The first time Fred cheated on his wife, he felt terrible about it. It was a mistake, he admitted. It was wrong to have done it.
He struggled with his guilt, and even thought about admitting what he had done.
But then he decided that doing so would be selfish; more about unburdening himself than anything else.
Besides, Fred told himself, this was a one-time thing. Distortion. He had made a mistake, but he wasn’t going to make it again. He spent his life making up for it.
The second time Fred cheated, he felt bad again.
Something was clearly wrong, he thought. In his heart, he knew that he was not usually the type of person to cheat.
But, he had to admit that he was dealing with powerful forces.
Whatever motivated him to cheat — attraction, lust, boredom, anger, whatever — yes, cheating was wrong, but it was just as important to be honest about what was behind it.
He thought to himself: I’m not the first man to ever cheat. The entire course of human history is full of stories like this.
The third time Fred cheated, he felt a little less bad.
Contrast this injustice with all the positive things he did in life, he realized, and overall, he was a very good person. He wouldn’t let it define him.
In addition, there were at least three people involved: Fred, his wife, and the person (or people) he was cheating with. Fred wasn’t saying that everyone was equally guilty, but that they were all adults making adult decisions and responding to adult circumstances.
Besides, why are you on his case about this?
Ok, looks like it’s time to take a step back from Fred and take a step towards science and research.
Because the whole story above is meant to illustrate what a recent psychological study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships says happens to men who cheat – specifically when their minds lead them.
Cassandra Alexopoulos, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, surveyed 1,514 male users of the highly controversial website, Ashley Madison, which was literally founded to help married people have affairs.
About 425 of the men Alexopoulos surveyed agreed to a second survey a month later.
Apparently, these men were curious about how often they used the site, and how often they “engaged in various online and face-to-face behaviors with someone other than their primary partner romantic.”
In short, it’s the pattern of behavior I tried to describe with our apocryphal story about Fred (to be 100 percent clear; I made up Fred to prove a point, it’s not based on anyone in real life ) exactly as she saw it.
Among the kinds of things the men said in her own research, she wrote:
Maybe it’s a matter of people trying to compartmentalize their cheating behavior against the rest of their lives.
Or perhaps, as Alexopoulos told the website PsyPost, “telling yourself, for example, ‘This new relationship makes me more exciting or fun,’ seems to allow cheaters to express their feelings of discomfort decrease.”
I hope it is clear that I am not encouraging anyone to cheat. (Alexopoulos wanted to make it clear that she didn’t create the study to send that message, either.)
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that men who engage in deception and cheat in their relationships (the study only covered men) may also quickly engage in self-deception.
In a business context, that might be one of the takeaways. Whether it was Aristotle or Will Durant or someone else who first said, “We are what we repeat,” that’s one of the most quoted quotes of all time because it’s so true.
People who cheat in one area of their lives may be more likely to cheat in others as well. People who cheat in business and professional relationships are likely to tell themselves afterwards that it wasn’t as big as it seemed.
And maybe that makes the next time a little easier.