If Everybody Cheats, Does That Mean It's Not So Bad?

Most people believe that infidelity is a very bad thing. Yet, the majority of people admit they have cheated on a romantic partner. In fact, studies have shown that about 75% of men and 68% of women have cheated at some point in a relationship.

There are many reasons why people are unfaithful to their partners, but one possibility is that cheating may seem like a more acceptable behavior for us to engage in if we think it’s commonplace and widely accepted. If we think that our own cheating is less frequent or less severe than the norm, we’ll be more likely to let ourselves slide and succumb to temptation. (Everyone else is doing it, so if I have one little dalliance, that wouldn’t be so bad.)

According to social comparison theory, if we want to know where our behaviors stand in relation to the norm, we compare ourselves to our peers. Research has even shown a correlation between people's cheating behaviors and attitudes and the faithfulness of their friends. A study conducted in the Netherlands found that the greater someone's proportion of friends who were believed to have cheated, the more likely that person was to have cheated — and the more willing he or she was to cheat in the future. These effects were even stronger when researchers asked about people's friends’ perceived attitudes toward cheating, rather than their actual cheating behavior; if we think our friends are cheating or that they think it’s okay to cheat, we’re more willing to do so. 

Believing that our friends are unfaithful can make these behaviors seem both more desirable and more likely to occur. The researchers argue that people assume, based on the frequency of their friends’ infidelities, that cheating must be worth the cost. It should be noted, though, that these findings are purely correlational. Therefore, it’s possible that like-minded individuals simply befriend each other — that cheaters hang out with other cheaters to begin with. But, it's also possible that we are influenced by our friends’ attitudes.

Related: 'Fessing Up To Infidelity: Yes Or No?

People don't have to be our friends to influence our actions, either. Whatever we believe is a typical behavior among our peers in general may alter our perception of what's right and wrong. Pluralistic ignorance is when people believe that their own behavior is very different from the norm, when in fact, it is not. This can lead people to change their own behaviors to make them closer to these perceived norms.

We are likely to overestimate the prevalence and acceptability of infidelity for several reasons. Typically, it is unfaithfulness, not faithfulness, that makes the evening news. Sex scandals involving politicians and celebrities are frequently brought to our attention, whereas faithfulness is not.

Another reason is that if you have been relatively faithful, it’s easier to think of examples of other people’s infidelities than yours. If your only cheating experience was kissing an ex at a party, but you have some friends who have engaged in more frequent or severe infidelities, you may see yourself as especially faithful. In addition, people tend to be highly motivated to view themselves as especially "moral" people who would not betray a partner.

In two studies, researchers asked undergraduate students about their own attitudes toward infidelity among students at their university (that is, the extent to which they felt it was acceptable for college students to cheat on their partners), as well as what they thought the average student’s attitude was. Students were also asked how often they had been unfaithful to a dating partner, and how often they thought the average student may have been unfaithful. Results showed that pluralistic ignorance about infidelity norms was quite common; students believed the "average student" had cheated three times as often as they themselves had.

These studies did not address whether people who believed their own behavior to be very different from the false "norm" were more likely to eventually "normalize" it. But, other research suggests this is likely to happen. For example, one study found that those who overestimated the amount of alcohol consumption on their campus eventually increased their own drinking to come closer to what they believed was the norm. Yet, this drinking pattern actually reversed when students were educated about the true norms of campus alcohol consumption.

These findings suggest that the same could be true for beliefs about infidelity and related behaviors. Even if no one in a given peer group truly believes that cheating is okay, if people believe their friends believe it's acceptable, they could all become more willing to give into temptation. So, if your opinions on cheating (or on anything, really) are based on what you think other people are doing, you should probably think again — and think for yourself.
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