Are Cheaters Hypocrites?
How the self-serving bias results in sexual hypocrisy.
Posted Mar 10, 2019
Warach, Josephs, and Gorman (2019) just published a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin called “Are Cheaters Sexual Hypocrites? Sexual Hypocrisy, the Self-Serving Bias, and Personality Style.” Their study explores how the self-serving bias in relationship to infidelity can lead to sexual hypocrisy, and how sexual hypocrisy is greater among certain personality styles. The self-serving bias is the tendency of individuals to take credit for their successes, but to minimize blame for their failures or wrongdoings, often by blaming others. “Moral hypocrisy” describes the tendency to judge one’s own wrongdoings as less problematic or immoral than the wrongdoings of others when they do exactly the same thing.
Hypocrisy in the case of infidelity would mean that when one cheats, the fault lays in one’s partner or in the situation rather than oneself. Yet when one is cheated on, the fault lays with the cheater rather than with oneself. The self-serving bias leads to sexual hypocrisy, because whatever happens, it’s never one’s own fault, whether one cheats or gets cheated on. As certain personality styles, like narcissism and psychopathy, are thought to be characterized by an inflated view of oneself, egocentrism, and lack of empathy for the impact of one’s bad behavior on others, it was hypothesized that high narcissism and psychopathy would result in greater self-serving bias and greater sexual hypocrisy.
The first study conducted by Warach, Josephs, and Gorman was designed to assess if people, in general, possessed a self-serving bias in relationship to infidelity, and if that bias was associated with certain personality characteristics. The participants were randomly divided into two groups. In one group, they were asked to imagine if they were the perpetrator of infidelity how much they would blame themselves, the betrayed partner, and the situation for the infidelity. In the other group, participants were asked to imagine if they were the victim of infidelity how much they would blame themselves, the unfaithful partner, and the situation for the infidelity. In both groups, participants were also asked to judge the severity of the emotional impact that the infidelity would have on the betrayed partner.
Not surprisingly the results suggested that participants when imagining themselves as the unfaithful partner blamed themselves significantly less than how much participants blamed the unfaithful partner when imagining themselves as the betrayed partner. It seems to be a general aspect of human nature to imagine one’s own sexual transgressions to be less egregious than the exact same transgressions when in the victim role. Participants high in sexual narcissism and psychopathy showed these self-serving tendencies significantly more than did participants low in those tendencies.
A second study was conducted to examine these issues only among participants who admitted to both having cheated and been cheated on in their relationships. It was hypothesized that the self-serving bias and sexual hypocrisy might be more pronounced among participants that had engaged in actual infidelity and had experienced actual sexual betrayal than among participants for whom it was only hypothetical. It turned out that the evidence for the self-serving bias and sexual hypocrisy was much stronger for individuals who had actually experienced infidelity and sexual betrayal than for individuals for whom it was only hypothetical.
In study 2, participants blamed the victims and the situation more, while minimizing the emotional impact on the victim when they were the unfaithful partner than when they were the betrayed partner. Yet these exact same participants displayed sexual hypocrisy when they were the victims of sexual betrayal, seeing their unfaithful partners as much more blameworthy than themselves and the emotional impact of infidelity as much more harmful when they were the victims rather than the perpetrators of infidelity. Sexual hypocrisy was greater with participants who were higher in narcissism, sexual narcissism, psychopathy, and avoidant attachment style.
These results have implications for couples hoping to recover from infidelity. Infidelity appears to inflict an “attachment injury” on the betrayed partner that can result in PTSD-like symptoms (Warach & Josephs, 2019). It may only add insult to the injury to the extent that unfaithful partners self-servingly blame the victim of sexual betrayal and self-servingly minimize the emotional harm that infidelity may cause. In addition, victims of sexual betrayal who engage in retaliatory infidelity to get even with an unfaithful partner may also possess self-serving biases, as they are likely to self-servingly believe that the infidelities perpetrated by the victims of sexual betrayal are more justifiable than the infidelities perpetrated by partners who have not suffered sexual betrayal. The self-serving bias that is constituted by excessively blaming the victim, as well as minimizing the harmful emotional impact of one’s sexual transgressions on the victim, must be overcome to better assume responsibility for one’s own hurtful actions and to begin to have empathy and make amends for the hurt one’s wrongdoing has caused a romantic partner. Overcoming the self-serving bias and the ensuing sexual hypocrisy might be particularly challenging for individuals relatively higher on narcissistic and psychopathic personality traits.
Warach, B., Josephs, L., & Gorman, B. S. (2019). Are Cheaters Sexual Hypocrites? Sexual Hypocrisy, the Self-Serving Bias, and Personality Style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219833392
Warach, B. & Josephs, L. (2019) Aftershocks of infidelity: A review of infidelity-based attachment trauma. Sex and Relationship Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2019.1577961.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. American Psychological Association: Washington, D.C.