Does your spouse’s paycheque encourage infidelity?

Sex, lies and cheating. Could merely thinking about money lead to unethical behaviour? The science may surprise you.

In 2015, research at the University of Connecticut found a link between extramarital affairs and income. But it wasn’t the dollar amount that mattered – it was the ratio.

The study of 2,750 married people aged between 18 and 32 found that both men and women were more likely to cheat if they were economically dependent on their spouse.

That’s a little surprising, right? You would expect that as an individual became more dependent on their partner, they would be extra careful to avoid ‘rocking the boat’.

It seems that an imbalance of incomes led to more dissatisfaction in the relationship. The study found that people have a strong preference for relative equality in relationships and don’t want to feel economically dependent.

Women who were the primary breadwinners were less likely to cheat, and as their share of the combined marital income rose, the odds of infidelity declined – women contributing the most financially were least likely to have an affair.

Their partners were less committed. Men that were completely financially dependent on their spouses were the most likely to cheat. Around 1 in 20 women would have an affair in a given year when they were completely economically depended on their husbands, compared to 1 in 7 men who were entirely dependent on their wives.

For men, the researchers put it down to a feeling of threatened masculinity if they were not the primary breadwinners. They would then seek extramarital sex in an effort to reassert their self-worth and virility. Men were least likely to cheat when they accounted for 70% of the couple’s income.

Watch your thoughts

The income effect is one thing, but researchers at Harvard University have found that merely thinking about money also encourages unethical behaviour.

The researchers primed participants with money cues by getting them to make sentences out of word clusters that had a financial focus (e.g. She spends money liberally). The control group received neutral words. Participants were then asked to choose between various ethical and unethical behaviours.

The study found that exposure to money-related words and images leads people to frame situations as ‘business transactions’. The consequence was more 'lying, cheating, and acting in one's self-interest without regard to others'. For example, people exposed to money-related words were twice as likely to lie as the control group.

But the most surprising part? Participants would act unethically whether or not there was a direct financial reward. Just thinking about money was enough.

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