1,500 study participants play Spot the Cheater
- Male philanderers faces give them away slightly more often than female faces do.
- Study tests idea of being able to spot competition as an evolutionary aid to protecting our relationships.
- The most reliable — though not very reliable — cue is sexual dimorphism.
189 possibly faithful people scrutinized<p>The researchers recruited 1,500 heterosexual white participants and asked them to fill out questionnaires in which they picked out the cheaters from 189 photographs — 101 men and 88 women, each of whom had let the researchers in on whether or not they'd been philandering. The participants also answered some questions to help the researchers understand each their reasons for tagging a photo model as a cheater.</p><p>The study cites previous research that suggests that "women, and to a lesser degree, men, show above-chance accuracy in judging sexual unfaithfulness from opposite-sex faces." This conclusion was borne out in the new study, though this wasn't the main objective.</p><p>One aspect of protecting one's relationship is the ability to spot competitors, and so the new research looked at our ability to spot a tendency toward infidelity in same-sex candidates who might poach our partners.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNjAxOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDk2OTUwOX0.k7roU98aVOAC4MDGN8D6Zh5k67arcKTvAEKybHeBfQs/img.jpg?width=980" id="98d6b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="294c455f6a531674af026a0b3ce58589" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: View Apart/Shutterstock
Good guesses, bad guesses<p>It turned out that men and women were both more accurate with their judgement of men's faces when it came to spotting a likelihood of cheating or poaching. Women's faces, on the other hand, pretty much baffled everyone. In terms of detecting same-sex cheaters, men did better identifying untrustworthy men than women did spotting female philanderesses. "We found very little evidence of any accuracy in impressions of faithfulness from women's faces," says the study.</p><p>Still, we're not so good at this game overall, it turns out. The study finds, "Even though accuracy for men's faces was statistically significant, the level of accuracy was modest at best." Over 80% of participants exhibited a less-than-chance accuracy level in their conclusions. For men's faces, only 14.1 to 18.0% of participants did better than chance. For women's faces, the percentage of good guessers was even lower: 0.9 to 4.0%.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNjAyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Nzk4NjY2Nn0.MXBt4_QWXB8Wtq08rA7I2cNxgfQMCAAIvrYLMYhNI_Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="5078f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e205170e2bd0026c988e9f8413299a8e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: pathdoc/Shutterstock
Visual cues that affected opinions and how useful they were<p>The researchers asked participants about the importance of three characteristics as cues of unfaithfulness:</p> <ul> <li>sexual dimorphism — essentially the physical size of the person being judged</li> <li>attractiveness — the visual appeal of the person's face</li> <li>untrustworthiness — whether or not the face simply looked untreatable</li> </ul> <p>All three led participants to decide a man was likely to be a cheater or poacher. In assessing women, attractiveness and trustworthiness were factors.</p><p>As to whether these three indicators were of any use assessing a propensity for infidelity or poaching, the story was a bit different.</p><p>"The face plays an important role in human mate choice as a signal of various aspects of quality, including genetic quality, diet, fertility, aggressiveness, and parental care," says the study. Nonetheless, attractiveness turned out not to have been a reliable indicator of cheating in the study's data. According to the the photo models' self-reporting, good-looking people were no more likely to be unfaithful than others.</p><p>As it turns out, only dimorphism accurately indicated mate cheating/poaching.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTQwNjAzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1ODg2MjIwN30.6gXafAcAfI6W2KakY-a1YRolc0VHwLysq1eShLjkAzo/img.jpg?width=980" id="96d4c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="76c8aed87e3e6415939cf37579c9c878" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: from study
And so?<p>The study concludes, "In summary, our results suggest that there might be some kernel of truth in impressions of unfaithfulness from men's faces. This above-chance accuracy for men's faces is consistent with the evolutionary prediction that accuracy in our judgements of unfaithfulness from strangers' faces might represent an evolved adaptation for identifying potential male cheaters/poachers." At the same time, the high level of inaccuracy means — in a devastating blow to trash-talking — "we should not rely on our first impressions to make diagnostic judgements of unfaithfulness in everyday situations."</p>
What are the true motivations of people who cheat, and why do even happy spouses do it?
We all know what infidelity is, but a universal definition is difficult to carve out—especially in the digital age. Is watching porn cheating, or is it only cheating if the person on the other side of the screen is live? Each scenario is subjective, but psychotherapist Esther Perel crystalizes the three elements that lie at the heart of all cheating: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotion—even if the person don't think so. Cheating is typically interpreted as a symptom of a bad relationship or of something lacking in a partner, however one of the biggest revelations for Perel in researching her latest book, The State of Affairs, was that happy people also stray. Even people in satisfying relationships find themselves crossing the line they never thought they would. So what gives? "They often stray not because they want to find another person but because they want to reconnect with a different version of themselves," she says. "It isn’t so much that they want to leave the person that they are with as much as sometimes they want to leave the person that they have themselves become." Esther Perel is the author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. See more at estherperel.com.