Experts believe that our personalities, our childhoods and our adolescent experiences and even evolution influence how likely we are to commit infidelity. In addition to these influences, some research suggests that our beliefs about infidelity attitudes and practices among our friends and society at large play an important role in our own decisions about whether to cheat.
If we believe that a significant number of our friends have cheated on their partners or have tolerant views of infidelity, we are more likely to have had a past affair or be willing to cheat in the future. Furthermore, if we believe that cheating is relatively common behavior among the population as a whole, research has found that we are also more likely to be cheaters.
Cheaters Believe Everyone Else Cheats, Too
A Dutch study in 1995 found that people who reported a history of cheating or said they might cheat in the future were more likely to believe that a large proportion of their friends had cheated or viewed cheating relatively positively. These were correlative results, meaning that the study did not necessarily show that pro-cheating attitudes and behaviors among friends cause people to cheat. But social theories of human behavior suggest that we often adjust our own behavior and ideas to make them fit more closely with perceived norms.
Believing that infidelity is a fairly commonplace occurrence throughout society also helps people to justify their own missteps. For example, if we think that the majority of our friends are having full-blown affairs, we may allow ourselves to kiss a coworker at a holiday party or send a few explicit text messages while still feeling fairly faithful and virtuous by comparison.
An hypothesis called pluralistic ignorance may be partially behind this tendency among many people to believe that infidelity is more common than it really is. This hypothesis proposes that people have a tendency to believe that their attitudes and behavior don’t fit in with the majority, even when they do. And since human beings tend to believe—or at least want to believe—positive things about themselves, this translates into the belief that other people are more unfaithful or more accepting of infidelity than we are.
We Believe Everyone Else Behaves Badly
A 2014 study tested attitudes toward infidelity among a group of undergraduate students. Their findings confirmed their hypothesis about pluralistic ignorance, showing that students believed others cheated an average of three times more often than they did and had overall more positive views of infidelity. Another study of college students found that not only did undergraduates believe other students drank more than they did, but they also found that male students adjusted their attitudes about alcohol over time to match what they believed to be the majority. Pluralistic ignorance about the widespread (or not) nature of cheating is likely to create a similar dynamic, encouraging people to try to fit in with everyone else and decreasing their guilt about their individual acts of infidelity.
The significant attention that the news and entertainment media pay to infidelity may also contribute to mistaken idea about the prevalence of cheating. Infidelity, particularly among celebrities, is big news, but years of faithfulness never make the headlines. Whether distorted ideas about cheating come from the media or from the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, they can result in changing ideas about what is acceptable and encourage people to cheat because they believe that “everyone’s doing it.”