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Are Wealthy People More Likely to Cheat?

New research reveals how money can alter satisfaction with one's partner.

Comaniciu Dan/Shutterstock
Source: Comaniciu Dan/Shutterstock

Two recent studies conducted by Yi Ming Li and colleagues at Beijing Normal University suggest that men in heteronormative relationships who perceive themselves to be rich are less likely to be satisfied by their female partner’s appearance and more likely to consider other options.

Li et al. tricked 182 university students in China into feeling that they either had more than an average amount of money or less by asking them to select which of several income brackets they belonged to. Half were given a range of brackets to choose from whose topmost sum was relatively reasonable—the goal being to prime students into thinking they were richer than most, since most would fall into the top (higher) entries. The other half were given a range of brackets whose higher rungs encompassed sums well beyond the reach of typical undergraduates, leading this cohort to feel poorer, as they’d be more likely to identify with categories at the bottom.

Following this, all participants were asked how satisfied they were with their partner’s attractiveness. Undergraduate men primed to consider themselves financially well-endowed displayed more dissatisfaction with their partner’s looks than men primed to see their budgets as too tight. (For undergraduate women, feeling financially empowered had no observable impact on how handsome they deemed their male mates—nor did having less money.)

Li’s team then carried out a study to examine whether priming participants to feel rich or poor would incline them to engage in “extra-pair mating.” To trigger perceptions of high or low net worth this time around, Li et al. had 48 women and 73 men fill in blanks in essays depicting financial soundness or lack thereof. Each subject was then shown a photo of an attractive member of the opposite sex and told by a researcher that they’d have a chance to chat with said attractive other for approximately three minutes. Following this, subjects were individually escorted into an empty room with a long desk and six chairs—one of which was draped with a coat and a bag to suggest the imminent return of the fictitious attractive other with whom the subject expected to speak. Inclinations to cheat were measured by how close money-primed subjects sat to this presumably hot if currently absent other person.

Though men made to feel financially unsound elected to sit slightly further away from the fictitious other than their monetarily solvent peers did, overall, the males situated themselves much closer to the abandoned coat and bag than women did. And while money-primed women inched a tad nearer than poverty-primed counterparts did, most kept a significant distance, confirming previous research that heterosexual women in committed relationships typically distance themselves more from the opposite sex than men do.

“Our results," Li et al. write in the March 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, "showed that the feeling of having relatively more money caused the men, but not the women, to feel less satisfied with their partners' physical appearance and led both the men and women to approach an attractive member of the opposite sex more closely than if they felt they had relatively less money.”

Li et al. surmise that the observed gender divide boils down to men’s and women’s relative “mate value.” In men, they explain, mate value “is based more on resources than women's mate value, while women's mate value depends more on physical attractiveness than men's mate value.” This may incline men with more money to, as a function of perceiving their own mate value as higher, “make higher demands with regard to women's physical attractiveness and engage more in short-term mating than men with less money.”

As for a woman’s sustained commitment and satisfaction, despite her significant others’ financial status?:

“If women are already committed to a long-term relationship, they might not get more reproductive output by making higher demands regarding the unchangeable physical characteristics of a current partner. In this regard, an increased mating standard for physical attractiveness may impair the stability of the current relationship. Losing a long-term relationship has a larger reproductive cost for women than for men. Therefore, historically, relationship status of women could influence their mating strategies. Even if committed women possess sufficient resources, they might not increase their demands with regard to a long-term mate's physical appearance.”

In other words, money’s ability to empower a woman to cheat or find fault with her partner’s appearance may be mitigated by how “reproductively costly” these responses might be. Better to secure a mate who can reliably care for babies, or make them happen in the first place, her ancestral impulses presumably tell her, than find fault with him or cheat—since either risks upending the relationship stability she apparently needs to survive.

Of course, we’re no longer living in the Stone Age, so I would be surprised if most women today followed this logic. Other explanations for men’s and women’s different responses to feeling more monetarily empowered could boil down to women’s ingrained assumptions that men usually earn more than they do. (After all, women still earn, on average, 21% less than men.)

Even a woman who considers herself to be in a higher income bracket relative to her female peers might assume a male partner had a higher net worth, and so she may continue to assume that keeping him around would be a safe bet, not just emotionally (breakups hurt) but also financially. Believing a male partner rakes in (or could rake in) more income than she does (or ever could) might elevate his status in her eyes, giving her one less reason to stray or quit.

Were the study to be replicated and designed so that women felt they had more money and/or a higher earning potential than men, there might be a different result: Would women then be less satisfied by the looks of a comparatively impecunious male?

The authors explain that men “generally seek more partners than women to ensure reproductive success. Therefore, men are more likely to grasp every opportunity to approach an alternative mate and engage in extra-pair mating.” But judging a person’s likelihood to cheat based on their propensity to approach (or sit near) an attractive other doesn’t account for the different strategies both sexes deploy when sneaking around. Sure, the average woman may be less likely than the average man to go in for the kill by actively approaching a sexy new prospect. But this doesn’t mean that a woman is less likely to turn down an attractive suitor who approaches her. What if the money-primed women in the current study were simply, as a function of socially conditioned, gender-typical behavior, waiting and expecting this fictitiously hot other to sidle up to them? (Given the stereotypical behaviors men and women resort to on the mating circuit, this might be a more feasible scenario: I’ll sit within his eyeshot, she may say to herself, and bide my time until he makes a move.)

Finally, Li et al. point out that the social distancing effect money has been proven to have on interpersonal relations simply did not seem to occur in these two studies. (Previous work by Kathleen Vohs and other researchers have shown that the bigger our bank accounts, the less empathy we display and the more emotional and physical space we prefer between ourselves and others.) “In the situation with an attractive alternative,” Li et al. write, “money may exert a social engagement effect on both men and women.”

But is looking elsewhere or finding fault in your current partner not itself a form of social distancing? By flaw-seeking and alternative-shopping, aren't you inching yourself away from your mate via disinterest, finding fault, and disregarding any care for how they'd feel if you strayed?

A minor contention, yes, but an important one to consider when arguing that the coldness shown to others that having more money may foster doesn't apply to the above studies.

Whatever theory you use to make sense of these results, Li et al.'s work does offer one more spot of evidence that how much one or both partners in a relationship have in their wallets can change the way we they feel about—and act toward—each other.

For this, we can blame evolution. But that’s tantamount to blaming our parents for all of our childhood wounds. (Of course our pasts are a large part of the problem, but they needn't be life sentences.) It’s what you do with this information that makes a difference.

Hopefully, being aware of the ways in which money might alter your satisfaction (or lack thereof) with your current partner can make you pause before acting on impulses to overlook their good qualities or seek out a substitute rather than discuss with them what you feel you truly want and need.