In today’s world, sexual infidelity occurs both in-person and online, though sometimes people like to pretend that online sexual activities don’t count as cheating because there is no actual touching of another person. Recognizing this confusion/denial, renowned sex and love addiction expert Robert Weiss has coined a digital age definition of sexual infidelity: “Sexual infidelity is the breaking of trust that occurs when sexual and/or romantic secrets are deliberately kept from one’s primary romantic partner.” Weiss notes that his definition encompasses both online and face-to-face sexual philandering and takes into account the fact that with sexual infidelity it’s typically not any particular sexual act that causes the most pain to the betrayed partner, it’s the betrayal of relationship trust.
But why do people cheat? What causes them to ignore their vows of monogamy and sexual fidelity, risking damage to their relationships, their families and even their spouses’ emotional well-being? Generally speaking, there’s a wide variety of reasons for engaging in sexual activity outside a supposedly monogamous relationship, with those reasons occasionally differing by gender. That said, one impetus for both males and females may be “the cheater’s high.”
The concept of a cheater’s high originated in an October 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In the study, researchers conducted six separate trials looking at the effects of unethical behavior. For example, in one of the trials two sets of test subjects working on computers were asked to answer math and logic problems. Their pay was a flat fee, independent of the number of correct answers they got. The first group of test subjects received no hints or assistance. The second group had the option of clicking a button to see the correct answer before responding. However, they were asked to ignore that button and answer on their own, even though no penalty would be assessed for using the hint. The research team found that 68% of the people who had the opportunity to cheat by pushing the correct answer button did so.
In another trial, the research team paired actual study participants with actors pretending to be study participants. The real test subjects were asked to solve puzzles and they were told they’d be paid for any puzzles they solved correctly within a specified time limit. They were then told that other test subjects (the actors) were going to grade their work. With half the test subjects, the actors graded the results accurately. With the other half, actors inflated the subjects’ scores, thereby increasing their payout. Interestingly, not one test subject reported the lie. Furthermore, test subjects who’d benefitted from the actors’ dishonesty almost uniformly reported feeling better about the test than those who’d been graded fairly. For these individuals, getting away with cheating evoked a pleasurable response.
The other trials in the study operated similarly, testing people’s willingness to cheat and in some instances how they felt about it afterward. The overall results were somewhat surprising, up-ending the long-held belief that unethical behavior automatically triggers guilt, shame, remorse and a variety of other negative feelings. In reality, it appears that most people actually enjoy “getting away with it,” whatever “it” might be, as long as they think they’re not hurting anyone in the process. So if cheating is perceived as victimless, people actually feel good after cheating. The research team refers to this as “the cheater’s high.”
The study’s authors suggest three primary ways in which people derive satisfaction from cheating:
- Cheating provides social, financial or other gains — better grades, higher pay, the satisfaction of “outperforming” others, etc.
- Cheating creates an increased sense of autonomy. In other words, overcoming rules that limit other people gives cheaters an increased sense of control.
- The mental gymnastics required to “beat the system” may make life more interesting and exciting, resulting in greater enjoyment.
Admittedly, this study did not specifically look at romantic and sexual infidelity. Nevertheless, extending the findings to a romantic/sexual milieu seems reasonable. After all, romantic and sexual betrayals fit rather neatly into the cheating parameters described above. In particular, most of the people who engage in sexual infidelity view their behavior as victimless, telling themselves some form of the following lie: If my spouse doesn’t know what I’m doing, then I’m not hurting anyone. Cheaters also tend to believe that their behavior is unlikely to result in repercussions — a belief that’s reinforced every time they get away with it. Additionally, the three “benefits” described above are very much in play with sexual infidelity:
- The gains of cheating include having more and possibly more intense sex, with a wider variety of people.
- Circumventing a vow of monogamy gives cheaters a greater sense of control over their relationships and sex lives (and that feeling of control may spill over into other areas of life).
- Many (perhaps most) cheaters craft elaborate lies that enable their behavior, often enjoying the challenge and savoring their success.
One aspect of unethical behavior that was not explored by the research is whether the cheater’s high motivates future behavior. In other words, does victimless cheating and the high that accompanies it encourage more cheating in the future? If so, that would certainly explain why so many of those who cheat on their spouses and partners do so repeatedly. That said, the reasons that people behave in certain ways are rarely straightforward, and when sex and emotional intimacy are tossed into the mix things tend to get even more complicated. Nevertheless, it does seem as if the cheater’s high may indeed be a factor with sexual infidelity.