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September 18, 2015

With risk of humiliation, hacks, etc., why do people cheat?

In July, a group of hackers who called themselves “Impact Team” stole sensitive data from extramarital affair website Ashley Madison and threatened to leak the identities of its millions of users if the site was not immediately shut down.

A week later, in a high-profile data dump on the dark web, the hackers exposed Ashley Madison's customer names, email addresses, phone numbers, and more.

Impact Team included a statement with the released data that blamed website owner Avid Life Media (ALM) for false claims of privacy for its users, but also attacked the affair-seekers themselves: “We have explained the fraud, deceit, and stupidity of ALM and their members. Now everyone gets to see their data.”

“In general, people who cheat are in conflict .... Affairs are for people who can't make up their minds — they aren't ready to fix the issues in their relationship, but they aren't ready to leave.” – Heather Davidson, licensed professional counselor in Paoli

Media outlets jumped on the opportunity to rifle through the list of names to uncover celebrities, politicians, and government officials looking to cheat. Several websites cropped up that allowed curious individuals to easily search the data dump by typing in anyone's email address: your spouse, friends, coworkers, or perhaps your own. Much public (and surely, private) shaming ensued.

But let's explore a much more basic question: With all the risks of humiliation and exposure, even outside of a mass data breach, why do people cheat? The Ashley Madison database had 31 million male and 5.5 million female users (although the vast majority of women on the site turned out to be fake) theoretically hunting for an extramarital fling.

Are certain people more prone to have an affair than others?

And is infidelity something that can be “hardwired” in our genes?

This column previously reported that monogamy among mammals is fairly rare, and the scenario of two individuals mating exclusively is found in less than 10 percent of mammalian species. So, as humans, we have already taken the road less traveled by pairing off as most of us do. Even biology seems to be telling us that staying faithful to one partner isn't easy or common.

Yet, at least in America, infidelity in almost any context is frowned upon. And unlike other sexual behaviors that were once seen as taboo, attitudes about cheating haven't lightened up over the years. In fact, disapproval of extramarital sex in the United States has risen over the last four decades, as reported by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago in 2013.


Meanwhile, more sexually permissive views on issues like premarital sex, same-gender sex, gay marriage, and access to pornography were noted over the same time period.

But despite the harsh judgement by society, Americans continue to stray: 21 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women owned up to having an affair in a 2010 NORC survey.

“There are misnomers in our society: that men are the only ones who cheat, that ultimately it is a flaw within the person, and that relationships can't recover from an incident or multiple incidents of infidelity,” said Christian Jordal, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Couple & Family Therapy at Drexel University.

Studies have tried to find out more about the motivations behind why people have affairs. For instance, sociology researchers have recently found connections between the likelihood of cheating and economic dependency on a spouse. Men who are completely economically dependent on their spouses – but also those who are the extreme breadwinners in their households – are more likely to cheat than husbands who make roughly the same amount or only slightly more than their wives.

Study author Christin Munsch speculated that non-breadwinner husbands may experience a threat to their masculinity by failing to bring home the bacon, and thus extramarital sex serves as an ego boost. Also, the husband might shy away from an actual divorce due to his economic dependency. In effect, cheating is an indirect way of acting out feelings of dissatisfaction about their role in the relationship.

“In general, people who cheat are in conflict. They aren't happy with what they have for various reasons but don't want to get a divorce,” said Heather Davidson, a licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist who provides couples counseling in Paoli, Chester County. “Affairs are for people who can't make up their minds — they aren't ready to fix the issues in their relationship, but they aren't ready to leave.”

But Davidson makes a distinction between those experiencing inner emotional turmoil and chronic cheaters. For example, individuals with narcissistic personality disorder or other sociopaths who lack empathy could engage in sex outside their relationships without feeling like it is a problem that needs to be addressed.


Studies have also shown that our propensity for infidelity may be influenced by our genes.

Research published in the journal PloS One in 2010 found that a particular variant of the dopamine receptor gene called DRD4 – previously linked to alcoholism, gambling addiction, and a love of horror films – is also associated with a person's tendency toward acts of infidelity and one-night stands. This genetic variant causes reduced binding for the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain's reward circuit, implying that these people need more novelty and stimulation to achieve a “normal” level of excitement.

“[People] like the high of affair sex, and affair sex is really good because it's secretive,” said Davidson, who notes that chronic cheaters can have impulse control issues and/or compulsive sexual behaviors. “Sometimes people leave their current partner for their affair partner, and very rarely does it work out. It doesn't have that same high, basically.”

But Jordal is hesitant to believe that infidelity and genetics are entwined. Historically, cheating was seen by mental health professionals as the result of an intrinsic flaw in the person – but that idea is being challenged by many therapists today.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel, who spoke about infidelity in a popular 2015 TED talk, believes that not all affairs can be attributed to a damaged person or broken relationship. Sometimes, it is simply an act of rebellion against the person we have become.

“I'm not a geneticist or medical researcher, but there can be a tremendous amount of ambiguity around why people cheat,” said Jordal. “It's the same sort of mystery of the human heart: How is it that we choose to be attracted to someone? Why do we think or feel the way we do around love and romance? In the same way we don't always have these answers, we don't have the answers around infidelity issues.”