Is it possible to have a sixth sense about whether total strangers are likely to be unfaithful? A new study from Brigham Young University suggests that our “gut instinct” about potential cheaters, even after observing them for only a brief period, is surprisingly accurate.
The researchers took 51 undergraduates at Florida State University and their significant others and asked them to complete a survey about their history of physical or emotional infidelity. The researchers then videotaped each couple performing a cooperative task in which one partner was blindfolded and the other directed him or her to complete a drawing. The videos were each three to four minutes long.
The Brigham Young researchers then showed the videos of the 51 couples to six strangers and asked them to identify those individuals who seemed likely to be unfaithful to their partners.
Strangers Can Spot Cheaters
The observing strangers in the study showed a surprisingly strong ability to pick out those individuals who had self-reported unfaithful behavior or emotional attachments. They were not accurate 100 percent of the time, but their ability to recognize cheaters was significantly better than chance could account for.
In order to test their initial results, the researchers repeated the experiment with 43 new student couples and another five strangers. Once again, the strangers were able to recognize the active cheaters and likely cheaters a significant percentage of the time.
What the study was not able to determine was exactly how the strangers, after so few minutes of observation, were able to gather clues suggesting infidelity. But the reason humans have this ability may have something to do with natural selection. Lead author of the study Dr. Nathaniel Lambert speculates that the ability to recognize potentially unfaithful partners is an evolutionary advantage, since an unfaithful partner increases the odds that you will end up caring for a family single-handedly or helping to raise children that are not your own.
It’s Much Harder To Recognize Infidelity In Our Own Relationships
Unfortunately, the “infidelity radar” that may allow us to recognize potential cheaters among groups of strangers frequently fails us in our own relationships. While a stranger may be able to pick out a straying partner in a matter of minutes, it almost always takes much longer before cheated-on partners are able to pick up the signs and recognize that their partners are being unfaithful to them.
Without understanding how our infidelity radar works, it’s difficult to say why the signs of unfaithfulness become so much harder to spot when you yourself are the victim. The answer may simply be a lack of objectiveness and an unwillingness to suspect or believe that our romantic partners are cheating on us.
Cheating Is Widespread, But Statistics Often Exaggerate
Infidelity is a widespread problem, but it is not quite as common as many commonly-cited statistics would have us believe. For example, it is commonly stated that as many as 50 percent of all relationships involve some kind of infidelity. However, a 2005 review of numerous infidelity studies found that cheating is not quite as common as that.
This study found that the odds of a partner cheating during any one year of a relationship may be as low as 6 percent. During the entire course of a long-term relationship, the odds of infidelity at some point rise to a maximum of 25 percent.
The results of this study were published Sept. 18, 2014, in the journal Personal Relationships.