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Could Infidelity Be Contagious?

Exposure to infidelity may impact our willingness to engage in it ourselves.

Key points

  • Exposure to others' unfaithful behavior may alter our perceptions of social norms surrounding infidelity.
  • Learning about the prevalence of infidelity may lessen our own inhibitions against infidelity.
  • Reading about others' romantic cheating may lessen our commitment to our current relationships.
Dainis Graveris/Unsplash
Source: Dainis Graveris/Unsplash

In a study published this month in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers Birnbaum and colleagues (2022) examined whether individuals who learned about others’ unfaithful behavior were subsequently predisposed to be unfaithful in their own romantic relationships. The authors reasoned that learning about the prevalence of infidelity (which some researchers estimate may be as high as 70%) might decrease desire for and commitment to one’s primary partner while increasing desire for an attractive alternate partner. The authors propose that “knowing that others are having extradyadic affairs may make people feel more comfortable when having such affairs themselves.” To test their predictions, the researchers conducted three separate studies with participants in heterosexual monogamous relationships.

Study 1

In the first study, undergraduate students from Israel who were in committed relationships lasting at least 4 months watched a video which estimated the prevalence of infidelity at either 86% of relationships or 11% of relationships. They then asked participants to write about a sexual fantasy involving someone other than their current partner. The study showed that the unfaithfulness prevalence manipulation did not affect desire for either individuals’ current partner or an alternate partner.

However, Studies 2 and 3 showed different results.

Study 2

In Study 2, undergraduate students from Israel who were in committed heterosexual relationships lasting at least 12 months read a “confession” from another person which either described a romantic infidelity (passionately kissing a co-worker and hiding it from their partner) or cheating on schoolwork (copying an essay from another student). Participants were then asked to view 16 photos of attractive and unattractive individuals and to respond as quickly as possible as to whether those individuals could be a potential romantic partner. Participants who had read about the romantic infidelity responded “yes” to more photos, indicating their interest in a greater number of potential new partners versus participants in the academic cheating condition.

Study 3

In study 3, undergraduate students from Israel who were in committed heterosexual relationships lasting at least 4 months read the results of a survey in which the prevalence of romantic infidelity or academic cheating was estimated to be 85%. Participants then interacted with a research assistant using an instant messaging platform. Participants uploaded photos of themselves and were shown a photograph of an attractive male or female as their messaging partner. The research assistant asked about participants’ hobbies, interests, and food preferences and at the end of the interview stated, “You definitely raised my curiosity! I hope to see you again and this time face to face.” Participants’ responses to this last prompt were analyzed for their interest in seeing the interviewer again. Finally, participants were asked about their attraction to the interviewer as well as their commitment to their current relationship partner.

The results of Study 3 showed that individuals exposed to the romantic cheating information indicated less commitment to their current relationships versus the academic cheating condition. They also found that, regardless of the cheating condition, men were less committed to their current relationships than women. Moreover, individuals who read about the romantic infidelity survey results and who found the interviewer more attractive were more likely to end their messages to the interviewer with an expression of a desire to meet again.

Conclusions

The authors reason that exposure to infidelity can normalize that behavior and make our current relationships more vulnerable to infidelity. They conclude that a norm of infidelity may make us less motivated to protect our current relationships, leaving us open to potential infidelity in the future. However, the authors do caution that seeing alternate individuals as possible new partners and even a desire to see an attractive person again does not necessarily equate to engaging in an affair. The authors speculate that "exposure to adultery norms may, for example, render long-term goals less prominent and thereby reduce guilt feelings or soften resistance toward infidelity by lessening the motivation to protect the current relationship." However, they emphasize that future research is necessary to clarify how exposure to infidelity may impact willingness to engage in infidelity.

References

Birnbaum, G. E., Zholtack, K., & Ayal, S. (2022). Is Infidelity Contagious? Online Exposure to Norms of Adultery and Its Effect on Expressions of Desire for Current and Alternative Partners. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1-12.

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