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Can political party predict adultery?

Ever notice how people with conservative sexual attitudes seem to still cheat at the same rate as their more liberal peers? A new study says you're onto something.

As a general rule, the more politically conservative an American is the more restrictive their sexual attitudes will be. This generalization is supported by polling data, showing that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that premarital sex is acceptable, claim to have more partners, and are more likely to admit to having solicited a prostitute.


Likewise, more conservative respondents are less likely to say that they or their spouse have cheated during their marriage.

However, one cannot help but notice that these differences in opinion don’t always correlate to differences in actions. Democratic president Bill Clinton was impeached over an affair, but Representative Tim Murphy and Senator Larry Craig have also been notable for their sexual choices despite being conservative on issues of sexual morality.

Looking to these discrepancies, Kodi Arfer of UCLA and Jason Jones of Stony Brook University sought to find out if the behavior of Americans is in line with their values by taking advantage of the Ashley Madison leak of 2015, which revealed the personal information about the users of the website.

By comparing the information in the leak to voter registration lists in five states, they were able to determine which party has the most cheaters in it. Their study, first published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, is full of surprises.

Wait, Ashley Madison? What’s that?

Ashley Madison is a dating website focused on people who are already married or in relationships. Given that the website formerly used the tagline “Life is short. Have an affair” it’s reasonable to assume that the people with accounts on the site were not exactly saints.

The researchers understood that asking people who have very restrictive ideas on sex to tell if they had ever deviated from the norm was unlikely to produce accurate data. To get around this, they turned to the Ashley Madison data since there is little other reason for a person to be on the site other than to find extramarital sex.

Did they use leaked data for scientific research? Isn’t that unethical?

The authors acknowledge that the initial data was released by unethical means but compare not using it to shutting the stable door after the horse has left. Comparing data which is now out in the world to data which is publicly available is hardly unethical, even if the personal information of the people who used Ashely Madison should never have been released.

Now to the good stuff, the party that cheats the most is….

The study found that Libertarians were the most likely to be members of Ashley Madison, with 1 in 300 members being on the site. Democrats were the least likely to be on it, with no more than 1 in 700 members using the site. Greens, non-affiliated voters, and Republicans fell in between these two extremes.

The initial results are detailed in this graph.

The ratios show the proportion of party members on Ashley Madison. Oklahoma has very strict rules on third parties, explaining the lack of data points in that section of the graphCredit to Arfer and Jones.

This data doesn’t account for gender differences in party membership though. Given that the Libertarian Party in the four states that were covered here is 63% male while the Democratic party is majority female, the data might be just showing that men are more likely to cheat.

To get around this, the researchers did another analysis of the data which accounted for the gender gap. The results were similar, with Libertarians and Republicans being the most likely to be using the website and Democrats still bringing up the rear.  The results for the state of New York are shown here:



This figure shows the odds that a forty-year-old man in New York would use Ashley Madison, broken down by party. Both of the statistical models the authors used are shown. Credit to Arfer and Jones.

 What does all this mean?

The authors of the study say that their findings support the previously argued stance that “people with more sexually conservative values, although they claim to act accordingly, are more sexually deviant in practice than their more sexually liberal peers.”

These findings become particularly strange when you realize that adultery is the one point of agreement between sexually liberal people and sexually conservative people, in that almost everybody agrees it is unacceptable behavior.

Why might this happen?

The authors of the study can only speculate on why members of parties on the right would commit adultery at a higher rate than those on the left but do give a few ideas. Chief amongst them is the concept that the atmosphere of sexual conservatism, which guts sexual education and reduces overall knowledge of human sexuality, provides an environment where adultery is, ironically, more likely. They argue:

“It would make sense if less sexually knowledgeable people were worse at sexual self-control. More religious people may also have difficulty with sexual self-control if they attempt to rely on supernatural help to restrain their impulses. Perhaps expanding sex education and weakening taboos against the mere discussion of sex are ways by which society could reduce the incidence of adultery.”

It must be noted, however, that conservative Oklahoma had the lowest proportion of voters using the cheating service while liberal California had the highest. This suggests that cultural conservatism might not be the only factor involved.

Similarly, the Libertarian party is not necessarily conservative on sexual issues but is instead insistent that sexual morality is not a proper domain for government intervention. This makes the simple claim that “people who are sexually conservative are more likely to commit adultery” unable to fully explain the data.

Is a person who preaches certain moral values more likely to deviate from those values? The findings of this study suggest that this might be the case, or at least that holding a moral value is no guarantee of exemplifying it. While American politics are unlikely to divorce themselves from sexual morality anytime soon, we can at least look forward to many more moments of schadenfreude for years to come. 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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