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Cheaters May Use Cognitive Tricks to Rationalize Infidelity

CheaterMost people believe that they are good and moral and they also know that cheating on a partner is wrong. But how do cheaters live with themselves afterwards infidelity? How do cheaters reconcile their indiscretions with their beliefs about themselves? Understanding these issues can help us figure out why some “good guys” cheat.

Dissonance theory tells us that when an individual’s thoughts and behaviors are inconsistent, one of them has to be dominant. Have you ever wondered why someone would be a smoker these days, given the fact that everybody knows about the link between cancer and “cancer sticks”? A smoker is aware that smoking can cause cancer, but may rationalize it by thinking “I don’t smoke much” or “My grandmother smoked two packs per day and lived to be 90!” By coming up with such rationalizations, people are able to preserve the impression that their behaviors are consistent with attitudes.

Similarly, cheaters may minimize the significance of their infidelity as a way to cope with knowing they did wrong things. The authors of a new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships suggest that cheaters feel bad about their indiscretions, however, they often try to feel better by reframing their past infidelities as uncharacteristic or out-of-ordinary conduct.

The experiment

In order to test the idea, the participants were randomly assigned to be either “unfaithful” or “faithful” in four different lab experiments. Now, our dear readers, might be curious about how you make somebody cheat on their partner (or not) in a psychology study. Even if the researchers can create such groups in the lab, you might think that they probably should not do it for ethical reasons. The researchers coped with these problems via ingeniously banking on the fact that when you’re in a relationship, you may still interact with others attractive to you, and the degree to which you interact with these people count as a mild form of infidelity.

The participants were asked to recall a previous romantic relationship and then to think about someone other than their previous partner, whom they were attracted to while they were in that relationship. For instance, if Ted from “How I Met Your Mother” was a participant in the study, he would have been instructed to recall his (now terminated” relationship with Victoria, and report on how much he thought about Robin, interacted with her, and flirted with her while he was in the relationship with Victoria by answering questions on an “infidelity scale”.

How I met your mother

A still of “How I Met Your Mother”


Here is the really clever part of the experiment: The participants were given “false feedback” or inaccurate information so they would think they were lower or higher than average regarding previous infidelity compared to other participants. That is to say, if Ted was put in the “unfaithful” condition, he would have been made to learn that his past interactions with Robin were particularly frequent and intimate – he was relatively unfaithful to Victoria compared others who completed the infidelity scale test.

The experimental results revealed that participants who were made to think that they are unfaithful had more negative emotions than those who are in the “faithful” condition. The unfaithful group also felt more likely to report that they didn’t like themselves. In a nutshell, these people experienced discomfort about their cheating behaviors. They were also prone to downplay their infidelity, reporting that it was not so important and the misconducts didn’t represent the “typical” them.

In short, people understand that infidelity is wrong, but they may still do it. When they do, they often feel uncomfortable about it. However, cheaters are able to discount their previous indiscretions to make themselves feel better through various forms of cognitive gymnastics. Since the negative consequences, at least in terms of how they feel about themselves, are diminished, maybe they don’t learn from their mistakes – and may be susceptible to cheating again in future.

Source: Scientific American