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

Extraversion -.11
Negative emotionality .01
Conscientiousness -.44
Agreeableness -.03
Openness to experience .43
Age .00
Social class .00
Religiosity -.14
BMI .01

(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.

Evolutionary angle

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?

Related: The one personality trait that makes your girlfriend want to cheat


Bouchard, T. J., & McGue, M. (2003). Genetic and environmental influences on human psychological differences.Journal of Neurobiology54(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.

  1. David Csonka 13 years ago

    Do you think the notable correlation between religiousity and protection from infidelity in both males and females provides a compelling argument for why religiousity has become so widespread in humans?

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      The monogamy-religiosity connection does benefit certain types of individuals more than others. Because of those interests, it's certainly a factor, but I don't think it's a sufficient explanation on the larger scale of human religiosity. In essence, this line of argument becomes a political one. I think the psychological arguments for religion are ultimately stronger.

  2. Victoria 13 years ago

    I don't know, I'm not sold on this one either… If the study truly looked at couples and asked individuals if their spouse had ever cheated on them and then looked at the data, what this really shows is that people with the traits your discus are more likely to be with a spouse who has cheated (or not cheated) on them. From the way you present it, there could be no difference in 'likelihood of being cheated on' across all the personality traits, but a big difference in 'likelihood of separation of a couple in the case of infidelity'.

    It seems likely to me that a cheating male spouse might be more willing to admit infidelity to an 'Open' spouse, and that that spouse might be willing to stick with the person that cheated on them. Conversely, a cheating male spouse probably knows better than to admit infidelity to a conscientious spouse (or if they do admit it, does the couple dissolve and then not be eligible for this study. )

    I think the information is interesting, but I think there are some factors that prevent it from being a simple 'If you are X characteristic, you are more likely to be cheated on (or not cheated on)' story.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      I'm not compelled to assume the methodology was as poor as you do. My main reason for this is the complete lack of symmetry in the data for men and women. Since you basically suggest the same explanation for men and women, I'd expect the data to somewhat reflect the similarity. Could gender differences lead to the same causal reason being manifest through different personality traits in men and women? I suppose, but it's not a very satisfying explanation, and even in that case, I wouldn't expect to see the statistically significant traits demonstrate such disparity.

      I also don't think we can assume that the measured cheating occurred with the current partner or in relation to their current relationship status. It appears that the study simply measured personality traits, and looked for correlations in the individuals associated with those traits — irrespective of current relationship status.

      • Victoria 13 years ago

        I just spent entirely too much time looking for the actual question that was asked… and failed. However, what I did see on the MIDUS surveys seemed to imply that the word 'spouse' (actually, spouse/partner is what I saw used) refers to a single person, not a list of current and/or former partners. I'll admit I didn't find a question that involved cheating or infidelity, and I didn't see the actual question used for data collection on the Inductivist blog either. Do you know what the actual wording was? It could make all the difference…

        That being said, I would think that you, of all people, would at least consider that different characteristics were important for mate selection (and retention in the face of infidelity) for men and women. Considering all that we know (or kind of know, as the case may be) about human evolution relating to evo-psyche topics, it seems entirely reasonable to me that each gender type would have personality types more (or less) willing to abide cheating (or are more approachable for their spouse to admit infidelity). I am reminded of a paper that looked at imagined infidelity in couples and then the resultant emotions of insecurity and indignancy, which were different by gender. As in all things, the difference in potential parental investment between genders surely could skew the differences between men and women in this situation.

        • Andrew 13 years ago

          I don’t know what the questions were. Without having access to everything, all of these methodological discussions are bound to be fraught with speculation.

          I agree with your second paragraph, and didn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any gender differences if there’s something to explain. My assessment of your general argument simply makes me expect the data to be more symmetrical. You’re kind of taking the parental investment and sexual selection stuff out of the equation and shifting to a more purely cognitive analysis. I wouldn’t expect a large gender difference in cognitive analysis, whereas I would in actual mating behaviors. Since we do see a large gender difference in the data, your explanation doesn’t strike me as fitting the data.

  3. PK 13 years ago

    Another strategy would simply to be to not practice strict monogamy when involved with men displaying high levels of Openness.

    This is something I wish the study had questioned. Were the women rated high in openness who were cheated on expecting strict monogamy (and what was the mean length of the relationships), or were they in some degree of an open relationship but their partners were still dishonest about outside relationships/sexual activity? I think that could make a big difference in the risk factors if we knew what the woman rated high in openness defined as cheating and their expectations on monogamy.

  4. Bennett 13 years ago

    By the by, would it be overly simplistic to suggest that the personality traits of the cheatee are something of a crapshoot, and the best predictor of being cheated on is to date someone shady?

  5. Geoff 13 years ago

    Hey Andrew,

    I am going to put forth a different theory, at least with respect to the openness to new experiences portion. Openness makes a woman a highly desirable mate because it is at the core of the definition of "femininity." As such, women who are polarized in a highly feminine direction will tend to attract highly "masculine" men. So rather than attracting other men with high "openness" ratings, they are attracting men with high "masculinity" ratings, which is not being quantified on this chart, although I think that agreeableness probably works as a very good inversely correlated metric.

    In any case, masculine men are the ones that have the most options because women are attracted to this trait first and foremost. I am positing that the primary bottleneck in terms of men cheating on women is options, it has very little to do with anything about the woman being cheated on. I put forth all professional athletes, in particular Tiger Woods, as proof of this. I suspect that this is not true for women, as women can pretty much get access to casual sex at will. So, desirable woman attracts desirable man, desirable man is more likely to cheat because he has ass options. Desirable man attracts desirable woman, woman is less likely to cheat because she feels emotionally fulfilled.

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