How Mate Value Predicts Infidelity

February 1, 2017

cheatingHow does mate value predict infidelity? It’s not as straightforward as you might think. A new study looks at the relationship between mate value and cheating. It’s hardly surprising that mate value would predict infidelity, but there are considerable differences not only between men and women, but also in which components of mate value have an effect.

Previous Mate Value Research

A large body of research has found that certain conditions predict a much lower rate of infidelity. By far the largest factors are two key personality traits:

  • Agreeableness: kind and friendly
  • Conscientiousness: hard-working and detail-oriented

Other conditions also make cheating less likely:

  • A high level of commitment, e.g. plans to marry
  • High relationship satisfaction

Infidelity often results in breakups, which cause psychological distress, lower life satisfaction and poorer health. People in high quality relationships are unlikely to risk these outcomes. On the other hand, these indicators of low relationship quality are associated with higher rates of infidelity:

  • Poor communication in the relationship
  • Physical aggression
  • Psychological aggression
  • Dark Triad personality: narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism

The likelihood of cheating depends in part on one’s perceived opportunities to do so. This perception may be accurate, or distorted, as if often the case with Dark Triad types.

Current Components of Mate Value

In this study, mate value was defined as consisting of four components:

1. Agreeableness/Commitment:

Agreeableness measures expressive qualities of love and empathy, friendliness, altruism, cooperation, and communal facets of personality.

[It is] a component of an affective-motivational system that reflects variation in the extent to which individuals seek out and enjoy intimate, committed relationships.”

2. Surgency: 

Dominance, leadership and ascendance. The degree to which a person aggressively pursues advancement in the social hierarchy.

3. Emotional Stability

4. Physical Attractiveness

Sex Differences in Infidelity

Men indicated a higher level of intention to cheat than women did:

Zero intention to cheatWomenMen
Emotionally52%45%
Sexually66%51%

Overall Mate Value as a Predictor of Cheating

There were considerable differences between what influenced men and women to cheat. Men’s perception of their own high mate value did not predict infidelity. For women it was the opposite; perceiving their male partners as high or low value did not predict infidelity.

mate value and infidelity

The Effect of Specific Traits on Cheating

There were several key differences in the way women and men responded to specific traits in considering infidelity. This reflects the immutable asymmetry in the reproductive imperatives of the sexes. The researchers describe this as “tipping the cost-benefit balance in favor of infidelity.”

“As members of a species in which females invest substantially more in offspring than do males, women tend to be choosier and more cautious in their sexual and romantic behavior (Lippa, 2009; Schmitt, 2003; Trivers, 1972).

Consequently, it is often the more selective women who determine when and with whom the less investing men have sex. This may explain why men, but not women, have their reproductive behaviors partly determined by traits of the partners who grant them sexual access.”

We see this play out in men being not very selective when it comes to casual sex, while women are inclined to demand abundant “good genes” for short-term encounters.

Agreeableness/Commitment:

Agreeable and commitment-oriented women are less likely to cheat either emotionally or sexually. The presence of these traits in their partners did not effect the odds of infidelity.

There is a positive correlation between their own agreeableness and emotional cheating for men (though not sexual cheating). While this seems counterintuitive, the researchers offer this explanation:

“Agreeableness and commitment have been reliably demonstrated, in this study and others, to be negatively related to infidelity. A review of the analyses, however, indicates that it is only after including men’s partner’s value in the model that men’s agreeableness/commitment becomes a significantly positive predictor.

This may indicate that, when men’s partner’s mate value traits are considered, men who are more agreeable and/or commitment-oriented may be more likely to attract positive attention from women who are not their primary partners, who may be of higher value than their primary partners, and who may be willing to provide sexual access.”

Men whose partners were highly agreeable were far less likely to cheat, however.

Surgency:

Women who score high on surgency, i.e. social climbing, are more likely to commit sexual infidelity. This was the only predictor of sexual cheating in women.

“Women who are more likely to have goals related to resources and social status also may be more motivated to seek out opportunities to acquire such things, some of which may present themselves in the form of sexual relationships with men who are not their primary partners.”

Emotional Stability:

Emotionally stable men were less likely to be unfaithful. There was no effect for female subjects.

Physical Attractiveness:

This is the only predictor of a man’s likelihood to commit sexual infidelity. The more physically attractive a man’s partner is, the less likely he is to cheat, either emotionally or sexually. Physical attractiveness was not a significant predictor for women.

Bottom Line

Ultimately, the findings reflect common sense. People who are relationship-oriented are more likely to form and sustain good relationships, and to avoid infidelity. But the devil is in the details; men prize physical attractiveness in a partner and the most agreeable men are likely tuned in to potential alternatives. For women, surgency was the only significant predictor of sexual cheating, applying to women who aggressively pursue social advancement through mating.  In both cases, the promise of a greater perceived benefit is the incentive that drives infidelity.

“For both men (agreeableness/commitment) and women (surgency), one mate value factor positively predicted infidelity intention. Together, these results suggest that infidelity risk may follow a cost-benefit pattern, which is influenced by the relative mate value of the individuals in the relationship.

Specifically, infidelity risk is higher when the potential benefits gained from infidelity are higher, such as securing an increase in one’s own value or securing a more valuable partner, and lower when the potential cost of committing an infidelity is higher, such as losing a high-value partner.”

Overall, women are less likely to cheat based on their partner’s mate value, and men are more likely to do so.

This study contributes considerable new data regarding specific traits as predictors of infidelity for both parties in a relationship. What surprises you?

What practical implications are there? Should men avoid “insurgent” women?

How can women prevent their agreeable partners from being poached? Since men focus so much on physical attractiveness, is that the most important consideration for women? Is it prudent for us to “play in our own league?”

Let’s discuss!