As any good social scientist will tell you, a person’s surroundings and environment have powerful influences on behavior. To assume that there are only cheaters and non-cheaters in the world is an oversimplification. Instead, there are situations where infidelity is more likely to occur. For example, the stress one experiences from a long day at school or at work could increase the chances of being unfaithful. Stress, whether from excessive demands, making difficult decisions, or preventing yourself from strangling your boss, requires effort. That effort leads to ego-depletion, or a state where the person feels worn down.1 When you feel worn down from one activity, it makes it harder to control yourself in other situations.
To determine whether ego-depletion (also known as “psychological fatigue”), affects the likelihood of cheating, Natalie Ciarocco and colleagues created stress in participants (all of whom were currently in committed romantic relationships) by bringing them into a room smelling of freshly baked cookies.2 In the room, participants saw two plates, one with the cookies and the other with radishes. Those in the depletion condition had the hard task of ignoring the cookies and eating the radishes. The other non-depletion group (who got the far better deal) got to eat the cookies while ignoring the radishes. Next, participants were given the opportunity to interact with an attractive stranger in order to help out a local dating service. In reality, the stranger was part of the experiment (a confederate) and asked standard questions and provided standard answers. During the conversation, the confederate asked two key questions: (1)“Do you have a number I could text you at? You seem like definitely the kind of person I would really like to get to know more,” and (2)“Do you think you would want to meet up for a coffee date with me sometime soon?”
Granted, participants weren’t given the chance to physically hook-up with another person, but would you really be happy if your partner indulged either of these requests? Probably not. It turns out that participants who were depleted from eating radishes were three times more likely to give out their phone number and to accept a coffee date. This suggests that forgoing temptation (like fresh-baked cookies) while doing something unpleasant (eating radishes) is stressful and ego-depleting in a way that can lead to a lack of restraint around other kinds of temptations. Experiencing a long, stressful, and ego-depleting day at school or at work is likely to make the prospect of cheating more tempting.
This article was adapted from the book Science of Relationships: Answers to Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, & Family.
1Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351–355.
2Ciarocco, N., Echevarria, J., & Lewandowski, G. W., Jr. (26, October, 2011). Hungry for love: The influence of self-regulation on infidelity. Journal of Social Psychology. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2011.555435
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.