Psychological biases keep many married couples from cheating on each other even when the other candidates are objectively attractive, new research shows. Two separate studies on newlyweds show that when confronted with temptation, some individuals naturally look away faster, others underrated alternative attractive options, and plenty of people do both — more importantly, when they do, they are significantly less likely to commit infidelity and divorce years later. The findings add to the growing body of work that suggests that some partners are hardwired for monogamy and that some simply are not.
“With the advent of social media, and thus the increased availability of and access to alternative partners, understanding how people avoid the temptation posed by alternative partners may be more relevant than ever to understanding relationships,” study co-author Jim McNulty, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, said in a release.
Interdependence theory, the theoretical model psychologists use to explain why relationships form and sever, states that commitment comes down to two main factors — relationship satisfaction and relationship alternatives. While social scientists have optimistically amassed a large amount data on how to increase relationship satisfaction, far less has looked at individuals who can dodge alternatives. Subsequent studies suggest that there are basic psychological processes that may minimize the risk of cheating. One is a person’s ability to direct their attention away from temptation, and the other is the tendency to devalue attractive alternatives. When people display these attentional biases, these responses appear to be automatic. Past research has focused on where these biases come from, but very little has looked at how much they affect infidelity risk.
To test this, McNulty and his colleagues tracked 233 newlyweds from their first few months of marriage across two separate studies. The first study followed 113 heterosexual couples who had been married fewer than four months. After completing an initial survey about their marriage satisfaction prior lab tests, participants where they were shown pictures of 10 “highly attractive” men and women, as well as 10 “average-looking” men and women, other than their partners, and had their attention measured by how long it took them to look away, and how the assessed the appeal of alternatives. Every six months over the next three and a half years, couples were surveyed again about their relationships, including infidelity. A similar procedure was duplicated with an additional 120 newlyweds who had been married fewer than three months, and who were followed up with every four months for the next three years.
Results of both samples showed that partners who looked away from attractive alternatives as little as a 100 milliseconds faster, or who downgraded attractiveness of alternatives by at least two points were 50 percent less likely to have sex with someone other than their spouse years later — and thus, more likely to remain married. Even when researchers controlled for other variables such as marital satisfaction, commitment, or changes in commitment, the data remained consistent. Although researchers found that sexual satisfaction was positively associated with cheating (and many outlets highlighted this detail), they also found no correlation between sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction.
“It may be that people who feel particularly positive about sex in general, regardless of how they feel about their partners or relationships specifically, are more likely to engage in an infidelity,” the study authors write.
Another limitation of the study is that couples were not asked if they were a part of consensually nonmonogamous relationships as part of the initial assessment. And the most obvious caveat to consider is that people don’t always accurately self-report their sexual improprieties for research their spouse may or may not have signed them up for. Despite these considerations, McNulty and his team hope that the research will help psychologists and other mental health practitioners offer more practical solutions for individuals and couples struggling with impulses they don’t fully understand.
“People are not necessarily aware of what they’re doing or why they’re doing it,” McNulty adds. “These processes are largely spontaneous and effortless, and they may be somewhat shaped by biology and/or early childhood experiences.”