Is Your Partner Cheating On You? Blame the Economy!

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Researchers at the University of Kansas just found one more piece of bad news about this so-called recovery: A crummy economy could prompt men, even those in monogamous relationships, to seek out more sex partners. In a study that will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology next month, social psychology professor Omri Gillath studied the responses of men who had been instructed to think about their death and were then shown sexually suggestive imagery. The subjects experienced a stronger physical response to the images, measured by an increase in heart rate, than a control group.

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Gillath’s theory is that thinking of what the study terms “low survivability conditions” prompts an unconscious drive to reproduce among men. While things like joblessness or poverty might not seem dangerous, Gillath says money troubles are perceived as a threat because their effects can, in the most extreme cases, lead people to go without food or shelter. An article in ScienceDaily says:

“We’re biologically wired to reproduce, and the environment tells us the best strategy to use to make sure our genes are passed on,” said Gillath. “If you think you might die soon, there’s a huge advantage for a man to use short-term mating strategies — to make sure there are a bunch of offspring and hope that some of them survive.”

Although the situations that imperil us today, including economic ones like money worries and job loss, don’t place us in immediate physical danger, our bodies don’t make a distinction between them. Biologically, we’re still back in the days when a threat meant being chased by a predator. Think of the way your heart races if your boss calls you into the office for a performance review. You’re obviously not in danger of death or injury, but your body doesn’t know that.

According to Gillath, men are motivated to seek more sexual partners in a threatening economic environment as a result. Gillath also says his findings hold true for men, but not women. ScienceDaily quotes him as saying:

“In low survivability conditions, we think that men would be more apt to pursue sex outside of a monogamous relationship, looking for ways to spread their genes. … The economy today is giving us signs that we have lower chances of survival. … It’s like living on the savannah and discovering you don’t have enough fruit and the animals are scarce.”

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This isn’t the only recent study blaming the economy for seemingly unrelated societal ills. In addition to male promiscuity, a new study out of the University of Miami says poor economic conditions, as measured by unemployment levels, can lead to an increased rate of alcohol abuse and risky related behaviors like drunk driving. The findings contradict earlier studies that concluded people drink less during economic downturns because they have less disposable income to spend on booze.

The discrepancy highlights the complexity of trying to tie human behaviors to macroeconomic conditions. Both studies do show how a recessionary economy can touch on many, seemingly unrelated, aspects of our lives.