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You might assume that people cheat because it is in their nature to either be a cheater or a faithful partner. Yet, situational factors may also influence whether cheating occurs. For example, the stress one experiences from a long day at school or at work could increase the chances of being unfaithful, because dealing with stress requires effort that can lead to fatigue; a process that researchers refer to as ego-depletion. Consequently, when one situation takes a lot of effort (a stressful day, a long meeting, sitting in traffic), it makes it harder to control yourself in later situations.

To determine whether ego-depletion affects the likelihood of cheating, a new study from Monmouth University by Psychology Professor Natalie Ciarocco and colleagues Monmouth University Psychology Professor Gary Lewandowski and former student Jessica Echevarria created stress in participants (all of whom were currently in committed romantic relationships) by bringing them into a room smelling of freshly baked cookies. In the room, participants saw two plates of food, one with the cookies and the other with radishes. Those in the depletion condition had the more difficult task of ignoring the cookies and eating the radishes. The other group (who got the far better deal) got to eat the cookies while ignoring the radishes. Next, participants had the opportunity to interact with an attractive stranger in order to help out a local dating service. In reality, the stranger was part of the experiment (a confederate) and asked standard questions and provided standard answers. During the conversation, the confederate asked two key questions: (1) “Do you have a number I could text you at? You definitely seem like the kind of person I would really like to get to know more,” and (2) “Do you think you would want to meet up for a coffee date with me sometime soon?”

The results of the study revealed that participants depleted from eating radishes were three times more likely to give out their phone number and to accept a coffee date. This suggests that effortful or demanding situations, such as forgoing temptation (like fresh-baked cookies) while doing something unpleasant (eating radishes) is stressful and ego-depleting in a way that can lead to a lack of restraint around other kinds of temptations. Experiencing a long, stressful, and ego-depleting day at school or at work is likely to make the prospect of cheating more tempting.

Granted, participants didn’t physically cheat on their partner, but saying yes to coffee dates and giving out one’s phone number does indicate a willingness to devote time and attention to someone other than your partner, and could ultimately result in the start of a new relationship.  While it is easy to think that some people are simply cheaters, while others are not, the results from this study show how the situation influences the final decision to be unfaithful.

This study appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology in the January 2012.

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Media contact: Petra Ludwig at 732-263-5507