A long-term, stable romantic relationship with a committed, caring partner has many psychological benefits, which we know from the oodles of psychological research published about them. So it’s a good thing to try and protect one’s relationship from external influences. One of the most difficult to recover from and damaging influences is cheating.
If cheating will harm a relationship (and cheating appears to be one of the primary reasons cited in many, if not most, relationship breakups), what can be done to minimize it?
After all, isn’t it human nature — and the nature of temptation — to constantly look for desirable alternatives?
One of the ways people look to protect their long-term relationship is to simply remain inattentive to those alternatives. Research has demonstrated that being inattentive to attractive members of the opposite sex generally promotes relationship success.
But new research (DeWall et al., 2011) suggests it’s not so simple. If the circumstances or situation implicitly limit a person’s attention to an attractive alternative, that alternative suddenly becomes “forbidden fruit.”
And all that more attractive.
The researchers call this the “forbidden fruit hypothesis,” based upon previous research that has demonstrated that people find things more desirable when they off-limits or forbidden. There’s something in human nature that wants what it can’t have. (Or perhaps we can have it, but with serious consequences.)
This hypothesis is consistent with another psychological theory called the “ironic process model.” This model suggests that suppressing thoughts about something will lead that thing to become even more salient. The more we try and not to think about something, the more we think about it.
To test their forbidden fruit hypothesis, the researchers conducted a series of three experiments involving undergraduate students.
In the first experiment, 42 students who were in a committed relationship that was at least a month old performed a visual discrimination task where their attention was subtly manipulated by the researchers in one group, and not manipulated in a control group. The task was simple — press the letter E or F on the keyboard when they appeared on the screen, replacing one of the two photographs shown on the screen. One photograph was of an attractive person, the other of an average-looking person.
The researchers manipulated the task by showing the letter that needed to be pressed 80 percent of the time in the place of the average-looking person. Therefore, in order to complete the task as efficiently as possible, subjects needed to force themselves to look away from the attractive-looking person.
The researchers at the end of the task then administered an infidelity cheating scale that measured attitudes about cheating, and a relationship satisfaction survey. They then compared the two groups to see if a significant difference emerged.