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Some Protection Against Infidelity? How About Perspective-Taking

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Cheating in monogamous relationships is prevalent these days. Depending on how ‘infidelity’ is defined, studies have found the percentage of adults reporting some form of infidelity to range from 20% to as high as 70%. And things do not show any signs of getting better.

Fortunately new research suggests a way to help fight against temptations to cheat: adopting the perspective of one’s significant other.

In a forthcoming article in The Journal of Sex Research, Gurit Birnbaum from Reichman University in Israel and her colleagues ran three studies examining the relationship between perspective-taking and attraction towards a third party. Here we’ll look at just the first two studies. Study 1 recruited 130 Israeli participants who were in a monogamous relationship for more than 4 months. They were divided up into a control group and a perspective-taking group; this second group imagined, “what they might be thinking, feeling, and experiencing if they were their partners, looking at the world through their partners’ eyes and walking in their partners’ shoes, as they go through the various activities they experience during a typical day in their lives.”

Did perspective-taking make any difference to being attracted to someone outside of their relationship? Birnbaum and her team went on to show each participant 20 pictures in rapid succession, with 10 of them being of attractive individuals of the same gender as their partner, and 10 of unattractive individuals. For each picture, the participant had to press a yes or no button for “whether they would consider this person to be a potential partner.”

The results? Control participants said yes to 6.51 alternative partners, while those in the perspective-taking group said yes to 5.58 alternative partners, a statistically significant decrease.

Birnbaum takes this result to suggest that perspective-taking “leads to prioritizing the goal of relationship maintenance relative to the temptation of straying and thus helps inhibit interest in attractive others.” Still, one might wonder how much weight to put on this one finding. After all, looking at a bunch of pictures seems somewhat tame compared to actually interacting with attractive others.

Fortunately this was not the only study that Birnbaum ran. In Study 2, 147 new Israeli participants, also in monogamous relationships, were divided up into the same control and perspective-taking groups. But at the end of the study, instead of evaluating photos, they talked with an interviewer over text. During the interview, participants saw a profile picture of this interviewer which depicted him or her as an attractive member of the same gender as their own partner. After the text chat, they had to answer a few questions about their interest in this interviewer and their commitment to their partner.

The results this time? Compared to controls, the perspective-takers reported significantly lower interest sexually in the person interviewing them (on a five-point scale, an average of 1.33 versus 1.58 for the controls). They also expressed significantly greater commitment to their partner (a 4.86 out of 5, versus 4.68 for the controls).

So suppose there is indeed a link between perspective-taking and decreased attraction to third parties. It would be important to know if it also led to fewer acts of infidelity. Furthermore, what would explain the impact of perspective-taking? Birnbaum’s studies do not speak to this question. But we have long known that perspective-taking reliably increases empathic concern for a person, which in turn can increase helpful behavior towards him or her. This boost of care and concern has also been accompanied by a greater sense of closeness.

We shouldn’t get too excited about this research just yet. It needs to be replicated in different cultures and with larger numbers of participants. As Birnbaum herself notes, it also does not speak to whether perspective-taking has a longer-term effect, nor do the studies measure actual infidelity (which after all might be hard to do!).

Finally, even if future studies on these topics are promising, we shouldn’t expect perspective-taking to do too much – it might diminish morally problematic desires and behavior, but it will fall short of eliminating them altogether. It is not a cure-all when it comes to preventing infidelity.

Nevertheless, these results help to remind us once again of the great moral value of trying to get out of our own narrow perspectives and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Doing so just might save our relationships.

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