Home > Attention > To cheat, or not to cheat? The cognition of relationship maintenance

To cheat, or not to cheat? The cognition of relationship maintenance

May 2nd, 2014
image source: rm magazine

image source: rm magazine

Why stick with the girl/guy next door when a supermodel moves to town?  Long-term romantic partnerships are difficult enough to maintain on their own, without the temptation of alternative mating partners.  Why then, do people in committed relationships tend to stay faithful to one another?  Or rather, what psychological processes do people exhibit to help protect their relationships in the threat of desirable—especially physically attractive—mating alternatives?

First off, what defines physical attractiveness?  Attractiveness may seem subjective and to differ across cultures, but there remain a few key universal aspects to the science of sex appeal.  Simply stated, one’s external appearance reflects his or her genetics and current state of health, and therefore quality as a potential mating partner.  A symmetrical face, following the “golden ratio” (distance between eyes, nose, mouth, etc.) are all signs of good genetics.  Breast size and hip-to-waist ratio are signs of good reproductive health in women.  Weight, skin clarity, and muscle tone, among others, are also signs of good health for both men and women.  From an evolutionary standpoint, the best choice of a mate is the one with the best possible genetics and reproductive health, and therefore, the one found to be the most attractive.

Of course, physical beauty isn’t the only factor that makes a person desirable, but it would seem beneficial, from an evolutionary standpoint, to mix genetic material with as many individuals as possible.  Why then, do two people in a relationship stay faithful to each other?  What prevents someone from jumping at the opportunity (or opportunities) of an alternative mating partner, especially when the alternative is physically attractive?  There must be a greater benefit to monogamy then—a greater chance of survival and success of the offspring—if a couple stays together.  So are there psychological processes in place to reduce desire towards an attractive alternative?

image source: fatkidatcamp.com

image source: fatkidatcamp.com

Humans have evolved cognitive processes to help maintain relationships in the presence of desirable alternatives.  A number of studies have focused on higher-order cognition—explicit and conscious psychological processes, such as judgements, evaluations, etc.—regarding relationship maintenance.  But more recently, Maner et al. questioned whether or not relationship maintenance required conscious, effortful processing.  Maner et al. investigated the role of automatic, early-stage attentional processes during exposure to alternative mating partners.

In the study, participants performed a visual cueing task to assess attentional disengagement (the amount of time it took them to divert attention away from an image of a particular face), after two different implicit priming tasks—the primes either highly relevant to mating or neutral.  Maner et al. predicted that the mating primes would increase attentional adhesion to physically attractive opposite sex targets among single participants, but would not affect those in a committed relationship.  Moreover, they predicted that the mating primes might actually decrease attention in the committed participants as a way of preventing a possible threat to the relationship.  That is exactly what they found.

Maner et al., 2009

Figure 2. (Maner et al., 2009)

The study found that in the control prime condition (neutral priming), there was no significant difference in attentional adhesion (a measure of time) to attractive opposite sex targets between committed and single participants.  But under the mating prime condition, there was a significant increase in attentional adhesion amongst single individuals and a significant decrease in attentional adhesion amongst committed individuals, compared to the control prime.  Furthermore, no effects approached significance for average-looking opposite sex targets or for both attractive and average-looking same sex targets.

The research suggests that implicit mating-related priming increases a (heterosexual) individual’s attention towards an attractive member of the opposite sex.  Logically, this makes sense.  For a single looking to mingle, with sex on their mind, he/she will pay more attention to an attractive mate.  More interestingly, the data suggests that individuals in committed, romantic relationships reduced their attention to attractive, opposite sex alternatives in response to mating-related priming, compared to neutral priming.  In other words, when sex is on the mind, people in relationships are inattentive to attractive alternatives.  It is also interesting to note that this effect was not observed in regards to average-looking alternatives, which suggests that the attractiveness of the mating alternative affects

  1. May 9th, 2014 at 12:22 | #1

    @Cody Eaton

    Thanks for commenting! I agree that it would be very interesting to see how other parts of a person’s appearance would affect participants’ attention. That would be a great direction for further research on the topic, leading to more insights in the intrinsic cognition of relationship maintenance. I think it would be valuable to repeat this experiment using full or partial body images, and from different angles, to compare to faces alone (although clothing would have to be controlled throughout the images to not be a confounding variable).

    It would also be interesting to see what happens when a participant’s significant other appears in one of the images, and to compare attentional adhesion with the other non-familiar images. Furthermore, with the availability of photo-imaging programs, I think it would be interesting to see what happens when the image of a participant’s significant other is altered, and how the degree of change may affect attentional adhesion.

    To address your qualm about my statement on the greater benefit of monogamy, I agree with you that it is not completely based on empirical evidence. I included it in the post, not for the purpose of stating a conclusion, but more so to be thought provoking. Proving the survival benefits of monogamy in humans would be very difficult to do using scientific method (not to mention an ethical controversy). However, in many species, there are clear survival benefits to the offspring when their parents (not necessarily by birth) remain together during their early development, especially for highly altricial species such as humans.

    Narrowing down the difference in survival between monogamist and polygamist cultures may not be possible to do. I think the point I was trying to make was that the implicit, automatic processes in relationship maintenance, based on evolutionary theory (like the evolutionary account of memory), must have evolved because they improved the survival of the species. Therefore, the presence of this cognitive process alone, with the purpose of maintaining relationships, suggests that there would be a benefit to monogamy. Of course that’s not empirical evidence and it could be argued against, but I thought it was an interesting concept!

  2. May 8th, 2014 at 23:16 | #2

    This piece is written beautifully and is very accessible in terms of understanding cognitive psychology without an extensive background. Your introduction to the topic, and your discussion of monogamy as an evolutionary benefit is interesting and I found myself emphatically agreeing with most of it. However, there was one section that I thought was arguable and that was the notion that “There must be a greater benefit to monogamy then—a greater chance of survival and success of the offspring—if a couple stays together.” My only qualm with this is that it is not completely empirically based, and there is truly no way to know seeing as monogamy is not homogeneously practiced on a global scale. Still, this post was a great read and I learned a lot about attentional adhesion in regard to those who were single or in committed relationships.
    One thing that I was wondering while reading your post was how long the people in committed relationships had been in those relationships because I thought this may alter the results. Also, as you said, all of the participants were presumably heterosexual, which makes me wonder if there would be attentional differences between heterosexual and homosexual participants. Still, the findings are extremely interesting, and could have some applied value in regard to things such as marriage counseling, college hook-up culture, and facial recognition theories. Along that same idea, it would be interesting to see how other parts of a person’s appearance would hold participants’ attention differently (e.g. a person’s body versus a persons face). I would definitely expect varied results given the unique nature of facial recognition and the inversion effect discussed in class.

  3. May 8th, 2014 at 20:30 | #3

    Hmmm. I found this post extremely interesting! Of course the study faces a lot of challenges, in that a lot of these factors such as ‘attractiveness’ is very subjective. To be honest I was a bit skeptical of this study for this very reason. I’m still not an entirely a hundred percent sold either. However the post provides fairly compelling evidence for this. I guess I was a little surprised that the slightly average face was essentially ignored. I would have expected at least some adherence. On the other hand, I suppose it is good to know that there are higher cognitive processes at work to stop partners from potentially cheating. Although, hopefully their morality might save them from this. What I’m more curious to learn about is what sorts of processes actually occur in the brain at the sight of one’s partner versus another potential attractive mate. I also wonder how this study’s results would be had it not been limited to heterosexual individuals.

  4. May 7th, 2014 at 22:43 | #4

    Interesting post! Very relevant to the college dating and hook up scene. I think the process that humans have undergone through socialization over time to reduce attraction when we are tied to a mate is very interesting. As mentioned above, this is a biologically unnatural process. I wonder what differences we would find with this sort of research over history? Obviously this is unanswerable, but my speculation is that the findings would be a reflection of societal norms. In other words, I posit that societal structures have slowly created this aversion to attractive individuals once we are off the market so to speak.

    This research suggests that when the concept of a significant other is not made salient (through a mating prime in this study), there is no difference between single and taken people. The results show that when there is a neutral prime, committed individuals may even be more likely to pursue or dwell on a more attractive alternative. Bad news for couples everywhere! So why is cheating an uncommon phenomenon? Because mating is constantly primed in our society. One of the first things we seek to uncover about a potential mate is their relationship status. The first thing my mother used to ask me about on the phone was if I had a girlfriend or not. That is not the most scientific example, but we are constantly reminded of our relationship status and therefore we are constantly primed to either act single or taken.
    The results also suggest that we may transfer our initial attraction to a stimulus from the stimulus to our mate when we are primed to do so. We form intense neurological bonds to our mates and this process is difficult to undo. This is why we have strong bonds with current and former partners. Just like a past drug addict who cannot drive by a place where they used to consume a drug, love leaves a powerful imprint on our brain that persists for a long time. This process can serve as an explain for the results of the study. I would like to see a study that explored this effect in more detail, for instance comparisons between an attractive stimulus and one’s partner would be interesting. Also are there primes that can explain cheating behavior?

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