Rise of the cybercheat
According to a recent, large-scale, worldwide study, 60 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women have attempted to pursue and steal another person’s partner. Of those who have been pursued, 60 per cent of men, and 50 per cent of women have succumbed to the advances of their pursuers (Schmitt and the International Sexuality Description Project, 2004).
That’s largely in a face-to-face context. Recent years have seen the development and increasing use of online communication for the purpose of relationship formation. Has this made relationship infidelity more likely, in a potentially low-risk and fast-track online environment?
What is online infidelity?
Some online extra-relationship liaisons do develop into face-to-face encounters, but online infidelity – sometimes referred to as a cyberaffair – is defined by Kimberley Young as an encounter initiated through online contact, and then sustained by online communication, such as e-mail or instant messenger (Young, 1999). Such a liaison, however brief, may involve anything from discussing personal information with an online partner, to cybersex.
It would seem that our judgements of unfaithful online behaviour may be determined in many ways by the intimacy of a liaison. For example, survey data reveals that sharing emotional and intimate information with another person online elicits higher ratings for judgements of infidelity than viewing pornographic material online (Whitty, 2003). If exchanging personal information with a close friend online can be considered to be unfaithful behaviour, we need to further unravel the significant components of such an exchange.
So what are the salient features of online infidelity?
Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor explain self-disclosure in interpersonal interactions, using the ‘social penetration model’ (Altman & Taylor, 1973). This suggests that when interacting with someone for the first time, we engage in an exchange of only very superficial information in a relatively limited number of topics. Gradually, as a relationship progresses, the number of superficial topics discussed increases and there is also progression to disclosure of more personal and then intimate information.
In many ways, high self-disclosure is almost a necessary prerequisite to effective online interaction. It seems unlikely that anybody engaging in an online liaison would talk for long about the weather, and an internet survey of 75 respondents by Heather Underwood and Bruce Findlay (2004) supports this view. Many respondents reported sharing secrets, discussing personal problems and sexual preferences with their online partners, and doing this within days of commencing an online liaison. Interestingly, women tended to be slower disclosers than men (Underwood & Findlay, 2004).
Further evidence supporting the capacity for people to disclose during online interactions comes from Joseph Walther’s (1996) notion of hyperpersonal interaction in computer-mediated communication. Walther (1995) describes how interactions carried out via computer were judged as more positive than face-to-face interaction on several dimensions of intimacy and interpersonal interaction. He suggests a possible explanation for this is the tendency for receivers of computer messages to idealise their communication partners, and similarly for senders of messages to make major efforts for the recipients of their messages to like them.
Time of day of interaction
One of the changes in behaviour associated with an internet affair concerns the hours people keep. As the most popular time for chatroom interaction is late at night, individuals engaging in online liaisons begin to go to bed later than usual, or get up earlier in the morning (Young et al., 2000).
This might have an impact on the partner’s perceptions of infidelity, in that individuals engaging in online liaisons when their primary partner is absent may be perceived as being more clandestine in their behaviour. Furthermore the night is generally perceived to be a time for greater intimacy between partners than the middle of the day.
In our study (Graff & Elliott, 2006), we asked participants to rate several fictitious scenarios of online interactions, in terms of whether they considered the interaction to be an act of infidelity. Each scenario concerned a liaison between a male and a female who were described as already being in a face-to-face relationship. The scenarios varied in terms of amount of disclosure between the couple, the time
of day it took place, and the type of online interaction the couple used. We found that the two factors which were judged to be most important in respondents’ judgements of online infidelity were high levels of self-disclosure and interactions which took place late at night. These findings are consistent with those outlined above, contributing to our understanding of peoples’ perceptions of what constitutes unfaithful online behaviour.
The emotional consequences of online infidelity
Initially it may seem that an online liaison with someone other than a regular partner would cause little upset in a relationship, because no physical contact is involved. Indeed Underwood and Findlay (2004) report that only 17 of the 73 respondents in their study said that their online relationship had affected their primary relationship. These 17 respondents reported that their offline partner had said they had changed, or that the sexual nature of their offline relationship had changed. Yet the fact that online infidelity in this case appeared to affect less than 25 per cent of respondents would seem to indicate that the emotional consequences of online infidelity are perhaps not severe.
However, Whitty (2005) carried out a rather more revealing examination of this issue, which involved collecting responses to a hypothetical scenario involving a person engaging in an extra relationship encounter on the internet. She found that 51 per cent of respondents said that this person believed they were being unfaithful to their primary partner, whereas 84 per cent reported that the partner would say they had been betrayed. More interestingly, when asked to write about the consequences of the online scenario, many respondents wrote that the relationship would end as a result. Those who did not judge the online encounter to be a real affair said that if it was not a face-to-face encounter, then it couldn’t be betrayal, or that this kind of interaction was merely flirtatious fun.
Are there gender differences in these emotions?
The evolutionary perspective on gender differences in jealousy as outlined by David Buss suggests that males are more jealous of sexual infidelity than emotional infidelity, whereas for females, the opposite is the case. The rationale behind this reasoning is the potential threat that each type of infidelity may pose to our adaptive success. A man, the theory goes, will become jealous of his partner having sexual contact with another male, because there is a risk here that he may inadvertently end up investing resources in another man’s children. A woman will become jealous of her partner developing an emotional attachment to another female, as this may ultimately mean him diverting his resources to the other female, thus threatening the extent to which he will provide for her own offspring (Buss, 2000).However Christine Harris (2004), of the University of California San Diego, provides several challenges to the evolutionary position on gender differences in jealousy. One of her arguments is that the evolutionary perspective is based on evidence from studies involving hypothetical scenarios, whereas no gender differences in jealousy are apparent in real-life situations.
As online infidelity is primarily emotional, the evolutionary perspective on relationship jealousy may prompt us to tentatively suggest online liaisons would provoke a stronger jealousy response in females. Such a prediction, however, remains to be tested.
Does previous experience of infidelity make a difference?
In another study (Graff & Elliott, 2006) we measured previous experience of infidelity in the form of a simple yes/no answer to the following two questions: ‘Have you ever been unfaithful to anyone in a relationship?’ and ‘To your knowledge, has anyone ever been unfaithful to you?’
Respondents who answered ‘no’ to both gave higher judgements of infidelity to a fictitious online interaction, than those who responded ‘yes’ to each question. This finding supports the notion that previous experience of infidelity offline has an effect on our perceptions of infidelity online, possibly providing a desensitising effect.
A virtual reality
There is now a huge interest in this area of research, with dedicated books beginning to appear (e.g. Whitty & Carr, 2006). Nevertheless, we still have much to learn about people’s feelings and attitudes towards online infidelity. What does seem certain is that regardless of its non-physical nature, online infidelity is a very real phenomenon.
- Martin Graff is a Reader in Psychology at the University of Glamorgan. E-mail: [email protected].
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