Checking out attractive alternatives does not necessarily mean you’re going to cheat

Just because your partner admires the attractiveness of another person doesn’t mean they’re going to cheat on you, suggests new research published in the Journal of Family Psychology. The findings indicate that paying greater attention to attractive alternatives only increases the risk of infidelity among people who lack self-regulatory ability.

“We became interested in this topic because we think it is applicable to many people,” said study authors Ashlyn Brady and Levi R. Baker of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“Over the course of a romantic relationship, people will likely experience feelings of attraction to others who are not their romantic partner, or perhaps even pursue the temptation of infidelity. As we know, engaging in infidelity can be very detrimental for romantic relationships; thus, the current results help us to further understand how people can protect their relationship from the threat of infidelity.”

In an experiment, 177 undergraduate students in monogamous romantic relationships reported how much attention they paid to attractive people. They were then randomly assigned to complete tasks that either did or did not impair their self-regulatory ability. After this, the participants were asked to evaluate a mobile phone dating application and offered a free premium version of the app.

The researchers found that attending to attractive alternatives was associated with a greater likelihood of accepting the free premium version of the dating app — but only among participants who completed the tasks that impaired their self-control.

The researchers then conducted a longitudinal study, in which 101 newlywed couples completed assessments of self-control and attending to attractive alternatives. Six times over the following two years, the participants reported whether or not they engaged in various sexual behaviors — such as kissing, sharing nude photos, and having intercourse — with someone other than their spouse.

Fifteen men and 18 women admitted to engaging in at least one act of infidelity, and the researchers found these participants tended to display heightened attention to attractive alternatives while being low in self control.

“When in a romantic relationship, it’s important to remember that you or your partner may notice attractive people from time to time; however, this tendency to notice attractive people does not necessarily suggest that you or your partner are more likely to engage in infidelity,” Brady and Baker told PsyPost.

“Yet it is important to recognize when the threat of infidelity may become stronger. Our results suggest that lacking self-control — that is, lacking the ability to resist satisfying impulses that may be harmful to long-term goals — is one factor that predicts a greater risk of infidelity among people who have a tendency to notice attractive others.”

“Thus, if you or your partner are generally good at resisting all kinds of temptation, then checking out an attractive person every now and then shouldn’t cause concern; but if you or your partner struggle to resist impulsive temptations, then looking at attractive people may increase the threat of infidelity,” the researchers explained.

“Of course, even people who have strong self-control may struggle on occasion. For instance, being intoxicated, excessively tired, or even stressed can enhance the likelihood of indulging in temptation. So if you or your partner tend to notice attractive people and are concerned about infidelity, try to avoid situations that impair self-control when attractive others are present and temptation is ripe (e.g., drinking at a bar with an attractive coworker after a stressful day at work).”

All studies include some limitations, and the current research is no exception.

“Although our samples varied in relationship type across the two studies (i.e., dating vs. newlywed couples), neither study captured couples who were involved in very long-term romantic relationships. Future research should consider the role of relationship length in the context of the current predictions,” Brady and Baker said.

“Future research may also consider how accurate people are in perceiving their own self-control. We suggest that noticing attractive people may not be detrimental to relationships as long as people are capable of maintaining their self-control; however, whether people are accurate at perceiving, and capable of maintaining, their self-control is also an important question to consider.”

The study, “Look But Don’t Touch?: Self-Regulation Determines Whether Noticing Attractive Alternatives Increases Infidelity“, was authored by Ashlyn Brady, Levi R. Baker, and Rowland S. Miller.