Love & Sex

Is There Such Thing as the “Cheater’s High”?

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Is There Such Thing as the "Cheater's High"?

Far from being helpless, we may be getting off on infidelity more than we'd like to admit.

By Johannah King-Slutzky

Science and anecdotes alike know that infidelity is immoral. (You can read a solid survey of the literature here.) And while, by some accounts, only 2.33% of married Americans had sex outside their marriage in the last 12 months, 20-25% of men and 10-15% of married US women report cheating on a spouse at some point over the course of their marriage. Though common fodder for the water cooler or checkout aisle, social scientists take infidelity seriously: Divorce rates, of which infidelity is a leading cause, have noticeable economic effects, while suspected infidelity is a leading cause of spousal battering and homicide

If we know it’s wrong, why do we cheat? A 2012 study recently featured in Science Daily may shed some light. Researchers at the University of Washington looked at cheating of the non-sexual variety to determine that many people get a “cheater’s high” after dishonestly taking a test or completing a task. Said Dr. Nicole Ruedy, “When people do something wrong specifically to harm someone else, such as apply an electrical shock, the consistent reaction in previous research has been that they feel bad about their behavior….Our study reveals people actually may experience a 'cheater's high' after doing something unethical that doesn't directly harm someone else."

The study examined 1,000 men and women in the United States and England ages 20-30. One experiment featured a “correct-answer” button on a computerized test which participants were instructed to use only in order to verify their answers. Compared to non-cheaters, subjects who clicked the button before solving the problem on their own reported higher overall happiness after taking the test than before it. 68% of participants completed the test this way. In a different trial, participants were informed that cheating would make the test unreliable. After completing their task, test-takers who were reminded the importance of not cheating reported on average higher feelings of well-being than other cheaters who were not scolded. Reudy says that although participants’ infractions were minor, the results of this study aren’t: “The good feeling some people get when they cheat may be one reason people are unethical even when the payoff is small,” she said.

Is cheating in a relationship similar to cheating on a test? Perhaps. A 2010 study by Binghamton researchers found that there may be a genetic basis for infidelity that points to the thrilling underpinnings of cheating: people with the DRD4 gene, which controls susceptibility to dopamine, are particularly likely to have a history of infidelity (as well as one night stands). The same gene, termed the “thrill seeking gene” by the media is also partially responsible for predisposition to gambling. Moreover, University of Colorado researchers Whisman and Snyder found in a 2007 study that infidelity goes far under-reported when interviewees are assessed in a face-to-face interview compared to a computer assisted self-interview. This jibes with Reudy’s findings that people find cheating pleasurable so long as nobody gets hurt: cheating in a relationship is thrilling as long as you don’t think you’ll wound your partner by getting caught.

Other factors which influence infidelity are the availability of spousal alternatives, lack of conscientiousness, disagreeableness, and narcissism.