Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgImagine you learned your romantic partner was unfaithful to you. Would you be more upset if he or she had sex with someone else, or if they had fallen in love with someone else? Several studies have found that the answer to that question depends on the your gender. Women say they would be more upset if their partner was in love with someone else, but men say they would be more upset if their partner was having sex with someone else.

Why the difference? There are a couple explanations. One relies on natural selection: It’s important to men to know their genes are being passed on, so sexual infidelity is a bigger problem than romantic infidelity. Women, this explanation argues, are certain their children possess their genes, so they are more concerned that a man will use his resources to support the child of another woman. So sleeping with other women is not as bad as falling in love with them.

A second explanation suggests that there’s no practical difference between romantic and sexual infidelity. Women assume that if a man loves another woman, he’s also slept with her. Men assume that if a woman has slept with another man, she loves him. This was backed up by a 1996 study by Christine Harris and Nicholas Christenfeld. So what’s different for men and women is what’s implied by “sexual intercourse” and “love,” not their level of offense at their partner’s behavior. (Few of these explanations, by the way, account for same-sex relationships)

More recently, Monica Whitty and Laura-Lee Quigly wanted to see if similar principles held up cyberspace. Does cybersex and cyber-romance show the same gender difference? Whitty and Quigly surveyed 112 undergraduates with the same questions about sexual and emotional infidelity, but also asked cyber-versions of the same question. So respondents were given four choices to the question of what bothered them the most: A partner in love with someone else, having sex with someone else, in a cyber-romance with someone else, or having cybersex with someone else.

Then, for each possible relationship, they also asked whether love implied sex or vice-versa:

  • Imagine you discover your partner is engaging in sexual intercourse with someone else. How likely do you think it is that your partner is in love with that person?
  • Imagine you discover your partner has met someone else online and is engaging in cybersex with that person. How likely do you think it is that your partner is in love with that person?
  • Imagine you discover your partner is in love with someone else. How likely do you think it is that your partner engaging in sexual intercourse with that person?
  • Imagine you discover your partner is in love with someone else that they have met online, and have never met face-to-face. How likely do you think it is that your partner is engaging in cybersex with that person?

Perhaps not surprisingly, not one respondent said that cybersex or cyber-love was the worst type of infidelity. For physical sex and love, the responses broke down as follows:

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These results matched the earlier studies: women are more bothered by their male partners’ romantic infidelity, and men are more bothered by their female partners’ sexual infidelity (all respondents said they were heterosexual).

But when they were asked whether love implies sex and vice versa, the responses differed from earlier studies:

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In this study, men’s ratings of whether sex implied love were significantly higher than women’s ratings, but there was no gender difference in any of the other ratings. That’s a sharply different result from Harris and Christenfeld, who also found that women were more likely to say that love implied sex.

This finding could reveal a flaw in both possible explanations of the gender difference in attitudes toward infidelity. If attitudes toward infidelity are a product of evolution, why would they be different in the two studies? If gender differences in whether sex implies love and vice versa are behind the original result, then why would Whitty and Quigley find different results than Harris and Christenfeld?

The results for cyberspace again don’t tell us much. There’s no significant difference between male and female responses, and it’s clear that everyone believes physical infidelity, whether romantic or sexual, is much more serious than the online equivalent.

Whitty, M., & Quigley, L. (2008). Emotional and Sexual Infidelity Offline and in Cyberspace Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 34 (4), 461-468 DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2008.00088.x

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    September 29, 2009

    I’ve been rather skeptical of the evo-psy explanation for a while. My guess (and this study would tend to support that) is that the difference is essentially cultural. Girls are told that they’re not good at math, loving relationships are what they want, etc. While boys are told that they should like sports, the purpose of relationships is sex, etc. I’d be interested in seeing more studies on this topic.

  2. #2 Lola
    September 29, 2009

    New question: Imagine you discover your partner is engaging in cyber sex with someone (s)he met IRL. How much would that bother you? Is it the same as if you caught your partner watching online pornography?

  3. #3 cmb
    September 29, 2009

    considering how willing men seem to be to help raise children by a previous relationship i’d be surprised if cuckoldry were their main concern.

  4. #4 Jim Kornell
    September 29, 2009

    This seems to equate ‘verbal response to survey question’ with ‘lived responses,’ and artificially-induced imaginary circumstances with cognition/emotion in the wild. I’m also not sure whether there was good agreement about what ‘love’ and even sex meant. (Sex: emotional content of [a] vaginal intercourse ten minutes after meeting someone versus [b] no vaginal intercourse but five hours of laying together on a sofa making out.) Then there’s the issue of huge generalizations – ‘how men and women relate to sex and love’ – from simple surveys of college students. But it’s a great topic.

  5. #5 Jadehawk
    September 29, 2009

    I think what the cyber- part of this study tells us is that people don’t take anything that happens on the internet seriously: if it’s online, it isn’t “real” (or: “what happens on the internet stays on the internet” :-p )

    I’d be curious to see how the responses will look like in, say, 10-20 years, when the kids who grew up on the internet become the major target of these sort of studies. For example, I’d take a cyber-romance as seriously as a IRL romance, but that’s because I got all my IRL boyfriends off the internet.

  6. #6 Kapitano
    September 29, 2009

    It’s important to men to know their genes are being passed on

    Women assume that if a man loves another woman, he’s also slept with her. Men assume that if a woman has slept with another man, she loves him.

    Once again, the inconsistent values of one group in one culture at a particular time are “explained” by allegedly universal psychological traits and “justified” by appeal to The Selfish Gene.

    This is pseudoscience, and psychologists should know better.

  7. #7 emptus
    September 30, 2009

    What’s really at issue with studies such as this is not really a question of causation or really correlation, but rather representation. Simply put, 112 college students is hardly a representative sample of any given college student body let alone representative of the whole American population and certainly not all of humanity. So, to see such pronounced discrepancies between each of the studies is not odd, rather it is to be expected with such a limited sample size.

    Beyond this, there seems to be a informational bias towards the Evolutionary-Psychological explanation for phenomena rather than allowing for the equally valid socio-cultural explanation (looking at how social expectations play into gender roles and differences) or even the cognitive-linguistic explanation (examining how the questions are phrased.) Given the limitations of the study it’s hard to really draw any conclusions that are truly scientific save to say “It’s an interesting study that should be investigated more fully to allow for truly representative data.”

  8. #8 Azkyroth
    September 30, 2009

    Hmm. Interesting. My thoughts: Sex does not imply love. Romantic love should imply sex. Platonic love (meant here in the sense of “intimate friendship without a romantic relationship”) is perfectly legitimate as an environment for sex but doesn’t imply it. Emotional infidelity, online or off, by a partner would strongly bother me. Sexual infidelity offline would bother me if my partner went off and slept with someone but I would, at least in principle, be comfortable bringing someone we both knew and trusted into our bed with us. Cybersex or porn: pfffft.

    Guess my gender. ^.^

  9. #9 Ralph
    September 30, 2009

    cmd,

    While that is true, nothing indicates propensity to child abuse better than a child being raised with step-parents, particularly step-dads.

    Yeah, I know scientific rigor would require me to provide a link for this, but I should have left 5 minutes ago, and just dropped by to skim the rest of the article when your comment caught my eye. But the stats are out there.

  10. #10 Ralph
    September 30, 2009

    cmd, kapitano:

    Also, there are studies showing the level of care/love reported/measured between family members is directly correlated with how closely related they are. Meaning there is some basis for evpsy interpretations on this subject.

    Again, google is our friend (for those with time to get lost on it).

  11. #11 tl
    September 30, 2009

    This seems to completely miss the real issue involved with infidelity. The anger usually isn’t about love or sex, its about betrayal. These researchers might get farther by first pinning down differing attitudes about what types of things would constitute a betrayal. Does it require an actual action? What types of actions and behavior would be considered a betrayal?

  12. #12 hope chest
    September 30, 2009

    I think, infidelity is natural among couples nowadays. People seem to be not contented of what they have and try to search for something better.

  13. #13 Noam GR
    October 1, 2009

    Hm. I’m male and I can’t imagine how anyone would consider sexual infidelity worse than love infidelity. If the girl I was with had sex with another guy, for whatever reasons: maybe we had a bad fight… I dunno. “we were on a break” :) — I can see myself forgiving her if the relationship is worth it. It’s not that big of a deal.

    But just the thought someone I’m in love with sharing more than a quickie, sharing her deepest emotions with someone other than me makes me sick. That to me would be the worst betrayal imaginable. I would leave her no question.


    http://noamgr.wordpress.com

  14. #14 denparser
    October 1, 2009

    wow… that’s a good question.. I prefer love – sex.. most romantic than others…

  15. #15 dves
    October 1, 2009

    I love both cyberz…

  16. #16 Simon
    October 1, 2009

    Any of the four would bother me, but to differing degrees. Lola posed the question: “Imagine you discover your partner is engaging in cyber sex with someone (s)he met IRL. How much would that bother you? Is it the same as if you caught your partner watching online pornography?” My answer–it would absolutely not be even remotely the same as watching online pornography. I don’t think there is really anything wrong with viewing porn while in a relationship–at least in theory, although I may feel differently if I actually found my wife doing it… but once you bring another person into the equation, it is a breach of trust and a betrayal. In order of how much they would bother me, from least to most: online romance with someone met OL; cybersex w/ someone met OL; OL romance w/ someone met IRL; cyber w/ someone met IRL; RL romance; RL sex. At each level, romance and sex are both pretty equally bad, in my book, so the sex is only slightly more hurtful.

  17. #17 Tony Jeremiah
    October 1, 2009

    This finding could reveal a flaw in both possible explanations of the gender difference in attitudes toward infidelity. If attitudes toward infidelity are a product of evolution, why would they be different in the two studies? If gender differences in whether sex implies love and vice versa are behind the original result, then why would Whitty and Quigley find different results than Harris and Christenfeld?

    There seem to be way too many methodological confounds to consider before any generalizable conclusions can be made, especially concerning population demographics.

    The questions I have include: are the population demographics the same as the original study (university student demographics have changed quite dramatically in the past decade)?; what do the results look like when broken down by age group (e.g., young adulthood vs. middle adulthood), relationship status (e.g., single vs. dating vs. cohabiting vs. married)?; are the results likely to be different for different cyberpopulations (e.g., eharmony.com vs. onenightstand.com)?

    Also, one fundamental difference that confounds a direct comparison between online vs. offline relationships is (presumably) distance. It would be interesting to see what the results look like for people in non-distance relationships vs. (offline) distance relationships involving offline interactions vs. cyberspace relationships involving no offline interactions.

    I suspect contextual factors matter greatly in these types of studies, and results that conform to somewhat outmoded sociobiological explanations likely apply only to very particular population demographics.

  18. #18 nathan kirk
    October 8, 2009

    Here’s an “experiment” where some statistical data could be produced: put this question to men and women, gays & lesbians:
    Imagine your significant other has the ability to transform into the other gender, and back, at will. And then, in that gender, has sex with the gender other than yours.
    E.g. I imagine my wife becoming a man and having sex with women. Or for lesbians, your partner becomes a man and has sex with men.
    How much would that bother you? would it be a relationship breaker?
    My sense is men don’t care about it as much as women care. For the same evolutionary reasons mentioned in the article.

  19. #19 amhovgaard
    October 10, 2009

    I’m female and in a same-sex relationship. I agree with Azkyroth for the most part, but I’m less likely to become jealous: I’d be upset if she fell in love with someone else, but not by (IRL or cyber) sex. And the “sex-change-at-will” thing sounds more amusing than anything else, really ;-)

    BTW, I wonder what the results would be if you asked people who were a bit older and more experienced than college students? My highly unscientific impression is that young people tend to be more jealous, more moralistic and less forgiving.

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