An alert chump sent me a TED talk by Helen Fisher, someone who researches the brain science behind infidelity and love. The article is entitled “10 FACTS about Infidelity.” Just in case you were thinking of challenging any of it, okay? Apparently all of this is irrefutable.
This blog post is not intended to challenge any scientific findings, because that’s way beyond my pay grade. I am but a mere blogger. Fisher points out several interesting things about humans and infidelity — that there seems to be a genetic disposition for it, that despite people universally condemning infidelity, it’s terribly common, and that our brains are capable of different sorts of love, and there are different sorts of impetuses for infidelity (romantic kibbles versus sex kibbles).
I would just like to say…. and so what?
Every time one of these studies come out, it seems like someone writes a cheater apologist article to say “See? The poor sausages can’t help themselves!” Monogamy isn’t natural. Our brains can compartmentalize (so the cheater DID love you while they were cheating on you — HAH!) And it’s genetic! (Should we discriminate against people on the basis of something they cannot help?)
Here are Fisher’s 10 findings: (The full text with citations is here.)
1. Pairbonding is a hallmark of humanity.
2. However, monogamy is only part of the human reproductive strategy. Infidelity is also widespread. Current studies of American couples indicate that 20 to 40% of heterosexual married men and 20 to 25% of heterosexual married women will also have an extramarital affair during their lifetime.
3. Brain architecture may contribute to infidelity. Human beings have three primary brain systems related to love. 1) The sex drive evolved to motivate individuals to seek copulation with a range of partners; 2) romantic love evolved to motivate individuals to focus their mating energy on specific partners, thereby conserving courtship time and metabolic energy; 3) partner attachment evolved to motivate mating individuals to remain together at least long enough to rear a single child through infancy together. These three basic neural systems interact with one another and other brain systems in myriad flexible, combinatorial patterns to provide the range of motivations, emotions and behaviors necessary to orchestrate our complex human reproductive strategy. But this brain architecture makes it biologically possible to express deep feelings of attachment for one partner, while one feels intense romantic love for another individual, while one feels the sex drive for even more extra-dyadic partners.
4. Infidelity has been a reality across cultures.
5. There are different types of infidelity. Researchers have broadened the definition of infidelity to include sexual infidelity (sexual exchange with no romantic involvement), romantic infidelity (romantic exchanges with no sexual involvement) and sexual and romantic involvement.
6. Myriad psychological, cultural and economic variables play a role in the frequency and expression of infidelity. But one thing is clear: infidelity is a worldwide phenomenon that occurs with remarkable regularity, despite near universal disapproval of this behavior.
7. Mate poaching is a pronounced trend.
8. Infidelity doesn’t necessarily signal an unhappy relationship. Regardless of the correlation between relationship dissatisfaction and adultery, among individuals engaging in infidelity in one study, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriage as “happy” or “very happy,” suggesting that genetics may also play a role in philandering.
9. Studies show the possibility of a gene that correlates to infidelity.
10. Several scientists have offered theories for the evolution of human adultery. I have proposed that during prehistory, philandering males disproportionately reproduced, selecting for the biological underpinnings of the roving eye in contemporary men. Unfaithful females reaped economic resources from their extra-dyadic partnerships, as well as additional males to help with parenting duties if their primary partner died or deserted them. Moreover, if an ancestral woman bore a child with this extra-marital partner, she also increased genetic variety in her descendants. Infidelity had unconscious biological payoffs for both males and females throughout prehistory, thus perpetuating the biological underpinnings and taste for infidelity in both sexes today.
I believe that most of these findings could be observed on any internet infidelity board. Cheating is really common, certain cultures tolerate it more than others, there are emotional affairs and sexual affairs, it happens to people who believe themselves to be in happy marriages. And I would even argue that most of us would agree there is a genetic component to it — a lack of empathy (or “callous unemotional traits”), but okay, maybe there is a horndog gene too.
None these findings absolve cheaters of personal responsibility.
Replace infidelity with murder — something humans also do with an alarming frequency throughout history. Murder has been a constant across cultures. Despite universal condemnation, people still commit murder. There are different types of murder (premeditated, defensive). Some people have a genetic disposition for murder. This is a real thing by the way — the MAO-A gene, or warrior gene. You can read how a guy used a genetic defense to avoid the death penalty for hacking his wife to death with a machete.
None of this research invalidates my opinion that murder is wrong.
Same with infidelity. In fact, I believe studies like Fisher’s really underscore what people like Lundy Bancoft or George Simon say — people do bad things to gain advantage over others. They have throughout history. We can be a pretty despicable bunch. Some groups feel entitled to colonize other groups, or take their resources. (Mate poaching?) They can be pretty sneaky the ways they go about it. They rewrite history. They rationalize it in their heads. Our brains are clever and let us rationalize things. Perhaps there was an evolutionary imperative to be an asshole. (More resources for me! Fewer for you!)
While all of this is observable phenomena — the science doesn’t ask the harder questions. Are we culpable for what we do? Do we have agency or are we the sum of our genetic cocktail? If humans are capable of deceit, are they not also capable of nobler virtues? Self sacrifice. Loyalty. Humility. Service. Kindness. Compassion.
Don’t we aspire to more than our basest evolutionary traits, to procreate and steal? Are we just kidding ourselves that we can be better than that?
I don’t think so. We are better than that. Science should study chumps. Explain to me the expansive heart that tries to forgive betrayal. Explain single parents working three jobs to support their children. Explain the compassion that spills out over the pages of this blog, where total strangers reach out to one another to offer comfort and support.
Did we evolve to be so kind? Is there a chump gene? Have there been chumps across history and different cultures?
I don’t know, I’m just glad you exist. If science can help us at all, perhaps it can identify cheaters so we can avoid them and chumps can stick to their own kind.