Why do people cheat? It’s a question we get (and address) here at ScienceOfRelationship.com regularly. Our coverage of the topic generally reflects the state of research on the topic, which focuses on proximal predictors of infidelity — or science jargon for those things about individuals or relationships that directly increase the likelihood somebody will cheat, such as low commitment, more attractive alternatives, lack of impulse control, narcissism, and so on. But what if we dig further in a person’s history, perhaps even preceding her or his foray into the world of romantic and sexual relationships? Are there more distal signs or risk factors for whether somebody will one day cheat on a partner? It would appear so.
In a recent study of about 300 college students, researchers wanted to find out if individuals are more or less likely to cheat as a function of whether their parents ever knocked boots with someone that wasn’t ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ (while married to mom or dad). Students were asked whether or not they had ever cheated on a romantic partner (30% said yes) as well as whether their mom or dad had ever cheated on their other parent (33% said yes, with dads slightly more likely to perpetrate the infidelity).
Students who had cheated on a partner were twice as likely to have had a parent who cheated compared to those students who had not cheated on a partner (44% vs. 22%). Interestingly, having a cheating parent didn’t affect the way students viewed cheating — they were no more accepting of the idea of cheating in general (at least that’s what they told the researchers)– so it’s not entirely clear exactly how having a parent cheat increases the odds that somebody may one day do the same. It’s most likely that knowing your mom or dad was a cheater somehow influences one of the many proximal predictors of cheating (e.g., feelings of commitment to partners), but future work is needed to clarify the chain of events that links your parents’ cheating ways (or not) to your own.
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Weiser, D. A., Weigel, D. J., Lalasz, C. B., & Evans, W. P. (in press). Family background and propensity to engage in infidelity. Journal of Family Issues. DOI: 10.1177/0192513X15581660
Dr. Tim Loving – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.