations of suspected cheaters. Given the calamitous costs of cuckoldry for ancestral men, we predicted that relative to women, men would be more likely to grill their unfaithful mates about the sexual nature of their affairs. Although ancestral women did not run the risk of cuckoldry ('twas always mama's baby, but papa's maybe), their partners' emotional infidelities put women in jeopardy of losing their partners' time, attention, investment, and protection. As such, we further predicted that women more so than men would inquire about the emotional nature of a suspected cheater's affair.
Our first study had psychology undergraduates—the low-hanging fruit of the participant tree—consider the following forced-choice dilemma: "Upon discovering that a serious romantic partner has been unfaithful to you, you would likely have many questions for him [her]. However, some questions are more important to ask than others. Which of the following questions are you more likely to ask your unfaithful partner?" Much as you did earlier, our participants then selected either "Did you have sex with her [him]?" or "Do you love her [him]?" As depicted below, upon discovering that their mate had been unfaithful, men more so than women (84 percent vs. 54 percent) indicated that they would inquire about the sexual nature of the extra-pair relationship, while women more so than men (46 percent vs. 16 percent) reported that they would inquire about its emotional nature (Kuhle, Smedley, & Schmitt, 2009).
Although insightful, this study was limited in that the participants were mere undergrads who merely imagined their likely reactions to an imagined mate's infidelity. Ideally, I should have hired an attractive confederate (and for the ideal, I'll go with Natalie Portman), instructed Natalie to become involved with married adult men, and then recorded and analyzed the scorned wives' interrogations of their unfaithful (and lucky but naughty) husbands. Unfortunately, what a professor wants to do and what the IRB actually allows a professor to do are rarely the same thing. Fortunately, IRB's have no jurisdiction over reality-television producers.
Shortly after publishing this study and while on an interview in which my job-talk discussed it, The Jenny and I stayed at a hotel and watched a little TV before bed. We stumbled across Cheaters, a reality-TV show that chronicles the real-life romantic entanglements of an actual "love triangle." Each episode unfolds in this fashion:
While I was obliviously ruminating about my job-talk on imagined reactions to imagined infidelities, The Jenny was watching actual reactions to actual infidelities. She said, "Hon, isn't this kind of what your job-talk is on?" And so began my Cheaters study of cheating. The Jenny is part lover, part mother, part research inspirer.
Although running a quasi-experiment (one in which I measured married participants' jealousy-fueled interrogations of their mates after I hired Natalie Portman and Johnny Depp to infiltrate their relationships) would be a big no-no, content-analyzing footage of the natural quasi-experiment that is Cheaters is completely kosher, if unorthodox. And that is how I came to own 11 university-purchased DVDs of Cheaters.
After training my six undergraduate RAs to distinguish between a victim exhibiting sexual or emotional jealousy, they watched and coded the nature of 75 jealousy-induced interrogations. A quintessential example of a jealousy-fueled sexual interrogation is exhibited in the below Cheaters clip in which 28-year-old Kristopher catches his 23-year-old girlfriend and an interloper in flagrante delicto.
A jealousy-fueled emotional interrogation is seen below when 23-year-old Maria confronts her 24-year-old husband about his cheating.
As predicted, we found that men were more likely than women (57 percent vs. 29 percent) to focus more on the sexual aspect of their partners' infidelities, whereas women were more likely than men (71 percent vs. 43 percent) to focus more on the emotional aspect of their partners' infidelities (Kuhle, 2011). These results align with those from the earlier study and suggest that humans have sex-differentiated damage assessment strategies to investigate the nature of a partner's infidelity. Men and women differ in their jealous interrogations of unfaithful partners, and they do so in accord with expectations derived from their asymmetries in parental certainty and obligatory parental investment (Trivers, 1972).
Or do they? Are the jealous interrogations exhibited on Cheaters real? Although a few have alleged that they were paid to play a staged role, this charge has been denied by both the program's private investigator and executive producer. As only a handful of people have made this claim during the show's 12-year, 264-episode run, it is unlikely that the majority of the program's 500-plus love triangles were staged. Furthermore, it is plausible that these individuals' allegations are a means of damage control and impression management designed to counter the unseemly behaviors they exhibited on screen (in one case, exhibiting distress over contracting a sexually transmitted disease). Regardless, even if a few scenarios were staged, they would attest to how the producer's conception of humans' sex-linked reactions to infidelity align seamlessly with evolutionary psychologists' expectations—a finding noteworthy in itself.
Popular culture such as Cheaters opens a window into human nature as "the patterns of culture that we create and consume, although not adaptations in themselves, reveal human evolutionary psychology" (Buss, 2012, p. 428). If you dig this post (and, well, even if you didn't), please come back for future installments that will further flesh-out the myriad ways that popular culture reflects our evolved mating psychology.
Bobby Goldstein Productions. (Producer). (2005). The Best of Cheaters Volume 1: Uncensored. [DVD].
Buss, D. M. (2012). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind(4th edition). Massachusetts: USA: Allyn & Bacon.
Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man: 1871- 1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine.
Posts by Gad Saad on sex differences in elictors of jealousy, David P. Schmitt on correlates of infidelity, Michael Mills on the morality and causality of infidelity, and Maryanne Fisher on jealousy induction.
Copyright © 2012 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.