Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 643–658

Effect of Cheating Experience on Attitudes toward Infidelity

Authors

    • Psychology DepartmentUniversity of Georgia
  • Andrew S. Walters
    • Northern Arizona University
  • Matt J. Goren
    • University of California
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s12119-013-9169-2

Cite this article as:
Sharpe, D.I., Walters, A.S. & Goren, M.J. Sexuality & Culture (2013) 17: 643. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9169-2

Abstract

The present study investigated how cheating experience influences perception of others’ infidelity. Using vignette characters, we explored the hypothesis that a participant’s experience cheating on a partner and gender of vignette character moderate gender-differentiated perceptions of infidelity (i.e., men reporting more accepting attitudes toward infidelity than women). Participants (N = 320) were asked a series of questions evaluating both how ‘acceptable’ and ‘forgivable’ was a vignette character’s infidelity. Men and women with prior experience cheating found the cheating vignette character of their same gender significantly more acceptable and forgivable than the unfaithful character of the other gender. Participants who reported no history of infidelity found infidelity as generally unacceptable, regardless of character gender.

Keywords

ExtradyadicGender differencesInfidelity experienceCheating experienceCognitive dissonance

Introduction

A monogamous, heterosexual marriage remains the cross-cultural standard for intimate relationship structures (United Nations 2000). The United Nations’ World Marriage Patterns 2000 indicated that the majority of individuals in all countries entered a marital situation by the age of 49. A census survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 91 % of individuals aged 40–44 and living in the United States had been married at least once, with over half the population married to their first spouse by the age of 27 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2002). From a judicial perspective, marriage enacts the legalized regulation of dyadic exclusivity and reproduction (Gallagher 2001). In many nations, extramarital sexual activity is considered an infraction of law and religious commitment; indeed, penalties of violating sexual exclusivity in some societies (e.g., Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen) can be as severe as public execution (see Mackay 2001). While most countries do not deem capital punishment a suitable sentence for infidelity, the necessity of marital monogamy is clearly emphasized in all judiciary systems.

In regard to the private forum of romantic relationship regulation, the importance of monogamy in reproductive relationships is considered crucial for marital satisfaction (Hall and Fincham 2009). Individuals ubiquitously report that sexual activity should occur exclusively within a primary relationship (Mackay 2001; Treas and Giesen 2000; Weis and Felton 1987) and ‘sexual monogamy for both marital partners’ is the most common response given when individuals are asked to describe their ideal sexual relationship arrangement (Stone et al. 2005). Not only is a monogamous, heterosexual marriage a relationship standard for the individual, it also is reported as an expectation for others (Christensen 1973; Shackelford and Buss 2000). Individuals who do not engage in the dominant sexuality paradigm often are viewed as threatening to the heteronormative social order, as evidenced by the controversy of same-sex marriage legalization and swingers’ tendencies to withhold public disclosure (Gould 2000; Olson et al. 2006; Rubin 2001).

There are legitimate reasons for persons’ discomfort with extradyadic behavior. In both extradating behavior (ED) and extramarital involvement (EMI), extradyadic behavior (also commonly referred to as ‘infidelity’ and ‘cheating’) includes a range of activity from flirting to sexual intercourse (Roscoe et al. 1988). Consequences of infidelity often dramatically affect individuals’ conceptions of self and the integrity of the primary partnership (Allen and Atkins 2005; Bird et al. 2007; Caprio 1953; DeMaris 2009; Greene et al. 1974; Hall and Fincham 2009; Previti and Amato 2004; Prins et al. 1993; Riviere 1932; Schmitt and Shackelford 2003; Shackelford et al. 2000). Relationships frequently terminate as a consequence of the damage resulting from unsanctioned extradyadic involvement (Amato and Previti 2003; Atwood and Seifer 1997; Charny and Parnass 1995; Knox et al. 2000). Infidelity is a serious relationship issue, as it not only reflects instability within the primary relationship, but also may have intense negative consequences for both individuals in the dyad.

Research indicates that, although individuals may view ED and EMI as unacceptable (Sheppard et al. 1995; Thornton and Young De-Marco 2001) and report the experience as highly damaging, a substantial number of individuals (as high as 57.4 % of women and 70.9 % of men in Hansen 1987) also report having engaged in at least extradating activity (Allen and Baucom 2006; Feldman and Cauffman 1999; Hall and Fincham 2009; Hansen 1987; Linquist and Negy 2005; Sheppard et al. 1995; Stebleton and Rothenberger 1993; Wiederman and Hurd 1999). The present study aims to identify some of the contextual factors that may explain the disparity between people’s actions and attitudes toward infidelity.

Gender Differences and Cheating Experience

The corpus of infidelity literature includes a substantial amount of work focused on gender differences in attitudes toward sexual and emotional infidelity (Allen and Baucom 2006; Buss et al. 1996, 1992; Buss and Shackelford 1997; Buunk and Dijkstra 2004; Christensen 1973; DeSteno et al. 2002; DeSteno and Salovey 1996; Harris 1996, 2002, 2003b, 2005; Harris and Christenfeld 1996; Hunyady et al. 2008; Roscoe et al. 1988; Sabini and Green 2004; Sagarin 2005; Sagarin et al. 2003; Sagarin and Guadagno 2004; Schützwohl 2005, 2006; Shackelford and Buss 2000; Shackelford et al. 2000, 2004; Sheppard et al. 1995; Wiederman and Allgeier 1993). The source of both gender differences (e.g., Buss et al. 1992, 1996; Sagarin 2005) and similarities (e.g., Harris 2005) in response to sexual versus emotional infidelity is of intense interest to researchers and nonresearchers alike (see Harris 2005 for a review). Briefly, evolutionary models posit that males are more upset by the sexual infidelity of their female partners due to compromised paternal certainty, and females are more distressed by the emotional infidelity of their male partners, which may result in compromised paternal resource contribution to the family (e.g., Buss et al. 1992; Sagarin et al. 2003). Social-role theorists argue that gender-biased responses to emotional versus sexual infidelity are a product of forced-choice testing paradigms and are not consistently found when responses are posed as continuous-scale choices (e.g., Harris and Christenfeld 1996; Sabini and Green 2004).

Unfortunately, most research examining gender differences in response to infidelity does not include actual infidelity experience as an influential factor. Varga et al. (2011) reported finding only four peer-reviewed articles that investigated how participants with betrayal experience responded to infidelity scenarios (Berman and Frazier 2005; Edlund et al. 2006; Harris 2002, 2003a). Our search returned similar results, as well as the work completed by Sagarin et al. (2003). Using both forced-choice and continuous metrics, Sagarin and colleagues compared responses to hypothetical sexual and emotional infidelity among men and women with betrayal experience, cheating experience, or no experience with infidelity. The authors found that hypothetical sexual infidelity for men with betrayal experience and women with cheating experience was more distressing than for the other groups (It is unclear as to why Sagarin et al.’s work was cited by Varga et al. but not included in their actual infidelity experience search list. This disparity may be a product of a general inconsistency in the literature defining cheating experience, infidelity experience, and betrayal experience; for the sake of the current research, a participant has cheating experience if he or she has committed infidelity, betrayal experience if he or she has been a victim of infidelity, and infidelity experience if he or she has cheating and/or betrayal experience).

Using a forced-choice paradigm, Berman and Frazier (2005) found that only for individuals without betrayal experience do gender differences emerge, with men reporting more distress than women over their partner’s hypothetical extradyadic sexual involvement. No gender differences were found among individuals with real betrayal experience. Edlund et al. (2006) countered that these results were potentially misleading, as betrayal experience was defined more narrowly (i.e., a secret, unacceptable, extradyadic relationship that had occurred within the past year) by the authors than in Harris (2002), the first published work looking at actual infidelity experience. Harris had simply had asked whether the participants had ever been ‘cheated on’ while in a romantic relationship. Berman and Frazier’s prompt yielded a significantly smaller sample size (13.1 % of men, 16.7 % of women) than Harris’s target question (58.3 % of men, 65.3 % of women). Edlund et al. (2006) used Harris’s prompt to identify participants with betrayal experience, finding similar numbers as Harris (47.5 % of men, 52 % of women). The authors also included different cohorts to explore age as a potential moderating variable (M = 21.7 years, SD = 4.04 for undergraduate sample; M = 25.88, SD = 9.36 for working adult sample). Both undergraduates and working adults in Edlund et al.’s work expressed the typical gender differences in both forced-choice and continuous measures, regardless of betrayal experience. The results of Edlund et al. were unique among the four cited by Varga et al. (2011), and were perhaps the result of a small undergraduate sample size and young age of the nonstudent adult group. Varga et al. extended the work of Edlund et al. by using a significantly larger undergraduate sample and an older working adult sample (M = 38.12, SD = 12.60); their results aligned with both Berman and Frazier (2005), and Harris’ (2002) work.

The lack of studies measuring effect actual betrayal experience on reactions to infidelity is matched by the dearth of research including cheating experience. To the best of our knowledge, only a few research teams have asked participants to disclose past cheating experience at all (Berman and Frazier 2005; Haavio-Mannila and Kontula 2003; Sagarin et al. 2003; Sheppard et al. 1995). In the only study that analyzed both betrayal and cheating experience, Sagarin and colleagues found that although betrayal experience influenced men’s responses to infidelity such that sexual infidelity was more distressing for men who had been cheated on, men with or without cheating experience did not look significantly different in their responses to sexual betrayal.

Actual infidelity experience research typically asks the participant to imagine him or herself as a victim of infidelity. The present research also is concerned with how participant behavior is reflected in perceptions of other’s infidelity, which may be a more relevant indicator of true attitudes, given the sensitive nature of the topic. Thompson (1982) originally developed vignettes depicting fictional couples engaged in a variety of extramarital infidelity types to safely explore participant attitudes toward infidelity. Participants reported that discussing these vignettes made it possible for them to comfortably express their feelings toward infidelity without having to divulge personal experiences. Using modified versions of Thompson’s scenarios, Sheppard et al. (1995) asked two student groups to rate vignette characters’ cheating behavior in both a dating and married relationship. For all infidelity types, males found cheating as more acceptable than females. Sheppard and colleagues also identified that continual infidelities of a sexual or an emotional/sexual nature were less acceptable than continual emotional infidelity or a one-night stand in both married and dating relationships. Regardless of gender, participants identified dating infidelity and emotional infidelity as the most acceptable forms of cheating, and sexual betrayal was viewed as more threatening than emotional betrayal.

Current Study

Although Sheppard and colleagues varied character gender, they did not measure the interaction of character gender with their variables. Research examining the gender double-standard with regard to infidelity find that men who are supportive of extramarital relationships are supportive for men only (e.g., Christensen 1973; Haavio-Mannila and Kontula 2003). Women, on the other hand, typically expect fidelity for both men and women. There also is evidence for some relationship between double-standards and actual cheating experience across gender. While no correlation scores were directly reported, Haavio-Manilla and Kontula found that 47 % of men and 26 % of women who endorsed the infidelity double-standard for their gender had cheated, versus 30 % of men and 16 % of women who supported single-standards and 33 % of men and 11 % of women in support of other gender double-standards (2003).

Haavio-Mannila and Kontula also stated that perhaps individuals are adjusting their attitudes to match their behavior, or are expressing behavior that aligns with their attitude. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory, individuals who engage in a particular behavior are likely to change their attitudes toward that behavior (Festinger and Carlsmith 1959). Cognitive dissonance theory in sexuality research often has been used to explain the negative physical and mental consequences of incongruent sexual identity and sexual behavior (e.g., Huebner et al. 2011; Schick et al. 2012). Individuals who engage in stigmatized sexual behavior (i.e., homosexual relationships, premarital sex, nonmonogamous sexual activity) but do not report self-identity with that are likely to express a future attitude change to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

The present study adds to the important investigation of infidelity by exploring how the interaction of participant gender, cheating experience, and vignette character gender influence attitudes toward extrarelational behavior. We hypothesize that participants with cheating experience will express more permissive attitudes toward infidelity than individuals without cheating experience, but that both participant gender and character gender will generate differential responses among our participant groups (cheating-experienced men, cheating-experienced women, cheating-inexperienced men, and cheating-inexperienced women).

Method

Participants

Participants were recruited from Psychology courses at a medium-size university in the Southwestern United States. The sample consisted of 92 men, 228 women, M age = 18.68 (SD = 1.32, range 18–30 years). Students received course credit for their participation.

Measures

Students were invited to take a survey entitled “Attitudes about Dating and Relationships”. Participants were made aware of sign-up dates and times for participation through an online software program used by the university to manage research participation. The research was briefly described as a survey concerning general attitudes toward sex and relationships. A pilot-test indicated that the survey would take most participants an average of 15–20 min to complete. The experiment was approved by the University’s IRB prior to data collection.

Demographics

Participants were asked demographic questions including age, sexual orientation, biological sex, and gender identity. Responses provided by persons who were age outliers (n = 2) or identified as nonheterosexual (n = 12) or transsexual (n = 2), were not included in this sample. Data obtained from older individuals or participants who identified as nonheterosexual and transsexual were replaced with data from self-identifying heterosexual individuals within the age range of 18–30 years.

Vignette

Participants were asked to read a vignette describing a scenario involving infidelity. They were then asked to respond to questions following the vignette concerning acceptability and forgivability of the character’s infidelity. Five response options were made available for each question, ranging from “completely unacceptable”/“completely unforgivable” to “completely acceptable”/“completely forgivable”. We explored multiple aspects of general infidelity approval by using the terms acceptable and forgivable as distinctly different attitudes an individual can direct toward a particular behavior. For example, an individual may believe that it is unacceptable for his or her partner to have sex with another individual; however, the betrayed individual may be willing to forgive the cheating partner. The term acceptable addresses the level of toleration another individual has for a particular behavior; forgivable, on the other hand, implies a more emotionally-laden value judgment based on the cessation of resentment, simultaneously granting pardon for the offending behavior. Attributions of the extrarelational activity and forgiving a partner who has cheated are both important in relationship healing (Allen et al. 2005; Hall and Fincham 2006).

The vignettes and survey were previously pilot-tested by undergraduate assistants for scenario relevance, clarity of language, and time for completion.

Sample Vignette

Julie and Neil have been dating for 3 months. They respect one another very much and are happy to be together. One evening, they decide to go out separately; Julie goes to a party with her friends and Neil goes to a different party with his friends. While at the party, Neil meets a nice, attractive woman. They have great conversation while at the party and there is an obvious sexual attraction between them. They eventually head back to her place and spend the night together. While Neil feels bad for having sex with someone other than his girlfriend Julie, he still feels positive about his sexual experience with the woman he met at the party. Neil, however, decides he should not see this woman again.

Sample Questions

  1. 1.
    Keeping in mind that Julie and Neil are in a relationship, how acceptable do you think it is that Neil had sex with a woman that he had just met at a party?
    1. a.

      Completely unacceptable

       
    2. b.

      Somewhat unacceptable

       
    3. c.

      Unsure

       
    4. d.

      Somewhat acceptable

       
    5. e.

      Completely acceptable

       
     
  1. 2.
    How forgivable is Neil’s behavior?
    1. a.

      Completely unforgivable

       
    2. b.

      Somewhat unforgivable

       
    3. c.

      Unsure

       
    4. d.

      Somewhat forgivable

       
    5. e.

      Completely forgivable

       
     
  1. 3.
    Have you ever engaged in an extra-dating (or extra-marital) sexual experience?
    • Yes No

     

Procedure

After providing informed consent, a member of the research team administered surveys to participants in groups of 10–20 individuals. The survey included demographic questions, a vignette describing infidelity in a fictitious romantic relationship, vignette-specific questions, and questions concerning participant sexual behavior (i.e., cheating experience). All participants typically completed the survey in <1 h. Participants were asked to wait in the classroom until all participants completed the questionnaire, upon which the students were debriefed and thanked for their participation.

Results

Gender Differences and Cheating Experience

Cheating behavior was measured by asking a whether the participant had ever engaged in sexual infidelity. There were 70 cheaters (21.9 %) and 250 non-cheaters (78.1 %). A significantly greater proportion of men (35.9 %) had engaged in dating infidelity than women (16.2 %), χ2 = 14.80, p < 0.01.

We next examined the perceived acceptability and forgivability of the vignette characters’ infidelity. Participants’ responses were submitted to a 2 (male or female character) × 2 (male or female participant) × 2 (past cheating or no past cheating) between-subjects full-model factorial ANOVA to explain both the acceptability and forgivability of the character’s infidelity. We examine these models separately in the next subsections. Note that we did not assume equal variances among the cells in our design.

Acceptability

Our model explained a significant proportion of the variability of character infidelity acceptance, F(7, 312) = 14.01, p < 0.001, r = 0.24. The three-way interaction of participant gender, character gender, and participants’ past cheating experience was significant, F(1,319) = 19.14, p < 0.001. We examined this interaction, shown in Table 1 and Fig. 1, by splitting our data by character gender.
Table 1

Acceptability of vignette characters’ infidelity

Character

Gender-cheating status

N

M

SE

95 % Cl

LL

UL

Julie

Male-C

13

1.692

0.223

1.254

2.130

Male-NC

24

1.583

0.164

1.261

1.906

Female-C

24

2.125

0.164

1.803

2.447

Female-NC

99

1.182

0.081

1.023

1.340

Neil

Male-C

20

2.700

0.179

2.347

3.053

Male-NC

35

1.343

0.136

1.076

1.610

Female-NC

13

1.231

0.223

0.793

1.669

Female-C

92

1.076

0.084

0.912

1.241

C cheating experience, NC no cheating experience, CI confidence interval, LL lower limit, UL upper limit

https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs12119-013-9169-2/MediaObjects/12119_2013_9169_Fig1_HTML.gif
Fig. 1

Acceptability of vignette character’s infidelity based on gender of participant and participant cheating experience. Error bars represent standard errors

Participant gender and past cheating experience were included in a model to explain acceptability of Neal’s infidelity. This model explained a significant proportion of variability, F(3,156) = 31.07, p < 0.001, r = 0.37. The interaction between character gender and past cheating experience also was significant, F(1,156) = 18.61, p < 0.001. Our hypothesis, that cheating experience would moderate traditional gender differences in attitudes toward infidelity, was supported for acceptability for Neil’s infidelity. By decomposing the interaction between gender and cheating experience further, we found that men with past cheating experience judged Neil’s infidelity to be more acceptable than men without past cheating experience, t(25.74) = 3.86, p < 0.001, women without past cheating experience, t(19.36) = 4.96, p < 0.001, and women with past cheating experience, t(23.95) = 4.23, p < 0.001. The latter groups of participants, in contrast, did not differ in these judgments, all t < 1.87, all p > 0.070.

We next turn to explaining acceptability of Julie’s infidelity. This model also explained a significant proportion of the variability, F(3,156) = 7.78, p < 0.001, r = 0.13. The interaction between participant gender and past cheating experience was again significant, F(1,156) = 4.98, p = 0.027. Furthermore, we found that women with past cheating experience found the female character’s infidelity more acceptable than women without past cheating experience, t(24.90) = 3.14, p = 0.004, again supporting our hypothesis. While women with past cheating experience tended to find Julie’s infidelity more acceptable than did men with or without past cheating experience, these differences were not significantly different, both t < 1.46, both p > 0.152. Given the low sample sizes in these cells, however, these tests may be underpowered.

Forgivability

As shown in Table 2 and Fig. 2, character gender, participant gender, participant cheating experience, and their interactions also explained a significant proportion of the variability in judgments of forgivability for vignette characters’ infidelity, F(7, 312) = 8.01, p < 0.001, r = 0.152. To further analyze the significant three-way interaction, F(1,312) = 9.44, p = 0.002, we again split the data by character gender.
Table 2

Forgivability of vignette characters’ infidelity

Character

Gender-cheating status

N

M

SE

95 % Cl

LL

UL

Julie

Male-C

13

2.462

0.301

1.868

3.055

Male-NC

24

2.333

0.222

1.897

2.770

Female-C

24

3.167

0.222

2.730

3.603

Female-NC

99

2.020

0.109

1.805

2.235

Neil

Male-C

20

3.050

0.243

2.572

3.528

Male-NC

35

1.771

0.184

1.410

2.133

Female-C

13

2.077

0.301

1.484

2.670

Female-NC

92

1.717

0.113

1.494

1.940

C cheating experience, NC no cheating experience, CI confidence interval, LL lower limit, UL upper limit

https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs12119-013-9169-2/MediaObjects/12119_2013_9169_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

Forgivability of vignette character’s infidelity based on gender of participant and participant cheating experience. Error bars represent standard errors

This model also predicted a significant proportion of the variability in forgivability judgments of Neil’s infidelity, F(3,156) = 9.37, p < 0.001, r = 0.153. The interaction of participant gender and cheating experience was significant, F(1,156) = 4.67, p = 0.032, and further analysis revealed the same pattern found for acceptability. Men with past cheating experience judged this character’s infidelity to be more forgivable than men without past cheating experience, t(29.66) = 3.74, p < 0.001, women without past cheating experience, t(23.35) = 4.16, p < 0.001, and women with past cheating experience, t(27.21) = 2.10, p = 0.0451. There were no differences among the latter groups, all t < 0.99, all p > 0.338.

The model also predicted a significant proportion of the variability in forgivability judgments of Julie’s infidelity, F(3,156) = 6.68, p < 0.001, r = 0.115. The interaction of participant gender and cheating experience was again significant, F(1,156) = 4.75, p = 0.031. Women with past cheating experience judged Julie’s infidelity to be more forgivable than women without past cheating experience, t(28.76) = 3.71, p < 0.001 and men without past cheating experience, t(40.22) = 2.38, p < 0.022. Women with past cheating experience also had higher mean forgivability judgments than men with past cheating experience, but this difference was not statistically significant, arguably due to the lower power of this test. No other groups differed, all t < 0.96, all p > 0.355.

Discussion

Our hypothesis that the interaction of past cheating experience with participant gender and character gender would affect perceptions of infidelity was supported. Men with cheating experience were most accepting/forgiving of the male cheating character and women with cheating experience were most accepting/forgiving of the female cheating character. Our work supports the research by Haavio-Mannila and Kontula (2003), and lends evidence to the theory that cognitive dissonance avoidance compels participants with cheating experience to express gender-biased permissive attitudes toward infidelity. Our results also were incongruent with Sheppard et al. (1995), who found that men were more accepting of all unfaithful vignette characters than women. The contrast between our work and Sheppard et al.’s may stem from the fact that though Sheppard and colleagues asked participants if they had cheating experience, this information was not included in their analysis of attitudes toward infidelity.

In conjunction with an exploration of cognitive dissonance, the aim of this study was to add evidence to the importance of continuing to distinguish participant groups based on infidelity experience. Research exploring actual betrayal experience has highlighted the impact of infidelity experience on how respondents feel about even hypothetical scenarios (e.g., Berman and Frazier 2005; Harris 2002; Varga et al. 2011). Berman and Frazier and other infidelity researchers have found that actual betrayal experience moderates reactions to infidelity by eliminating gender differences in response to sexual versus emotional infidelity. The present study did not directly explore the effect of cheating experience on sexual versus emotional infidelity, though we feel this would be an interesting future direction and may be useful in explaining some inconsistencies in the literature. Sagarin et al. (2003), for example, did not find that betrayal experience moderated gender differences. In their study, women with cheating experience were more distressed by hypothetical sexual betrayal than men with cheating experience, who responded similarly to inexperienced men. Furthermore, men with betrayal experience were more distressed by hypothetical sexual infidelity than men who had never been cheated on. More research including a variety of participant categories based on infidelity experience is needed to understand the differential impact experience has on reactions to different types of infidelity (emotional versus sexual), as well as why betrayal experience potentially attenuates gender differences while cheating experience amplifies them (e.g., Haavio-Mannila and Kontula 2003).

To deconstruct our findings further, we look to research addressing the question: “Who cheats”? Social-personality research points toward narcissism as an important correlative factor, with individuals scoring high in narcissism more likely to cheat than low scorers (e.g., Atkins et al. 2005). Hunyady et al. (2008) identified that men and high-level narcissist participants exhibited more accepting attitudes toward infidelity than women and low-level narcissists. If high-level narcissists are more likely to cheat and empathize with cheaters, the more likely they may find a cheating character acceptable and forgivable (particularly if the character’s profile matches their own). Thus, men with cheating experience should be expected to find other men with cheating experience as more acceptable/forgivable, with similar patterns for female cheaters. Other personality research has pointed to the importance of sensation-seeking on gender differences in intention to cheat, and in fact, sensation-seeking has been found to completely mediate the effect of gender on extradyadic intention (Lalasz and Weigel 2011). Although we cannot make a conclusive statement regarding the effect of personality variables on our findings, a measure of narcissism and/or sensation-seeking may elucidate our data in light of the attenuating effect of betrayal experience on gender differences found by Berman and Frazier versus the amplifying effect of cheating experience on gender differences found in the present study.

As with all studies, some limitations warrant discussion. First, situations expressed in the vignettes are hypothetical, and could have been presented in a number of alternative ways. For example, Julie and Neil’s relationship is described in a positive way; it is conceivable that participants would have responded differently to the infidelity if Julie and Neil were described as having a poor relationship or one where the lead vignette character felt neglected or abused in the relationship. Additionally, we did not include information regarding the sexual or emotional nature of the infidelity. Despite the ongoing debate as to how gender differences are enacted in emotional responses to infidelity, the distinction between emotional and sexual infidelity is important across the research. We assumed that a long-term unfaithful relationship would be perceived as having an emotional element; however, because all vignettes were specifically sexual, the nature of the infidelity could not be included in our analysis.

Another unfortunate limitation was our low number of men for gender comparisons across different types of relationships (i.e., dating versus married relationships). Sheppard et al. (1995) found that participants viewed a continual, sexual infidelity in a marriage the least acceptable infidelity and a continual, emotional infidelity in both married and dating relationships the most acceptable. Given the importance placed on marriage as the regulatory mechanism for dyadic exclusivity, it is unsurprising that attitudes toward dating infidelity are more accepting and forgiving (Mackay 2001). To many, marriage represents the ultimate in relationship commitment while the meaning behind dating relationships is considered more variable. However, even within dating relationships, commitment is an important predictor of relationship fidelity (Drigotas et al. 1999). Contemporary understanding of the social mechanism of dating is currently under undergoing many transitions. While the “hooking up” phenomenon has become more common and sexual encounters without labels and commitments a new phenomenon, young people face a challenge negotiating a balance between commitment, fidelity, and labels. Sheppard et al., however, did not include character gender as a variable in their analysis; ideally, all factors (marital versus dating infidelity, continual infidelity versus one-night stand, emotional versus sexual infidelity, and character gender) will be included in future research.

Finally, the sample was comprised of all heterosexual and traditionally-aged college students. We assumed that vignettes elicit participant identification with the vignette characters and that for this study, nonheterosexual individuals would not necessarily experience character identification. However, this replacement is perhaps fallacious, as we were examining attitudes toward others’ infidelity; sexual orientation should not have an impact on this. Varga et al. (2011) showed evidence for age as an important moderating factor and emphasized that gender differences in regard to emotional versus sexual infidelity may partially be distorted by an abundance of young, undergraduate samples. Results from groups comprised of older or married persons, or of self-identified sexual minorities, could reveal differences in the acceptability or forgiveness of a partner who strays from the relationship; still, even here, vignettes would need to reflect the relationships characterizing participants’ lived experience.

The nature by which persons conceptualize and enact sexual exclusivity versus infidelity is under a state of muddled transformation. For example, research exploring how persons create online identities and seek online sexual, romantic, and social stimulation provides a new context for dimensionalizing the constitutional definition of cheating. It is not only that internet use may increase the frequency of behavior formerly thought of as unfaithful, but that the ways in which sexual identities are portrayed (e.g., men who pass filter questions to enter a women’s-only chat room, or government authorities who monitor discussions among discussants) may change the structure of individual perception of extradyadic activity. Research suggests that although some users believe online sexual contact is only a form of fantasy, others perceive the same behavior is replicating direct sexual contracts (Gonyea 2004; Whitty 2003; Young et al. 2000). Further investigation into the idea of how our online ‘bodies’ and ‘selves’ as reconstructed by the individual affect our online as well as offline romantic relationships.

We identify cheating experience as a robust indicator of attitudes toward other’s infidelity, a finding warranting additional exploration especially in the context of established gender paradigms. This study extends other studies by showing that cheating experience interacts with participant gender and gender of cheater to highlight the effect of cheating experience on attitudes toward cheating. Cheating is not uncommon (e.g., Allen and Baucom 2006) but continues to be represented as a socially deviant behavior (e.g., Mattingly et al. 2010; Thornton and Young De-Marco 2001). We recommend that this variable—some measure of participants’ actual extrarelational/extradyadic sexual behavior—be included in future infidelity research concerning perceptions of infidelity.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013