Dr Raj Persaud and Prof Adrian Furnham examine the latest psychological research on attraction and infidelity—can ‘eye candy’ always be resisted?
Resisting temptation lies at the heart of successful living—for example—not surrendering to the allure of fattening foods, nor buying too much stuff and resisting attractive alternatives to your current partner.
Psychologists John Lydon and Johan Karremans from McGill University, Canada and Radboud University, The Netherlands, have recently published an academic review entitled ‘Relationship regulation in the face of eye candy: a motivated cognition framework for understanding responses to attractive alternatives’. The authors attempt to tackle the conundrum of how come there isn’t more infidelity, given the prevalence of eye candy (attractive alternative romantic partners).
The availability of attractive alternatives predicts breakups and divorce, while the epidemic of mobile phone dating apps means the opportunity for infidelity has never been greater.
Psychological research on how to resist temptation also predicts how likely you, or your partner, are going to succumb to temptation, and commit infidelity.
For example, the authors quote previous research which finds that those highly motivated to remain faithful, are quicker to reveal their relationship status, ie that they are already in a committed relationship, to an attractive alternative.
Yet evolutionary psychologists argue how our brains evolved to adapt to our ancestral environment, means we may be biologically and genetically wired up to succumb to temptations the modern world presents.
This is because what appears unhelpful today might have been advantageous in our past, as it could have helped pass on more of our genes to future generations—which would be the evolutionary imperative.
This kind of evolutionary analysis might suggest that men should be procreating with as many females as possible, and that women should always opt for the most reproductively fit male available at ovulation, meaning that infidelity in fact fulfils an evolutionary strategy to maximally pass on our genes to future generations.
Yet despite evolutionary psychology suggesting we should be motivated to be impulsive, the reality is some, if not many, still manage to resist temptation. Given the presence of alternative attractive partners, how is fidelity achieved?
John Lydon and Johan Karremans in their analysis published in the academic journal, Current Opinion in Psychology, conclude that although many of these questions haven’t yet been properly definitively answered by psychological research, there are already some useful pointers.
In one study quoted, avoidance responses toward attractive alternatives were associated with activation in brain areas implicated in self-control. Upon seeing a good-looking alternate, brain responses implicated in self-control were stronger to the extent that participants were more strongly committed to the current partner.
These findings suggest that self-control resources in the brain and the mind are actively engaged, and these are vital in helping committed individuals to inhibit responses toward attractive others, and to override temptations.
Your current partner may say blithely how they didn’t even notice the eye candy at the party you have just been at, or at the office, or at the beach, but successfully resisting temptation involves a part of the brain being more active, than for others more prone to succumb to temptation.
But some of that self-control ‘muscle’ involves the fact that individuals in committed relationships do tend to be more inattentive to alternatives.
Even if they notice them, they also engage psychological processes whereby they judge or actually perceive the alternative as less attractive. It has also been shown that suppressing thoughts about romantic alternatives, avoiding them and selectively remembering negatives more than positives about desirable others, are all part of the temptation resistance process.
When it comes to infidelity it seems there are strong parallels to battling enticement in other areas of life, for example resisting fattening foods. How faithful your partner is likely to be might be predicted by their general ability to exert self-control.
This also suggests that the conditions under which people succumb to most temptations, such as eating or drinking more than is good for them, are very similar to those predicaments where even the self-controlled are more likely to succumb to infidelity.
So people struggle more to resist temptations of any description, including romantic attraction, when tired, under stress, inebriated or just drained.
Given these circumstances are not infrequent, it would appear that repelling temptation to the eye candy all around us might involve a process that psychologists can break down into individual parts. Part 1 is to identify that there is a threat, part 2 is to be equipped with strategies to deal with the threat, while part 3 is to be able to enact the strategies.
The power of this analysis is that it can help pinpoint where and when a particular individual might be most vulnerable to eye candy, and how to help them resist successfully.
But should it really be such hard work? Or should resistance not come intuitively without such intellectual or emotional labour?
John Lydon and Johan Karremans conclude that to understand why some are faithful and some aren’t, involves going back to grasping fundamentals of what drives all motivation.
An ‘investment’ model may be illustrative—to the extent you feel you have invested in your relationship—and your partner has invested in you—how many ‘costs’ have been sunk into the partnership, and how irretrievable these ‘investments’ are, maybe this ultimately is what promotes, and tests, absolute commitment.
If staying faithful involves a trade-off where long term interests are pursued at the cost of more immediate enjoyment, one key issue appears that of identifying with the relationship.
This means if your very identity is tied up with being with your current partner, then you are most unlikely to stray.
Maybe the real reason those highly motivated to remain faithful, are quicker to reveal their relationship status to an attractive alternative, is they are just explaining who they are.
Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist and joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists with a new free to download app entitled ‘Raj Persaud in Conversation’ which contains many interviews with mental health experts from around the world. Adrian Furnham is a South African-born British organisational and applied psychologist, management expert and Professor of Psychology at University College London.