You're an attractive person in a loving, committed, happy relationship. Still, there is temptation at every turn. At the grocery store, the cute person at the checkout line smiles at you with a raised eyebrow. You strike up a flirtatious conversation, and this person asks for your number. What do you do? Why don't you cheat? What's stopping you?
In moments like these, there is a conflict between your immediate gut instinct (have sex with this person now!) and your longer-term goal (stay committed to your partner!). Having the gut instinct in itself isn't necessarily wrong. It's just a sign that you're human. Mostly everyone, single or not, is automatically pulled toward beautiful people. When confronted with an attractive person, people's approach tendencies activate automatically and they tend to gaze longer into the eyes of the attractive person. All of this happens without any effort or control whatsoever. Making eye contact with an attractive person is even rewarding to our brain, activating reward-related circuitry.
Considering how universal, automatic, and potent these tendencies are, one might wonder: why doesn't everyone cheat? Obviously, everyone does not cheat, raising the question: why are some people better able at resisting this immediate temptation than others?
Recent research suggests that the answer has a lot to do with cognitive control. The default state is to act on impulse. Overriding these strong emotions requires mental effort, and the more attractive alternatives you have (imagine all the offers Tiger Woods received), the harder it is to control your impulses.
In recent years, neuropsychologists have located a set of brain areas in the frontal lobe (around the forehead) of humans that support self-control processes. These so-called "executive functions," which were the last bit of our brain to evolve, involve the ability to plan, inhibit or delay responding. Whenever someone must focus hard on a task and ignore distractions, this area is particularly active. The extent to which these areas of the brain light up predicts a lot of important outcomes, including whether people are likely to follow the rule norms of society, resist a wide variety of temptations and engage in risky behaviors. Executive control even predicts the willpower to resist the urge to eat M&Ms when on a diet.
Therefore, executive control may play a role in cheating behaviors. If your long-term goal is to stay committed to your partner, and you've got a heck of a lot of temptation, this requires a heck of a lot of executive control. Executive control may also help people avoid situations in the first place where they may experience the lure of attractive potential partners.
Recent evidence suggests that executive functions do have a lot to do with cheating. Simone Ritter and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen found that under normal conditions, romantically involved heterosexual individuals reported less interest in attractive opposite-sex individuals than those who were single. All bets were off, though, when they were cognitively taxed by the experimenter, such as given a heavy time pressure. In these situations, with their executive-control guard down, there was no longer a difference between single and romantically involved individuals! It appears, then, that romantically involved people only reject attractive potential partners when they have enough cognitive resources and the time to consciously decide.
In a hot-off-the-press study in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tila Pronk and her colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen looked at the issue more directly by scientifically investigating why some people have more difficulty than others in staying faithful to their romantic partners. Across three studies, they investigated the relation between a different aspect of executive control and people's ability to stay faithful.
In their first study, 72 romantically-involved students completed an executive control task measuring their ability to shift between two sets of instructions and a short questionnaire that asked them how good they are staying faithful to their partner (e.g., "If a cute guy/girl shows interest in me, I find it hard to resist temptation"). They found that those with lower executive control tended to report having a higher level of difficulty staying faithful. There were no gender differences.
In their second study, they looked at real-world behaviors in a sample of men only. Twenty-two heterosexual men completed a task of executive control that required the ability to keep letters in memory while simultaneously processing information. This task requires constant updating of memory, which taxes executive control processes. After completing the task, participants were asked to sit in the waiting room until the experimenter called them.
Then in walked an attractive female, whom the experimenters recruited to help them out with their experiment. The female was instructed by the experimenters to behave in a friendly but not obviously interested or flirtatious manner. None of the participants reported being aware that the women was part of the experiment. The interactions were videotaped, and afterwards, the women and four independent observers were shown the first five minutes of the interaction, and they judged the guy's flirting intensity. All observers agreed with each other highly in what they saw. Consistent with their first study, they found that the lower the level of executive control, the greater the flirting behavior.
In their third study, they looked at whether executive control helps prevent people from ending up in a situation with an attractive alternative in the first place. Sixty-five men and women completed the famous Stroop Test, in which they had to name the color of a word while ignoring the meaning of that word. This is not an easy task: try it yourself!
After taking the measure of executive control, they were told that they would be playing an "acquaintance game" with a randomly-assigned participant, in which they would ask and answer personal questions (e.g., "Would you like to be famous?"). They were shown a picture of this other participant (who just happened to be an attractive opposite-sex person!). After the game, they indicated how attractive they found the other participant by moving a slider somewhere between totally not attractive to very attractive and how much they would like to meet the other participant in real life.
Unsurprisingly, the more a participant found the other person attractive, the more he or she wanted to meet that person. Consistent with their prediction though, they found that executive control reduced the expressed desire to meet the attractive other, but only for romantically involved individuals. Presumably this is because single people didn't have to use cognitive resources to make a decision even though their desires were just as strong as those in a relationship. Also, while men on average rated the other participant as more attractive than women did, both men and women (single or in a relationship) were equally likely to express desire meeting the other person.
What's going on here? Why is executive control so darn important for resisting the temptation to cheat? The researchers suggest a few possibilities.
One possibility is that executive control helps inhibit acting on impulses that everyone feels. For many partners, having the impulse is OK, but acting on it is not. Executive control can also help inhibit the urge to communicate interest in potential partners, such as flirting and getting into situations where temptation will continue to present itself (e.g., "hanging out"). All of this inhibition requires limited cognitive resources.
Those with lower levels of executive control may also fantasize more about potential partners. Research does show a strong relation between executive control and mind-wandering in general. Those with higher levels of executive control may simply mind-wander less, and therefore be less vulnerable when faced with the potential partner in person. Executive control may also contribute to the ability to maintain the image of the partner in mind while interacting with the hot other person. People low in executive control may have more difficulty keeping this image in their mind and therefore may not be as able to fully think through the consequences of giving in to the temptation. It's also possible that people with different levels of executive control who are in a relationship actually experience different levels of temptation when confronted with potential partners. All of these possibilities are ripe for further research.
The implications of this research are huge. Who would have thought that something as cognitive and emotionally-devoid as the ability to update letters in memory or name colors as fast as possible would be related to the ability to resist the temptation to cheat? This research shows just how tightly linked cognition is with everything else in our lives. Whenever people's ability to exert cognitive control is reduced, they are more vulnerable to infidelity.
Lots of conditions can impair executive control, including a high workload or stress. Research does show that people are more prone to infidelity when they experience a high level of psychological distress. Imagine being a high-profile celebrity or politician with lots of sexual options and a stressful workload -- that's essentially a formula for infidelity! This is not to excuse anyone, of course. But it does add a bit to our understanding.
Add alcohol to the mix, and forget about it. Alcohol has been shown to weaken cognitive control processes, and has also been shown to be related to infidelity and risky sexual behaviors among college students (who already as a group have lower levels of executive control to begin with).
The moral of this story? Resisting the temptation to cheat requires cognitive effort. If you've got a lot of executive control, you probably are less likely to cheat on your partner. If you don't have a lot of cognitive resources, and you want to stay committed to your partner, you better hope you aren't attractive, rich, famous, under a lot of stress or drunk. And pray you don't check all those boxes at the same time. Or else you will really be in trouble.
Now, if you want to screen your potential mate to see how likely he or she is to cheat on you, give them the ol' Stroop Test. I'd advise that you don't do this on the first date though, or else they're bound to cheat on you -- and for good reason!