Many people initiate monogamous relationships in the hope of maintaining sexual exclusivity and reaping the benefits of such relationships. However, in a world of seemingly limitless alternatives, staying faithful to a current partner may be challenging. In our latest research, we used virtual reality to investigate one circumstance that might help people who are involved in committed relationships to override the temptation of alternative partners.
In doing so, we relied on inoculation theorizing, which proposes that exposure to a weakened threat can promote self-control by allowing people to contemplate resistance to temptation. Take, for example, being on a diet. The presence of a weak food temptation, such as a forgotten dry cookie, may increase your awareness of your long-term priorities of weight-watching. This awareness can prepare you to raise your guard more quickly upon facing your favorite fresh-baked cookies, which pose a more serious threat to your weigh-watching goals.
Is it possible to inoculate people against the allure of alternative partners?
In three studies, we examined whether exposure to a weak relationship threat—flirtation with a virtual human—would inoculate people against the enticement of real-world alternatives. Unlike major threats (such as real-world active courting attempts) that undermine committed people’s defensive ability, exposure to a weakened threat is likely to remind them of their long-term commitments while making them better ready to defend their relationship in the face a more threatening temptation. Accordingly, we predicted that flirtatious virtual encounter would lead people to desire their current partner more and devalue the attractiveness of alternative partners.
To test this prediction, in all studies, participants conversed with a virtual bartender of the same gender as their partner who either flirted with them or behaved neutrally. Then, participants interacted with a real human of the same gender as their partner and rated their perceptions of and attraction to both targets.
The seductiveness of the bartender was manipulated across three modalities: (a) the content of the conversation. We pre-recorded a fixed script for each condition that was either flirtatious (“Wow! You look really excited! Is it because you enjoy your major or because of me?”) or not; (b) eye contact; and (c) nonverbal gestures (see an illustration video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIDXmpFlIG4; The YouTube video fails to demonstrate the immersiveness of the virtual interaction).
In the first study, an attractive interviewer interviewed the participants right after the virtual encounter, using a fixed interview script, in which participants were asked to share their thoughts on several interpersonal topics (For example, “Should people play ‘hard-to-get’ at the onset of a relationship?”). The interviewers were blind to the experimental condition and were trained to exhibit behaviors that conveyed warmth, such as close physical proximity and frequent eye contact. At the end of the interview, the participants rated the attractiveness of the interviewer. We found that following the flirtatious virtual encounter, participants perceived the interviewer as less attractive (than following the neutral virtual encounter).
In the second study, we examined whether a flirtatious virtual encounter affected not only perceptions of real-world alternative partners but also actual interactions with them. For this purpose, following the virtual encounter, participants interacted with an attractive stranger who ostensibly sought their help. We focused on the tendency to help an attractive stranger in need, because provision of help is a less risky channel for expressing interest in alternative partners than overt flirting.
Specifically, participants were led to believe that they and another participant would use plastic wine cups to independently build a five-floor pyramid (each of them had to build a different pyramid). In reality, all participants were assigned the same attractive insider—a member of the research team. When the insiders had finished building the third floor, they knocked down their own pyramid, ostensibly by mistake. The insiders then turned to the participant and asked for help in re-building the pyramid, uttering, “I’m so clumsy! Could you please help me in rebuilding my pyramid?” The insiders hid a stopwatch in the pocket and assessed the actual time the participants spent in helping rebuilding the pyramids. A longer duration of help indicated greater interest in the insider.
We found that following the flirtatious virtual encounter, participants invested less time in helping an attractive stranger in need (than following the neutral virtual encounter). A flirtatious virtual encounter therefore not only leads to perceiving real-world alternative partners as less attractive, but also to minimizing the time of actually interacting with them.
In the third study, both members of romantic couples were invited to the lab. Partners were led to different rooms. One partner interacted with a virtual bartender who behaved either seductively or neutrally, as in the first two studies. During this time, the other partner watched a neutral video. Partners were then reunited, seated in two chairs facing each other, and asked to discuss satisfying and unsatisfying aspects of their sex lives. Following the discussion, participants rated their sexual desire for their partner and their desire for sex with someone other than their partner. We found that following the flirtatious virtual encounter, participants desired their current partner more while experiencing less sexual desire for other people (than following the neutral virtual encounter).
Together, our findings suggest that a flirtatious virtual encounter (versus a non-flirtatious interaction) can inoculate romantically involved individuals against the appeal of real alternative partners.
Overall, this research is the first to show that interacting with a virtual agent promotes real-world relationships. A virtual relationship threat—one that by definition could not be acted on— allows people to contemplate resistance to real attractive alternatives. The resulting protective reaction may help them maintain satisfying and stable relationships in the face of tempting alternatives.
The study, “Biting the forbidden fruit: The effect of flirting with a virtual agent on attraction to real alternative and existing partners“, was authored by Gurit E. Birnbaum, Yael R. Chen, Kobi Zholtack, Jonathan Giron, and Doron Friedman