I always perk up at data drawing correlations to the Big Five personality traits. If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs style tests, you’ll have some idea of what this test evaluates. Unlike the binary nature of Myers-Briggs types (e.g., INTP, ENFJ), Big Five assesses individuals on a 0-100 scale on each trait. This lends a great deal more fidelity in its use. Not only that, but the 5 personality traits have a heritability between .42 and .57 (read: all have relatively high heritability) (Bouchard and McGue 2003). They’re also relatively stable across one’s life. As such, the Big Five have some relevance in examining individual human nature. So… I couldn’t resist when some Big Five data was smooshed together with some infidelity data.
Personality traits that predict a man will get cheated on (sample size = 717)
The MIDUS Study asked respondents if their spouse had ever been unfaithful. The Inductivist blog sorted out the personality characteristics that were associated with being cheated on. Without access to the data and/or more information about these calculations, I can’t really vouch for the data’s reliability, but here are their results…
Logistic regression coefficients
- Extraversion .12
- Negative emotionality -.02
- Conscientiousness -.15
- Agreeableness .40
- Openness to experience .01
- Age -.03
- Social class .00
- Religiosity -.27
- BMI .00
(red = Big Five traits; bold = statistically significant)
There appear to be small effects involved with all of the Big Five traits. However, only Agreeableness rose to the level of statistical significance. Increased Agreeableness correlated with an increased incidence of being cheated on. So… what’s agreeableness?
Agreeableness is a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. The trait reflects individual differences in general concern for social harmony. Agreeable individuals value getting along with others. They are generally considerate, friendly, generous, helpful, and willing to compromise their interests with others. Agreeable people also have an optimistic view of human nature. They believe people are basically honest, decent, and trustworthy.
Disagreeable individuals place self-interest above getting along with others. They are generally unconcerned with others’ well-being, and are less likely to extend themselves for other people. Sometimes their skepticism about others’ motives causes them to be suspicious, unfriendly, and uncooperative. –Wikipedia
Age and religiosity were negatively correlated with being cheated on.
Confounds and questions
This data could have just as many implications for the type of woman attracted to men with certain personalities as the implications for the men themselves. Are women who are more likely to cheat simply more likely to enter into relationships with agreeable men because they think agreeable men will be more likely to forgive them? Are women actually less attracted to more agreeable men? While not a direct measure of agreeableness, there is evidence that women aren’t particularly attracted to altruistic men (Phillips, et al. 2008).
The study surveyed men and women age 25-74. The age effect was only slight, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something else going on here. The distribution of ages and ages at which infidelity occurred could seriously impact this number. The latter point could be particularly salient. For example, 74 year old individuals have had more time-opportunity to cheat and/or be cheated on. It’s not clear to what extent these variables (and others) were controlled for.
According to parental investment theory, it would certainly be advantageous for women to practice (as always, not necessarily consciously) dual long/short-term mating strategies. If a woman is engaged in dual simultaneous strategies, establishing a long-term relationship with an agreeable mate whilst seeking genes from other men for reproduction would be statistically advantageous. This would likely be more pronounced during a woman’s peak fertility and for guys who aren’t as physically attractive relatively. Such a behavioral strategy could have evolved in women over evolutionary time. I haven’t seen any research on this question specifically related to Agreeableness.
Since the causal links for infidelity can’t really be drawn from these numbers, any prescriptive suggestions are bound to be speculative. Indeed, being religious probably offers a protective effect by a selection bias of the women doing the cheating (or not). Religious individuals who believe they’re being watched by celestial dictators also tend to avoid violating social norms for fear of punishment in the afterlife. It’s almost hard to imagine that men’s religiosity was specifically on the mind of women when making decisions to cheat or not. It’s feasible that fear of divinely sanctioned patriarchal punishment provides some disincentive.
Agreeableness for the sake of agreeableness appears to be a bad idea. Whether high levels of agreeableness tend to be unattractive, or women are selecting long-term mates based upon a forgiveness quotient in agreeable men is irrelevant early in a relationship. Signalling high levels of Agreeableness is probably a bad idea in most instances, especially if you’re in the early stages of developing for a long-term relationship. If you’re in a relationship that started off on an a foundation of agreeableness, you might try toning it down. In either case, there’s unlikely to be a significant negative effect of having your own opinion! If there is, you’re probably dating a psycho anyway.
Of course, being perfect helps. Barring that, the best way to limit the negative side of unattractive behavior is to get physically attractive.
Follow-Up: What personality traits were associated with women being cheated on? (Subcribe via RSS)
Bouchard, T. J., & McGue, M. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences. Journal of Neurobiology, 54(1), 4-45. [full-text pdf]
Phillips, T., Barnard, C., Ferguson, E., & Reader, T. (2008). Do humans prefer altruistic mates? Testing a link between sexual selection and altruism towards non-relatives. British Journal of Psychology, 99(Pt 4), 555-72. [full-text pdf]