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Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes
MAY 22, 2015
Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes
NYT MAY 22, 2015
be out of love
unfaithful to N
affair / liaison / indiscretion / conversation
have an affair
have an affair
extramarital affair / affair
affair / love affair / secret affair
conversation / indiscretion / affair
passionate love affair
unfaithful / be
unfaithful to N
on N USA
in a compromising
position with N
Lurks in Your Genes
MAY 22, 2015
The New York
Contributing Op-Ed Writer
disapprove of marital infidelity. Ninety-one percent of them find it morally
wrong, more than the number that reject polygamy, human cloning or suicide,
according to a 2013 Gallup poll.
Yet the number of Americans who actually cheat on their partners is rather
substantial: Over the past two decades, the rate of infidelity has been pretty
constant at around 21 percent for married men, and between 10 to 15 percent for
married women, according to the General Social Survey at the University of
Chicago’s independent research organization, NORC.
We are accustomed to thinking of sexual infidelity as a symptom of an unhappy
relationship, a moral flaw or a sign of deteriorating social values. When I was
trained as a psychiatrist we were told to look for various emotional and
developmental factors — like a history of unstable relationships or a
philandering parent — to explain infidelity.
But during my career, many of the questions we asked patients were found to be
insufficient because for so much behavior, it turns out that genes, gene
expression and hormones matter a lot.
Now that even appears to be the case for infidelity.
We have long known that men have a genetic, evolutionary impulse to cheat,
because that increases the odds of having more of their offspring in the world.
But now there is intriguing new research showing that some women, too, are
biologically inclined to wander, although not for clear evolutionary benefits.
Women who carry certain variants of the vasopressin receptor gene are much more
likely to engage in “extra pair bonding,” the scientific euphemism for sexual
Brendan P. Zietsch, a psychologist at the University of Queensland, Australia,
has tried to determine whether some people are just more inclined toward
infidelity. In a study of nearly 7,400 Finnish twins and their siblings who had
all been in a relationship for at least one year, Dr. Zietsch looked at the link
between promiscuity and specific variants of vasopressin and oxytocin receptor
genes. Vasopressin is a hormone that has powerful effects on social behaviors
like trust, empathy and sexual bonding in humans and other animals. So it makes
sense that mutations in the vasopressin receptor gene — which can alter its
function — could affect human sexual behavior.
He found that 9.8 percent of men and 6.4 percent of women reported that they had
two or more sexual partners in the previous year. His study, published last year
in Evolution and Human Behavior, found a significant association between five
different variants of the vasopressin gene and infidelity in women only and no
relationship between the oxytocin genes and sexual behavior for either sex. That
was impressive: Forty percent of the variation in promiscuous behavior in women
could be attributed to genes. That is surprising since, as Dr. Zietsch points
out, there are so many other factors that are necessary for promiscuous
encounters, like circumstance and the availability of a willing and able
partner. Although this is the largest and best study on this, it’s not clear why
there was no relationship between the vasopressin gene and promiscuous behavior
Other studies confirm that oxytocin and vasopressin are linked to partner
bonding, which bears on the question of promiscuity since emotional bonding is,
in a sense, the inverse of promiscuity. Hasse Walum at the Karolinska Institute
in Stockholm found that in women, but not in men, there is a significant
association between one variant of the oxytocin receptor gene and marital
discord and lack of affection for one’s partner. In contrast, there was a
significant correlation in men between a specific variant of the vasopressin
receptor gene and lower marital quality reported by their spouses.
Now, before you run out and get your prospective partner genotyped for his or
her vasopressin and oxytocin receptor genes, two caveats: Correlation is not the
same as causation; there are undoubtedly many unmeasured factors that contribute
to infidelity. And rarely does a simple genetic variant determine behavior.
Still, there is a good reason to take these findings seriously: Data in animals
confirm that these two hormones are significant players when it comes to sexual
behavior. An intriguing clue came from the pioneering work of Dr. Thomas R.
Insel, now the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who studied
the effects of vasopressin and oxytocin in a little rodent called the vole. It
turns out that there are two closely related species of voles: montane voles,
which are sexually promiscuous, and prairie voles, which are sexually monogamous
and raise their extended families in burrows.
After sex, prairie voles quickly develop a selective and enduring preference for
their mate, while mating for montane voles is more of a one-night stand.
What Dr. Insel described is that the strikingly different sexual behavior of
these two species of voles reflects the action of vasopressin in their brains.
The vasopressin receptors in the montane and prairie voles are in completely
different brain regions so that when these receptors are stimulated by
vasopressin, there are very different behavioral effects.
When vasopressin is injected directly into the brain of the monogamous male
prairie vole, it triggers pair bonding; in contrast, blocking the vasopressin
receptors inhibits monogamy, but does nothing to stop sexual activity. In other
words, vasopressin promotes social bonding, and blocking the activity of this
hormone encourages social promiscuity.
In the monogamous prairie voles, the vasopressin receptors are close to the
brain’s reward center, but in the philandering montane voles, these same
receptors are mostly found in the amygdala, a brain region that is critical to
processing anxiety and fear.
So mating for the prairie voles activates the pleasurable reward pathway, which
reinforces mating and promotes attachment and thus monogamy. For the promiscuous
montane voles, sex has little effect on attachment; any vole will do.
It is even possible experimentally to take a home-wrecking montane vole and make
him behave like a family-oriented prairie vole. Using a virus as a delivery
vehicle to transmit the vasopressin receptor gene, it’s easy to artificially
boost the number of vasopressin receptors in the brain’s reward center, and make
a male vole behave monogamously. The story for female voles is similar except
that it is oxytocin, not vasopressin, that triggers monogamous behavior.
We don’t yet know from human studies whether the vasopressin receptor genes that
are linked with infidelity actually make the brain less responsive to these
hormones, but given the animal data, it is plausible.
which oxytocin and vasopressin are directly administered to humans show these
hormones have effects that go beyond sex; they appear to increase trust and
social bonding. In one study, for example, healthy subjects were randomly given
either intranasal oxytocin or a placebo and then played a trust game. In this
game, the two subjects either act as an investor or a trustee. The investor
first has the chance of choosing a costly trusting action by giving money to the
trustee. Then the trustee can either honor the trust by returning a portion of
the money or violate it by not sharing the money. Those who play under the
influence of oxytocin continue to trust and make generous monetary offers in
response to betrayal, while subjects getting a placebo become less trusting and
stingier after getting burned. Oxytocin appears to make us more socially
trusting — even in situations where it may not be in our best interest to do so.
In one study of men, giving vasopressin enhanced the subjects’ memory for both
happy and angry faces compared with a placebo, which implies that vasopressin
could boost social affiliation and aggressive behavior since it increased social
and emotional learning.
These findings also suggest potential therapeutic uses for oxytocin and
vasopressin for people who have either a deficit or an excess of trust and
social bonding. Autism is an example of a deficit, and indeed there is
preliminary evidence that oxytocin may have some beneficial prosocial effects in
this disorder. In contrast, Williams syndrome is a rare genetic illness in which
kids are pathologically trusting and indiscriminately befriend complete
strangers. The disorder is associated with baseline oxytocin levels that are on
average three times above normal, so a drug that blocks oxytocin may curb their
If you have an Orwellian bent, you’ve probably already imagined the mischief you
might do with these two hormones. You could surreptitiously make a potential
investor more trusting or encourage a monogamous impulse in a partner who you
suspect is cheating. All you need is aerosolized oxytocin or vasopressin,
perhaps in a spiked air freshener or perfume. Kidding, of course, but you get
Sexual monogamy is distinctly unusual in nature: Humans are among the 3 to 5
percent of mammalian species that practice monogamy, along with the swift fox
and beaver — but even in these species, infidelity has been commonly observed.
The evolutionary benefit of promiscuity for men is pretty straightforward: The
more sexual partners you have, the greater your potential reproductive success.
But women’s reproductive capacity is more limited by biology. So what’s in it
for women? There may be no clear evolutionary advantage to female infidelity,
but sex has never just been about procreation. Cheating can be intensely
pleasurable because, among other things, it involves novelty and a degree of
sensation seeking, behaviors that activate the brain’s reward circuit. Sex,
money and drugs, among other things, trigger the release of dopamine from this
circuit, which conveys not just a sense of pleasure but tells your brain this is
an important experience worth remembering and repeating. And, of course, humans
vary widely in their taste for novelty.
In a 2010 study of 181 young, healthy adults, Justin R. Garcia, then at
Binghamton University, found that subjects who carried a variant of one dopamine
receptor subtype, the D4 receptor, were 50 percent more likely to report sexual
infidelity. This D4 genetic variant has reduced binding for dopamine, which
implies that these individuals walk around at baseline feeling less stimulated
and hungrier for novelty than those lacking this genetic variant.
So do we get a moral pass if we happen to carry one of these “infidelity” genes?
Hardly. We don’t choose our genes and can’t control them (yet), but we can
usually decide what we do with the emotions and impulses they help create. But
it is important to acknowledge that we live our lives on a very uneven genetic
playing field. A friend of mine, who is a bisexual woman in her early 50s,
recently told me about her long history of sexual exploits outside of her
marriage. She hadn’t had sex with her partner for many years, although she
wanted to — “she just wasn’t into it anymore,” she told me. One day, she ran
into a man she had known years earlier and, not long after, struck up an affair
with him. “He was really into me and the sex was so exciting that I just went
with it and decided not to say anything to my partner.” Here were all the usual
factors that we know set the stage for extramarital sex: marital discord, sexual
dissatisfaction and emotional alienation in the primary relationship. My friend
was well aware of them and this was how she explained the basis of her own
But when she told me that she’d cheated early on in her relationship with her
partner, at least once when things were going well, I realized that she probably
had a propensity for sexual exploration that seemed in some ways independent of
the emotional status of her relationships.
For some, there is little innate temptation to cheat; for others, sexual
monogamy is an uphill battle against their own biology.
A professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and a
contributing opinion writer.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on May 24, 2015, on page SR1 of the
National edition with the headline: Infidelity Lurks in Your Genes.
Lurks in Your Genes,
NYT, MAY 22, 2015,
and the Changing Landscape
October 28, 2008
The New York Times
By TARA PARKER-POPE
If you cheated on your spouse, would you admit it to a
That question is one of the biggest challenges in the scientific study of
marriage, and it helps explain why different studies produce different estimates
of infidelity rates in the United States.
Surveys conducted in person are likely to underestimate the real rate of
adultery, because people are reluctant to admit such behavior not just to their
spouses but to anyone.
In a study published last summer in The Journal of Family Psychology, for
example, researchers from the University of Colorado and Texas A&M surveyed
4,884 married women, using face-to-face interviews and anonymous computer
questionnaires. In the interviews, only 1 percent of women said they had been
unfaithful to their husbands in the past year; on the computer questionnaire,
more than 6 percent did.
At the same time, experts say that surveys appearing in sources like women’s
magazines may overstate the adultery rate, because they suffer from what
pollsters call selection bias: the respondents select themselves and may be more
likely to report infidelity.
But a handful of new studies suggest surprising changes in the marital
landscape. Infidelity appears to be on the rise, particularly among older men
and young couples. Notably, women appear to be closing the adultery gap: younger
women appear to be cheating on their spouses nearly as often as men.
“If you just ask whether infidelity is going up, you don’t see really impressive
changes,” said David C. Atkins, research associate professor at the University
of Washington Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors. “But if you
magnify the picture and you start looking at specific gender and age cohorts, we
do start to see some pretty significant changes.”
The most consistent data on infidelity come from the General Social Survey,
sponsored by the National Science Foundation and based at the University of
Chicago, which has used a national representative sample to track the opinions
and social behaviors of Americans since 1972. The survey data show that in any
given year, about 10 percent of married people — 12 percent of men and 7 percent
of women — say they have had sex outside their marriage.
But detailed analysis of the data from 1991 to 2006, to be presented next month
by Dr. Atkins at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
conference in Orlando, show some surprising shifts. University of Washington
researchers have found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60
increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60,
the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.
The researchers also see big changes in relatively new marriages. About 20
percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they have ever been
unfaithful, up from about 15 and 12 percent respectively.
Theories vary about why more people appear to be cheating. Among older people, a
host of newer drugs and treatments are making it easier to be sexual, and in
some cases unfaithful — Viagra and other remedies for erectile dysfunction,
estrogen and testosterone supplements to maintain women’s sex drive and vaginal
health, even advances like better hip replacements.
“They’ve got the physical health to express their sexuality into old age,” said
Helen E. Fisher, research professor of anthropology at Rutgers and the author of
several books on the biological and evolutionary basis of love and sex.
In younger couples, the increasing availability of pornography on the Internet,
which has been shown to affect sexual attitudes and perceptions of “normal”
behavior, may be playing a role in rising infidelity.
But it is the apparent change in women’s fidelity that has sparked the most
interest among relationship researchers. It is not entirely clear if the
historical gap between men and women is real or if women have just been more
likely to lie about it.
“Is it that men are bragging about it and women are lying to everybody including
themselves?” Dr. Fisher asked. “Men want to think women don’t cheat, and women
want men to think they don’t cheat, and therefore the sexes have been playing a
little psychological game with each other.”
Dr. Fisher notes that infidelity is common across cultures, and that in hunting
and gathering societies, there is no evidence that women are any less adulterous
than men. The fidelity gap may be explained more by cultural pressures than any
real difference in sex drives between men and women. Men with multiple partners
typically are viewed as virile, while women are considered promiscuous. And
historically, women have been isolated on farms or at home with children, giving
them fewer opportunities to be unfaithful.
But today, married women are more likely to spend late hours at the office and
travel on business. And even for women who stay home, cellphones, e-mail and
instant messaging appear to be allowing them to form more intimate
relationships, marriage therapists say. Dr. Frank Pittman, an Atlanta
psychiatrist who specializes in family crisis and couples therapy, says he has
noticed more women talking about affairs centered on “electronic” contact.
“I see a changing landscape in which the emphasis is less on the sex than it is
on the openness and intimacy and the revelation of secrets,” said Dr. Pittman,
the author of “Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy” (Norton,
1990). “Everybody talks by cellphone and the relationship evolves because you
become increasingly distant from whomever you lie to, and you become
increasingly close to whomever you tell the truth to.”
While infidelity rates do appear to be rising, a vast majority of people still
say adultery is wrong, and most men and women do not appear to be unfaithful.
Another problem with the data is that it fails to discern when respondents
cheat: in a troubled time in the marriage, or at the end of a failing
“It’s certainly plausible that women might have increased their relative rate of
infidelity over time,” said Edward O. Laumann, professor of sociology at the
University of Chicago. “But it isn’t going to be a huge number. The real thing
to talk about is where are they in terms of their relationship and the marital
The General Social Survey data also show some encouraging trends, said John P.
Robinson, professor of sociology and director of the Americans’ Use of Time
project at the University of Maryland. One notable shift is that couples appear
to be spending slightly more time together. And married men and women also
appear to have the most active sex lives, reporting sex with their spouse 58
times a year, a little more than once a week.
“We’ve looked at that as good news,” Dr. Robinson said.
Love, Sex and the Changing Landscape of
After the End of the Affair NYT
21 March 2008
After the End of the
March 21, 2008
The New York Times
By PAMELA DRUCKERMAN
AS Eliot Spitzer and his wife, Silda, rattle around their Fifth Avenue
apartment, it’s a pretty safe guess that their life as a couple is hell.
They may want to get some marital advice from Mr. Spitzer’s replacement as New
York governor, David A. Paterson, who said Tuesday that his own extramarital
affairs ended several years ago and that his marriage was back on track. But the
Spitzers are less than two weeks past D-Day. In the parlance of American couples
recovering from adultery, “D-Day” is the day you discover your spouse has been
cheating on you. And as with the birth of Jesus, time is reset from there.
The reason why everything from the puffiness of Mrs. Spitzer’s eyes to the
number of inches between her and her husband at press conferences have been
scrutinized is that we treat D-Days like natural disasters. The American
Association for Marriage and Family Therapy has warned, “The reactions of the
betrayed spouse resemble the post-traumatic stress symptoms of the victims of
No comparison seems big enough. “9/11 always reminds me of how it felt — one
floor collapsing into another,” said a woman in her 40s who lives near Seattle.
Another woman, writing in an Internet chat room, compared her husband’s affair
to the Asian tsunami of 2004, which killed a quarter of a million people. The
jargon of people recovering from adultery sounds like wartime code: X.O.W. is
the “ex-other woman,” O.N.S. is a “one-night stand,” and N.P.D. is the often
diagnosed “narcissistic personality disorder.” A “cake man” is a husband who
wants to have his wife and his mistress, too.
Married people the world over are devastated to discover that their partners
have been, as the Dutch say, pinching the cat in the dark. French wives were
shocked when I suggested that it was their custom to look the other way. (Even
French first ladies don’t do this anymore.) Wives from sub-Saharan Africa, a
part of the world with the highest levels of male infidelity, told me how they
went running down the street after their husbands, begging them to sleep at
But American D-Days are even worse because we have such improbably high
standards for marriage. If your spouse cheats, you’ve been living a lie.
Americans describing their D-Day experiences say that they weren’t just shocked,
jealous and profoundly upset, but that their whole view of the world had
collapsed. “It robs you of your past,” one husband said. “What is real? What is
We Americans are particularly preoccupied with honesty. We’re the only country
that peddles the idea that “It’s not the sex, it’s the lying.” (In France, it’s
not the lying, it’s the sex.) America is also the only place I found that has a
one-strike rule on fidelity: if someone cheats, the marriage is kaput.
We might not strictly hold ourselves to this script, but we expect our
politicians to follow it. That’s why people doubted that Bill and Hillary
Clinton could have a “real” marriage if she stayed with him after the Lewinsky
affair. It’s why a reporter felt free to shout, “Silda, are you leaving him?” at
the Spitzers last week. And it’s why David Paterson took pains to say that he
and his wife were still very much in love and that he’s now faithful, despite
the fact that he had had “a number of women” (and his wife had cheated, too).
Political spouses have some of the worst D-Days, because they have them in
public. Dina Matos McGreevey, the estranged wife of New Jersey’s former
governor, says she found out her husband was gay just hours before he told the
world. Mrs. Spitzer discovered her husband’s apparent penchant for call girls
only the night before he announced his “private matter” to the press.
Mr. Paterson said he and his wife had gone into counseling, another stalwart of
America’s adultery culture. Our marriage-industrial complex offers tens of
thousands of couples therapists, as well as support groups for wounded spouses
and sexual addicts, “accountability partners” for straying church members, and
countless seminars and healing weekends, many led by “reformed” cheaters and
Because lying is the problem, truth-telling has become our national cure. On the
frenetically active SurvivingInfidelity.com, “Erica” says she spent 20 months
interrogating her husband about his affair, and then “with the aid of my master
calendar and 1000+ emails, the photo albums, Visa receipts and his old expense
reports, he and I set out to put all of those two and a half years of infidelity
on a timeline.”
Not surprisingly, all this makes recovery a long and often unhealthy process. A
woman in Tennessee told me that she had gained 60 pounds since her husband found
out she had been sleeping with a co-worker, in part because the couple now
spends most of their free time on the couch rehashing the affair. “Neither of us
cries as much as we used to, because of the antidepressants,” her husband said.
The fact is that many couples, like this one, end up staying together. The
Patersons did. The Spitzers might, too, if we give them a chance. Whatever Eliot
Spitzer’s and David Paterson’s sins, just surviving infidelity in America may be
Pamela Druckerman is the author of
“Lust in Translation: Infidelity From
Tokyo to Tennessee.”
After the End of the
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