“In the past, when I would write these research papers about infidelity, it’s par for the course to discuss the feelings of guilt and shame that cheaters often report,” explained researcher Cassandra Alexopoulos, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I became very interested in the process of rationalizing a behavior to the extent that one would be willing to perform that behavior over and over again.”
For her study, Alexopoulos surveyed 1,514 male users of Ashley Madison, a dating website for those who are seeking to engage in infidelity. The participants were all married or in a romantic relationship, and did not have a consensually non-monogamous arrangement with their significant other. A total of 425 participants completed a follow-up survey one month later.
The participants indicated how often they engaged in various online and face-to-face behaviors with someone other than their primary romantic partner. They were also questioned about their use of strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance, such as trivializing infidelity or denying responsibility for their behavior. In addition, they reported their attitudes towards infidelity and whether infidelity had change how they viewed themselves.
Alexopoulos found that greater engagement in online infidelity was associated with more accepting attitudes towards infidelity and positive changes in self-concept. “Attitude change and self-concept change, compared to the other strategies included in the current study, perhaps function as a dissociative tactic for perpetrators of infidelity who are struggling with psychological discomfort,” she wrote in her study.
“Specifically, modifying one’s outlook of infidelity (e.g., ‘Being unfaithful never hurt anyone’) and outlook of oneself (e.g., ‘I feel re-energized for the first time in a long time,’ ‘This me is the real me’) may allow the perpetrator of online infidelity to separate their online selves from their offline selves.”
Contrary to expectations, greater infidelity was associated with reduced trivialization and reduced denial of responsibility. “For denial and trivialization to be effective and logical in the perpetrator’s mind, it is likely that the strategies are being used after having committed a one-time transgression (e.g., ‘I didn’t mean for it to happen,’ ‘What I did was wrong, but it says nothing about me as a person’),” Alexopoulos explained. “Once the perpetrator has engaged with numerous partners or has cheated multiple times with a single partner, it may be that the strategy of denying one’s intention to cheat becomes unreasonable.”
Change in self-concept, meanwhile, was positively related to face-to-face infidelity. “The data suggest that, as a means of justifying your own behavior, self-concept change is the only strategy that people find useful to get to the point of engaging in offline infidelity,” Alexopoulos told PsyPost. “In addition, this strategy was also associated with lower levels of negative outcomes. In other words, telling yourself for example, ‘This new relationship makes me more exciting or fun,’ seems to allow cheaters to reduce their feelings of discomfort.”
Alexopoulos noted that future research could collect additional data about the cognitive states associated with committing infidelity. “I think a natural follow-up to this project would be in-depth qualitative interviews to get a better picture of how perpetrators of infidelity coach themselves through online and offline infidelity behaviors,” she explained. “This could potentially be useful for helping individuals mitigate against future infidelity, or help people who have cheated and their partners work through the relationship repair process.”
“One thing I want to be clear is that, from a personal standpoint, I do not condone the act of violating the boundaries within a relationship that have been set by everyone involved,” Alexopoulos added. “Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, so what I do support is people finding the right relationship that works for them.”
The study, “Justify my love: Cognitive dissonance reduction among perpetrators of online and offline infidelity“, was published August 12, 2021.