Why Do People (Not) Cheat in Relationships?

New research examines why some people cheat while others remain faithful.

Posted Apr 11, 2019

Tina Franklin/Flickr
Source: Tina Franklin/Flickr

Infidelity is more common than the better angels of our nature would like us to think. While infidelity statistics vary across cultures and time periods, one study reports a 70 percent infidelity rate among currently dating American couples. According to another study, 33 percent of French women admit to at least one act of infidelity in their lifetime.

So we know it happens, but what motivates people to cheat on their romantic partners? And what causes others to remain faithful? This was the focus of a new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Researchers from the University of Nicosia in Greece used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to understand why people choose to remain faithful. They first interviewed 166 participants. Of these, 44 percent were married, 26 percent were in a relationship, 15 percent were single, and 15 percent were divorced. Researchers asked participants to identify and discuss the reasons that have prevented or would prevent them from cheating on their partners.

Through these interviews, the researchers identified 47 unique reasons why people choose not to cheat, including: "My partner treats me well." "I worry about what people would think if this gets out." "I would not feel OK with myself. "I never had the chance." The researchers then distilled these reasons into eight key themes:

  1. I am satisfied with my relationship.
  2. Social stigma.
  3. Feeling ashamed if it gets out.
  4. Feeling guilty.
  5. Have not been provoked.
  6. Fear of my partner's reaction.
  7. I do not want to get in trouble.
  8. Fearing that it will happen to me.

The researchers then conducted a follow-up study in which they asked a separate sample of 576 participants to rate how much they agreed that each of the 47 identified reasons would prevent them from cheating on their partner. They were also asked to fill out a personality test—specifically, the 10-item Big Five Inventory—as well as answer some demographic questions.

The researchers wanted to identify the themes that were most important in guiding people's decisions not to cheat. Interestingly, they found these top three themes cited as reasons why people choose not to cheat.

  • I am satisfied with my relationship
  • Feeling guilty
  • Fearing that it will happen to me 
Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

The researchers also sought to determine which dimensions of personality were most associated with cheating and non-cheating behavior. Across the entire sample, men showed a higher propensity to cheat than women. Interestingly, they found that people scoring high in openness to experience (a personality dimension in the Big Five Inventory) were more likely to report infidelity. And who were less likely to cheat? People who scored high in conscientiousness, another Big Five trait.

A potential takeaway: If you're looking for a faithful partner, it probably can't hurt to find someone who is unfailingly conscientious.

References

Apostolou, M., & Panayiotou, R. (2019). The reasons that prevent people from cheating on their partners: An evolutionary account of the propensity not to cheat. Personality and Individual Differences, 146, 34-40.

Allen, E. S., & Baucom, D. H. (2006). Dating, marital, and hypothetical extradyadic involvements: How do they compare? The Journal of Sex Research, 43, 307–317. 

IFOP (2017). Les Françaises et l'infidélité feminine à l'heure des sites de rencontre. Retrieved from https://www.ifop.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/3601-1-study_ file.pdf. 

Horowitz, H. L. (1993). Alma mater: Design and experience in the women's colleges from their nineteenth century beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed.). Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.