Feed on

“Why do people cheat?” I was asked by relationship activist Maryanne Comaroto on her radio shortly shortly after my interview with Eric Anderson and his study on why monogamy is failing men went a little ballistic with comments on the Huffington Post.

I stumbled over my words with her because I don’t know why people cheat — and neither do you or any expert who claims to. Oh, you may know why you cheated or why your spouse/partner says he/she cheated, but you don’t know why everyone else cheats. Neither does behavioral economics expert and professor at Duke University Dan Ariely, despite the enticing title of his latest book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves.   

It’s the second book I’ve read of his — the first was Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, and have a copy of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home at my bedside, ready to go. I love his work, but am disappointed that he doesn’t include relationship cheating in his new book. Well, he does, but he devotes barely two pages toward the end to it, and only as an aside. Why? Surely a book on dishonesty must, must, include a chapter on infidelity! And even he agrees that “in the popular vernacular, cheating is practically synonymous with infidelity.”


But, as the good professor says, the problem is data:

I generally like to stick to conclusions I can draw from experiments and data. Conducting experiments on infidelity would be nearly impossible, and the data by their very nature are difficult to estimate.

It’s easy to see the dilemmas of setting up experiments that enable and encourage people to be unfaithful! Because the cheating data is self-reported — people have to be honest about their infidelities, and since his book is about how we all lie — especially to ourselves — we just can’t really get a handle on the truth of our own deceptions. We would basically be asking ourselves to rat on ourselves, but we often don’t even understand our motivations (and if you read his book, which I highly recommend, you’ll know why).


Shortly after I read Predictably Irrational, I contacted Ariely, hopeful to get a phone interview with him relating to what I’d just read in that book, that people who recite professional oaths, the Ten Commandments or an honor code right before a test are less likely to cheat that those who don’t (an idea he expands upon in his new book). I wanted to know if people who live together and don’t say any sort of vows would be more likely to cheat (and since more people view cohabitation as an alternative to marriage, this could have huge ramifications). While I couldn’t get him on the phone — he was traveling, as he frequently does, and stuck, miserably, in an airport in São Paulo — Ariely graciously responded with an emailed audio recording.

Yes, he said, without a ceremony and pledge, it would seem a live-in relationship would not be as successful. He also said that if couples would repeat their marriage vows yearly, they would probably be less likely to cheat, well, at least within a certain period after they restated their vows.

And then, sure enough, Heidi Klum and Seal, who did renew their vows yearly, split after six years of marriage. OK, he didn’t say renewing vows would prevent divorce; it just might — might — prevent infidelity, at least for a while.

So, back to infidelity: Why do people have affairs, especially when we all know that it will permanently change our relationship if discovered, if not end it for good?

In many ways, he says, lying about infidelity is no different than lying in general; our ability to rationalize, conflicts of interest, creativity, one immoral act, being depleted, others benefiting from our dishonesty, watching others behave dishonestly and a culture that gives examples of dishonesty all increase the chances of each and every one of us being dishonest. Only pledges, signatures, moral reminders and supervision make us less likely to be dishonest in our relationships, and we all know how well that works for a huge majority of us.

Without a doubt, there is more cheating — or more knowledge of cheating — in our society than ever before, from the Enron and Madoff fiascos to steroid use in sports to celebrity infidelities.

All of which means it takes an incredible amount of work to keep us honest and faithful in our relationships, and wearing TheCheeky.com’s anti-cheating ring — a $550 titanium band that leaves an “I’m Married” imprint when removed — isn’t going to cut it, although it may be enough of a moral reminder to stop a spouse or two.

Still, most of us are not cheating on our partners.

Despite the usual suspects on relationship experts’ lists of why he or she cheated on you — bad communication, a bad sex life, lack of intimacy, not getting needs met, etc., etc. — the truth is an illicit sexual tryst may occur randomly, like on an out-of-town business trip that went poorly (“ability to rationalize”) and we’re a bit drunk to make ourselves feel better (“being depleted”) and the hot woman next to us at the bar is coming on to us even though she’s wearing a flashy diamond wedding set (“watching others behave dishonestly”).

That’s why it’s easy to understand the Secret Service prostitute scandal in Columbia earlier this year; when everyone else is doing it and we’re already loose from booze, it’s easier to say, “Why not?” than “No way!”

If we are to believe Ariely’s research, that yes, while there are some real pathological liars, most of us are dishonest but just a little, then what is it that keeps many of us from having affairs — and what is it that makes us have them?

I don’t know — do you?

The bigger question, perhaps, is are we always happy with our choice?

Photo © Serhii/Fotolia.com

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