Is Cheating In Our Nature? This Psychologist Says Absolutely
Sleeping around when you’re in a relationship generally gets a bad rap in our society. The inability to stick with one partner is seen as the preserve of soap opera villains, bored footballers and mid-life crisis family men. But a book, Out of Eden by a psychology professer at the University of Washington in Seattle, has been gaining attention for apparently suggesting that our natural state may be something more like “it’s complicated”. We spoke to the author, Professor David P. Barash to ask him about his work, what it means for those of us with a wandering eye, and how your great-great-grandmother was different from a chimp.
The headline reports on your book, essentially say “cheating is natural for humans”. Is this a reasonable summary?
It is inaccurate and an oversimplification. My point is that human beings are polygamous, which is to say, both polygynous (one man inclined to have a harem of multiple women) and polyandrous (one woman, many men). Our biology reflects both patterns.
Polygyny [is evident biologically because] men are larger than women, and more violence-prone, both traits found in classic harem [or group]-forming species. Men also become sexually and socially mature later than women, something readily apparent among, say 13-18 year olds. This, too, is characteristic of polygynous species, in which males are better off delaying entry into the sexually competitive fray until they’re larger and stronger.
Even though women bear a greater physiological burden when it comes to reproducing – its a whole lot less demanding to generate a few ccs of semen than to become pregnant and then lactate – women don’t have to undergo the social and sexual competition that is true of men, and which, in turn, is generated by harem-formation, since polygyny means that male-male competition is intense because a small number of males get to monopolise the females.
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And was this more common in the past?
Before the homogenisation of marriage cultures produced by Western colonialism, more than 80% of human societies were polygynous. A Martian zoologist, visiting Earth, would have no doubt that people aren’t “naturally” monogamous.
The situation for women – polyandry – is more subtle and less immediately obvious, but evidence includes the fact that we hide our ovulation, unlike chimps, for example, which develop a conspicuous pink cauliflower on their butts. Why the secrecy? Probably because concealed ovulation permitted our great, great grandmothers to have sex with men other than their designated partner when they were most fertile; If they advertised their fertility during a limited time each month, they’d be guarded during that time, as happens in most other mammals.
What first drew you to looking at this area of human behaviour?
I spent many years studying animals, and was part of the revolution beginning in the 1990s, when we started doing DNA fingerprinting on animals and found that the social partner of females – even in supposedly monogamous species such as many birds – wasn’t the genetic father. So, social monogamy didn’t necessarily equal sexual monogamy. My favourite example of guaranteed monogamy in animals is a species of parasitic flatworm in which male and female meet as adolescents, after which their bodies literally fuse together and they remain sexually faithful, until death do they not part. Most other species are more sexually adventurous… so I couldn’t help wondering about people!
If we take emotion and sentimentality out of it, is there a necessary role for monogamy in modern society? And was there ever?
In brief, monogamy isn’t “natural” for our species. But it nonetheless has much to recommend it, including providing men with confidence as to their paternity, which is useful since men couldn’t otherwise know that they were in fact the fathers. And this, in turn, is useful for our species since babies are so helpless at birth and benefit from biparental care.
Also, monogamy is a great democratising institution. Although some men think they’d have done well in a polygynous world, the truth is otherwise: if a small number of men have harems and if – as it true of our species – there are equal numbers of men and women, then polygyny means that there are many excluded, sexually frustrated bachelors.
A very real possibility is that monogamy developed as a kind of trade-off in which powerful men gave up at least some of their sexual perks in return for a degree of social peace, essentially buying off men by increasing the likelihood that they, too, would get a wife.
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Do you think there’s much fundamental difference between the way that men and women view relationships? And are the findings the same for homosexuals as heterosexuals?
There are some differences: men are more susceptible to visual stimuli, less sexually discriminating, more inclined to short-term relationships; women are more interested in a potential partner’s personality and behavioural inclinations rather than simply his physical traits. But these differences aren’t all that rigid or predictable. Clearly, social expectations are important, too, but the basic male-female differences (especially with men being more interested in multiple sexual partners) is a cross-cultural universal. To some extent, these differences are true of homosexuals as well: gay men are more prone to having many partners, and lesbian women, to a smaller number of deeper relationships. That is, gay men and women differ from straights in their gender choice of partners, but they still exhibit the traits of men and women, respectively… which in turn derives from the difference between being a sperm-maker and an egg-maker.
People spend a huge part of their lives worrying about relationships, recovering from betrayal etc. Do you think we’d be generally happier as a society if everyone just followed their urges?
What is natural isn’t necessarily good: think about tsunamis, Ebola, cholera, etc. And what’s unnatural isn’t necessarily bad: think about learning to play the violin, or acquiring a second language. It’s easy to do what’s “natural,” but a case can be made that we are most human when we act contrary to our “instincts.”
I’m not necessarily recommending that people oppose their sexual instincts, or that they succumb to them, but that they at least understand what’s motivating them, often unconsciously. Whether or not one chooses to be monogamous, it’s important to understand the polygynous and polyandrous urges that are normal to human beings, so as not to be blind-sided by one’s own inclinations and/or that of one’s partner.
Many men, for example, when they find themselves sexually attracted to someone other than their lover or spouse, conclude that there’s something wrong with themselves, or that they don’t really love their partner, or that they’re “just not cut out for monogamy.” The reality, however, is that no one is cut out for monogamy – being tempted or turned on simply shows that you’re a healthy mammal. Congratulations! And ditto for your partner. The next question is what are you going to do about it? I’m not an ayatollah, prescribing what people should do. I’m certain, however, that people should follow the old Socratic injunction: Know thyself.
Buy Out of Eden here and learn more about Professor David P. Barash on his website www.dpbarash.com.