Moral Hypocrisy Both Justifies and Facilitates Infidelity
Hypocrisy allows cheaters to rationalize past behavior and future infidelities.
Posted Mar 07, 2019
Romantic infidelity is disturbingly common, with some researchers estimating that infidelity impacts up to 25 percent of all marriages and larger percentages of dating and cohabiting relationships (Fincham and May, 2017). Moreover, marriage therapists consider sexual infidelity as one of the most difficult issues to successfully treat (Warach et al., 2019). New research conducted by Warach, Josephs, and Gorman, published online this week in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggests that moral hypocrisy allows cheaters to rationalize their misbehavior as well as potentially facilitating future infidelities.
As the authors explain, moral hypocrisy is judging "one's own wrongdoings as less problematic or immoral than the identical wrongdoings of others," essentially evidencing a moral double-standard. Warach and colleagues found that perpetrators of sexual infidelity do just that, judging their own infidelities as less blameworthy and less damaging to their partners and relationships.
In their research project, the psychologists examined both hypothetical reactions to imagining being the perpetrator or the victim of infidelity, as well as real instances of infidelity, where individuals admitted to either perpetration or victimization. The results of both studies were consistent, but the effects evidenced in the real infidelity instances were stronger. Individuals who committed an act of infidelity themselves blamed their partners for their unfaithfulness more than the victims of infidelity blamed themselves. Perpetrators also blamed external or mitigating circumstances for the infidelity more than victims did. Importantly, those who committed sexual infidelity also underestimated the emotional impact on their partners versus victims' own reports of the emotional toll.
Moreover, the authors also studied the reactions of individuals who had been both perpetrators and victims of infidelity. The researchers found that when individuals considered the infidelities they had committed, they blamed their partners more than they blamed themselves when they were the victims. Personality variables, such as sexual narcissism, as well as an avoidant attachment style were associated with a stronger tendency to blame one's partner for one's own transgressions.
The authors explain that "blame externalizations and denial or minimization of wrongdoing . . . may impede reconciliation and/or foster continued wrongdoing." Therefore by reducing the blame cheaters place on themselves and underestimating the pain they have caused their partners, individuals may not only rationalize prior acts of infidelity, but also justify potential future acts of infidelity.
As the authors note, this study involved only respondents from the United States, who were mainly of Caucasian background (the authors did not provide the sexual orientation of the participants). Furthermore, the authors specify that they did not control for factors such as the number of infidelities or the emotional involvement of the cheating partners with their paramours. Nevertheless, the findings that cheaters blame themselves less for their own acts of infidelity and then interpret the infidelity as less damaging to their partners is cause for concern. The authors suggest that these self-serving biases are likely unconscious. Perhaps making individuals aware of the biased nature of their own self-appraisals can help therapists to more successfully treat the lingering problems after couples experience infidelity.
Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
Warach, B., Jospehs, L., & Gorman, B. S. (2019). Are cheaters sexual hypocrites? Sexual hypocrisy, the self-serving bias, and personality style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-13. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0146167219833392