In a previous post, we saw that men demonstrating high levels of Agreeableness are more likely to get cheated on. Today we look at the same Big Five personality traits in women to see if there’s anything useful. Not surprisingly, the traits associated with women being cheated on are completely different than for men. Agreeableness had almost no impact, and the tiny effect didn’t rise to statistical significance. So what are we looking at this time?
Personality traits that predict women will get cheated on (sample size = 850)
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
Negative emotionality .01
Openness to experience .43
Social class .00
(red = Big Five traits; bold = statistically significant)
As with the men, being religious appears to provide some protective effect against being cheated on. And as with the men, this could say as much about the mate doing the cheating as it does about the mate being cheated on. In any case, religiosity isn’t a Big Five trait, so we’ll move along.
The largest personality trait predictor of women being cheated on was Openness…
Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. The trait distinguishes imaginative people from down-to-earth, conventional people. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, appreciative of art, and sensitive to beauty. They tend to be, compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings. They are more likely to hold unconventional beliefs.
People with low scores on openness tend to have more conventional, traditional interests. They prefer the plain, straightforward, and obvious over the complex, ambiguous, and subtle. They may regard the arts and sciences with suspicion or even view these endeavors as uninteresting. (source)
There’s nothing obviously inherent in Openness that screams “please cheat on me”. There’s no immediate reason to believe people who are into diversity, new experiences, and art would rather be cheated on than those at the more conservative end of the spectrum. However, there is a hint of “I’m more likely to cheat” inherent in Openness. This again seems to be a case of dual long-term/short-term mating strategies colliding.
If we make a basic assumption in alignment with assortative mating that women with high Openness prefer men with high Openness, we quickly arrive at a reasonable explanation. Women could be selecting men with high Openness, who in turn are more likely to cheat. Studies have shown that women find men with high levels of creativity more attractive while fertile (Haselton and Miller 2006). This wouldn’t necessarily lead to extra-pair copulations if both partners were practicing short-term strategies. However, if the woman was practicing a long-term strategy by convincing the man to commit long-term, and the man continued to practice short-term strategies, we would see precisely the effect that the Openness-Infidelity data here show.
Unlike the data for men, there was also a second statistically significant Big Five trait associated with being cheated on. In this case, high levels of Conscientiousness appeared to provide a protective effect against being cheated on.
Conscientiousness is a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement against measures or outside expectations. The trait shows a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. It influences the way in which we control, regulate, and direct our impulses. (source)
Going back to the previous idea of short-term/long-term strategies rooted in parental investment theory, the data again fit almost perfectly. High levels of Conscientiousness would tend to lead women to more carefully select for men who are also practicing long-term strategies. In some sense, this may provide a trade-off between “good dads” and “good genes”, but it may also reflect increased discretion leading to higher overall mate value.
Confounds and questions
While BMI wasn’t statistically significant, it would be interesting to know if there was an effect associated with increased differences in BMI. I would hypothesize that while a higher BMI wasn’t significant on average, it would be increased in couples with large differences in BMI. I would expect the effect to be present for both men and women.
Similarly, it would be interesting to see the numbers for those couples with varying “Social class” and/or individual earning power. Based on the 2008 paper by David Buss, I would expect the numbers to change more with the difference in social class than the absolute value.
Knowing the mix of highly Conscientious individuals in the sample would be helpful. There may be some selection bias at play where + Contentiousness individuals are more likely to be in committed relationships. Conversely, ultra-high levels of Conscientiousness may preclude committing to a long-term relationship.
As previously mentioned, most of the effect in these data fit nicely with predictions expected within the frameworks of female mate choice and parental investment theory. It would have been advantageous over evolutionary time for men to engage in extra-pair copulations in order to maximize their reproductive success. Not only might we expect men with higher levels of Openness to engage in extra-pair copulations, we would also expect them to be afforded more opportunities because of increased perceived attractiveness by women (Haselton and Miller 2008).
The data themselves provide no reliable causative link. As such, prescriptive strategies are bound to be tentative.
One possible strategy is already provided by the data. Increased Conscientiousness during mate selection may counteract the effect of increased Openness. Since Conscientiousness is nearly 50% heritable (Bouchard and McGue 2oo3), it’s likely that this strategy would have to be intentionally stressed. Perhaps we can call it the Conscious Cognitive Conscientiousness strategy.
Another strategy would simply to be to not practice strict monogamy when involved with men displaying high levels of Openness. In other words, recognize that men practicing short-term mating strategies are not practicing long-term mating strategies. While trite and obvious when framed thusly, failing to recognize that humans aren’t always practicing long-term mating strategies is a short path to infidelity.
What other strategies can you come up with to counteract the Openness effect?
Bouchard, T. J., & McGue, M. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences.Journal of Neurobiology, 54(1), 4-45. [full-text pdf]
Buss, David. (2008). Attractive Women Want it All : Good Genes , Economic Investment , Parenting. Evolutionary Psychology, 6(1), 134-146.
Haselton, M., & Miller, G. F. (2006). Women’s fertility across the cycle increases the short-term attractiveness of creative intelligence compared to wealth. Human Nature, 17, 50-73.