The Science Behind Cheating


4_14_Sexplained As college students, we seem to have an inherent fear of commitment — hence our love of Tinder, our hate of face-to-face breakup conversations, and the all too common phenomenon of undefined relationships. Riding the cusp between your teens and twenties, commitment sometimes feels like nothing more than a massive pain in the ass.

But, we still form connections and continue to put ourselves in situations where we assume we’re with someone who will only share the most intimate moments with us, and no one else. We fall prey to blind attraction and our hormones tell us that we need to lock it down. We then believe we are in a legit relationship. This, the lovers’ paradox, becomes a fuzzy state in the college world, especially since alcohol, dancing, and sexy outfits are so often involved. The temptation to cheat becomes so real, and many of us are too weak to resist.

But, why is that? How, even after we fall into a romantic affair with someone who seems to fit our every standard, are we able to disregard bae's potential devastation and hookup with someone else? Well, it almost all comes down to basic human science. (You and me ain’t nothing but mammals, after all.)

In college, many of the reasons we cheat are directly related to constant temptations, extended breaks away (oh, the dreaded LDR), and the idea that college is the ultimate time to explore your options. Once we get past these factors, and decide to actually make a commitment, the debacle that may ensue can be explained by the following science.

Social comparison theory: Acceptability This one is probably the most likely to be the case when you’re constantly surrounded by your fraternity, sorority, sports team, or dorm floor-mates. The social comparison theory says that humans, being the social creatures that we naturally are, tend to look to our peers to figure out how we should be feeling about stuff. In this case, the concept of cheating becomes more acceptable if a large proportion of your friends have discussed cheating on their mate.

So during those locker room conversations where everyone is sharing stories of whom they’ve cheated on or are cheating with, cheating itself becomes far less taboo. We all want to feel like we’re good people. If we think cheating is commonplace, we’ll basically say, “fuck it,” when faced with temptation, and feel a lot less shitty about it.

Sexual personality: Insecurity and inherent promiscuity This is where cheating is a direct result of individuals’ psychological makeup (aka not your fault). In this case, the cheating is entirely the cheater’s own issue. A lot of the time, people are unfaithful because of some personal, sexual insecurity. It could be because they want to do something risky to enhance their sexual arousal, or they want to enjoy worry-free sex with someone they don’t need to impress all of the time.

There’s also the human nature aspect. Studies show that by nature, everyone falls on a spectrum between monogamy and promiscuity. These may fluctuate in the individual based on culture, age, and environment, but basically it varies. Some people are in the category of those who crave a long-term commitment, while others prefer a casual dating lifestyle, where commitment never even crosses their mind.

In college, thanks to social theories, more of us lean towards the latter, in spite of whether or not our true nature is all that promiscuous. The hookup culture is so very real.

Investment model: Commitment This model is what determines the level of commitment an individual feels within his or her relationship. Three forces define it: satisfaction within the relationship, alternative quality (how you view the alternative to your relationship—for example, being single and dating others), and investments (what you’ll lose out on if you lose the person from your life). The quality of these three self-assessments directly affects how likely you are to maintain faithfulness with your boo. If you are happy and you can’t imagine maintaining that level of happiness without your S.O., you’re probably going to try your best not to cheat. You’ll feel motivated to commit, and therefore, *gasp* you will commit.

On the other hand, if you stop caring about how cheating could affect your mate once you’re out with friends at the bars and some cutie flirts with you over drinks, then maybe you just aren’t satisfied and the benefits of cheating outweigh the cost of losing your former sweetheart. These, the unfortunate economics of dating in college, can help explain a lot of unfaithful hookups. But, with the complexity of humans and their impulses, who knows exactly why you or your lover decided to make that asshole move.

Art by Shawna Rabbas