The next time you see a couple together, take a few minutes to observe how the partners interact with each other. Based on what you see, consider what you might be able to determine about their relationship. It seems reasonable that you could tell whether they enjoy spending time together or if they’re fighting. But based on your brief observation, could you pick out a cheater? It may sound implausible that anyone could accurately and quickly determine whether someone is cheating on a partner based on a quick observation like this. But researchers from Brigham Young University and Florida State University thought it may be easier than we might think and conducted a series of two studies to get some answers.1
How They Did It
In Study 1, researchers had participants come to the lab with their relationship partners. The participants completed a series of measures, including items that asked whether the participant had been unfaithful. The participant and romantic partner then engaged in a 3-5 minute videotaped task in which one partner wore a blindfold and drew a picture based on their partner’s instructions. Afterward a group of 6 objective coders (who did not know the participants) watched the videotape of the couples and judged whether the target participant had ever engaged in cheating behaviors (e.g., “shown interest” “flirted” or “had sexual intercourse”) with someone other than his/her partner. Study 2 was a follow-up that used a similar method, but the researchers also asked coders to gauge how committed and trustworthy they felt the participant was in general.
What They Found
Study 1 revealed that coders were able to identify who was cheating. That is, coder’s judgments of which participants were cheating positively correlated with participants ratings of their actual cheating behaviors (i.e., whether they had shown interest in another partner or had sexual intercourse, etc.). Study 2 demonstrated the same pattern and showed that coders’ accuracy for determining which participants cheated was largely based on coders’ judgments of the participants’ trustworthiness and commitment. In other words, it appears the coders presumed participants were cheating when they felt those same participants were low in commitment and not particularly trustworthy. Importantly, results could not be explained by the participant’s sex; coders weren’t accurate simply because they thought the male participants (who report cheating more in general) were cheating more.
What These Results Mean for You
These results suggest that we may have an intuitive ability to sense other’s cheating ways. From an evolutionary perspective, such ability would be useful when picking partners because it would allow for the selection of partners who are more likely to be faithful. For men, this means they would have greater certainty that their female partner is carrying their baby and not someone else’s. For women it means they’d be more likely to choose a partner who is more likely to stick around to help raise a child instead of stepping out to have relationships with other partners.
Though it may seem crazy to think that you can accurately identify a cheater based on a few minutes from a video, other research shows how accurate these types of “thin slices” can be. In fact, in other work, students determined a professor’s teaching ability based on a viewing a 30 second silent clip of the professor teaching.2 These snap judgments corresponded with the more in-depth ratings of the professor’s quality that other students gave based on an entire semester. Follow-ups showed similar effects for high school teachers and with even shorter clips (6 second and 15 seconds).
Though these types of quick impressions can be accurate in a large sample of participants, you should be careful about wielding your own individual powers of perceptions on unsuspecting others with too much confidence. Perceptions of infidelity and actual infidelity in the studies were significantly related, but the association is far from perfect. If you make a hundred guesses, you’re going to be right some of the time, but wrong a lot of the time as well.
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1Lambert, N. M., Mulder, S., & Fincham, F. (2014). Thin slices of infidelity: Determining whether observers can pick out cheaters from a video clip interaction and what tips them off. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/pere.12052 Published online before print:
2Ambady, N., & Rosenthal, R. (1993). Half a minute: Predicting teacher evaluations from thin slices of nonverbal behavior and physical attractiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 431-441. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships 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.