We all do it: we catch our significant other checking out other people, or hanging out with friends of the opposite sex, or making a remark about somebody being attractive—and we get angry. That might manifest in a number of ways, from a sideways comment to a full-on fit to threats of a breakup, but no matter how it manifests, there’s a clear message: we’re not pleased. A recent study, however, suggests that this may actually encourage people to cheat.
It’s a cliché setup: A woman catches her boyfriend staring slack-jawed at another lady and smacks him on the arm. How dare he let his animal impulses show through their tenuous pact of monogamy. This familiar sitcom scenario is backward—and not just in the sense that it plays up the stereotype of the crazy-jealous girlfriend. It turns out that trying to punish a significant other when his or her eyes wander might actually backfire and encourage infidelity, according to a study published in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Researchers subjected a bunch of undergrad guinea pigs to a computer game involving photos of strangers, followed by a questionnaire. When their attention to photos of attractive members of the opposite sex was “subtly limited” in the game, it “reduced relationship satisfaction and commitment and increased positive attitudes toward infidelity.” The study explains, “Being told simply not to look is probably not an effective strategy for boosting satisfaction and commitment or reducing interest in alternatives”—and it’s for the same reason that telling a kid to keep his hands off the cookie jar doesn’t reduce his interest in sweets. “The story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit underscores a general human tendency to want what we can’t have,” says researcher Nathan DeWall.
What do you think—what’s the appropriate level of concern to have about a partner’s wandering eyes?