A study in the United Kingdom explored the relationship between Dark Triad personality and what one considers infidelity in exclusive romantic relationships. Results showed that persons high in psychopathy were more likely to perceive fantasizing about sexual relations with other people and expressing emotions towards a person other than the partner as infidelity. But a different pattern emerged among those high in Machiavellianism.
The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.
Infidelity, being unfaithful to a spouse or a romantic partner is a serious threat in committed, exclusive romantic relationships. There are, however, substantial differences, both between cultures and individuals, in their views about what exactly constitutes infidelity. While sexual intercourse with a person who is not the romantic partner is generally considered the epitome of infidelity, there is much less agreement on whether actions such as public displays of affection or exchanges of affectionate messages also constitute infidelity.
One group of factors to consider when exploring differences between individuals with regards to infidelity are personality traits, particularly the Dark Triad. The Dark Triad consists of personality traits of Machiavellianism (the tendency to act and think in an overly manipulative and calculating way), psychopathy (the tendency to exhibit impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior and show little empathy towards others), and narcissism (the tendency to feel entitled, dominant and superior to others).
To explore whether differences in these personality traits might help explain individual differences in views on what constitutes infidelity in a romantic relationship, study author Gayle Brewer and his colleagues from the University of Liverpool surveyed a group of 664 individuals aged between 18 and 73 years. Of the sample, 436 participants were women and 71.7% identified themselves as heterosexual. Participants were recruited”via social networks and a British University participation point scheme.”
Participants completed a series of demographic measures, an assessment of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. They also completed an assessment of perceptions of infidelity (the Perceived Infidelity Questionnaire), to which study authors did certain adjustments. This assessment asks participants to rate whether and to what extent listed behaviors constitute infidelity on a scale between 1 (definitely not infidelity) to 4 (definitely infidelity). Listed are behaviors such as “Having an intimate emotional phone conversation with someone other than your partner” or “Masturbating while in computer contact with someone other than your partner.”
Results showed that behaviors listed in the infidelity perceptions assessment can be organized into five groups – online infidelity, consisting of behaviors such as “Receiving pictures from an online contact” or “Masturbating while in online contact with another person”, fantasized infidelity, consisting of “mainly solitary, sexually driven behaviors that involve fantasizing about other people (e.g., “Watching pornographic movies”)”, emotional infidelity, consisting of “expressed emotional attachment to a third person that may not necessarily involve a romantic element (e.g., “Having an intimate emotional bond with someone other than your partner”)”, sexual infidelity, that includes explicit and interactive sexual behaviors with a person who is not the romantic partner and finally, hidden attachment, consisting of feelings of attraction to people other than one’s partner, but that remain unexpressed and unfulfilled (“Being in a committed monogamous relationship while hiding an emotional attachment”).
In general, behaviors in the sexual infidelity group were seen as infidelity by most participants, followed by behaviors belonging to the online infidelity group. Behaviors in the fantasized infidelity group were seen as not really representing infidelity by most, while opinions on emotional infidelity and hidden attachment were divided, but clearly leaning towards perceiving them as infidelity.
When Dark Triad personality traits were considered, results showed that persons high in Machiavellianism were less likely to perceive behaviors from the fantasized infidelity group and those from the emotional infidelity group as infidelity but the reverse was the case for those high in primary psychopathy.
“Primary psychopathy is associated with greater emotional jealousy,” the study authors wrote. “Therefore, the association between primary psychopathy and perceiving fantasy and emotional expression as infidelity may, in part, reflect a greater overall sensitivity to infidelity. Further, primary psychopathy is characterised by lower empathy and perspective taking. As a consequence, it may be difficult for those high on psychopathy to understand their partner’s motivation for sexual fantasy (e.g., sexual release) or emotional relationships with others (e.g., companionship) and separate this from other behaviour that more directly poses a threat to the primary relationship.”
However, people high in primary psychopathy were less likely to consider behaviors in the sexual infidelity and hidden attachment groups as infidelity. This may reflect the greater tendency for those high on primary psychopathy to engage in sexual infidelity and facilitate justification of their extra-pair sexual behaviour as not constituting infidelity,” the researchers said.
Narcissism and secondary psychopathy were not associated with perceptions on infidelity.
The study makes an important contribution to the knowledge about psychological mechanisms of romantic relationships. However, it should be noted that it relied solely on self-report measures and did not consider characteristics of the romantic relationship the person is in. Additionally, it did not take into account that people might have different views on what types of behavior they allow themselves and what they would consider infidelity by their partner.
The study, ““But it wasn’t really cheating”: Dark Triad traits and perceptions of infidelity”, was authored by Gayle Brewer, Alexandra Guothova, and Dimitris Tsivilis.