The Science Of Cheating: Why Ashley Madison Had So Many Customers

There are a heap of scientific reasons why so many humans are disgusting, heartbreaking, cheating scumbags

Aug 19, 2015 at 5:44 PM ET

The Ashley Madison hack has revealed the millions of cheating spouses who engage in online trysts, which prompts the question—why do we cheat?

Science has a slew of answers. Husbands are more likely to cheat if they have deep, booming voices. Wives are more likely to fool around if they fake orgasms or have husbands with large penises (you can’t make this stuff up). And, of course, there’s an infidelity gene (because there’s always a gene).

Between 20 and 40 percent of heterosexual Americans cheat on their spouses at least once. Men cheat more often than women, and 60 percent of Americans admit to “mate poaching” or trying to seduce someone else who is already in a committed relationship (known to the rest of us as “home-wrecking”). Infidelity statistics actually haven’t changed much in the past century. Even in the 1920s, long before Ashley Madison made cheating convenient, 25 to 30 percent of the population found a way to engage in extramarital affairs.

Meanwhile, scientists have been trying to figure out why. One of the most thorough takes on the science behind our urge to cheat is a 57-page literature review by anthropologist Helen Fisher, which dives into the biological and sociological reasons for having an affair.

It’s A Balance Thing

Imbalance of power within the relationship is often to blame, Fisher writes. One 1976 study found that wives who typically win arguments with their husbands are more likely to cheat. Other studies have shown that men are more likely to cheat if they believe their wives are less desirable than they are. These all play into the notion that cheating is more likely to happen when a husband and wife do not see themselves as equal partners in the relationship.

Income, education and religion may also influence whether or not we cheat. One 2001 study found that higher-income families cheat more often, and surmised that poor families tend to understand the emotional (and financial) value of sticking together. When it comes to education, however, the data is less clear. Some studies suggest highly educated women are more likely to cheat on less educated men, but subsequent research has called those findings into question. As for religion, it appears that people who attend religious services are less likely to be unfaithful—but that trend only holds for African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Caucasians, it seems, are less inspired by religion, and cheat even after attending services.

How Do Cheaters Sleep At Night?

With other people, clearly, but how do they live with themselves? Science has an answer for that, too.

Studies have shown that cheaters are able to clear their consciences by convincing themselves that their minor (or major) indiscretions are not representative of who they truly are. For a paper published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, participants were asked to recall how they may have harmlessly flirted with other people while in a committed relationship. Then, scientists lied to several participants and told them that those minor flirtations were especially unethical when compared with the rest of the group. Those participants first told researchers that they felt bad, but later began to downplay their unfaithful behavior and stress that it did not represent them.

Because whether you cheat because you’re rich, highly educated, have a deep voice or fake orgasms, one thing seems abundantly clear—it’s never your fault, and there’s a perfectly good explanation. Just ask the millions of Ashley Madison users now scrambling for advice on how to face their spouses.