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Unfaithful partner? Would you rather be seen as mature– or as competent and strong?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

forgiving infidelityAccording to new research, you can’t have both. Inspired by women who told them they “would not vote for Hillary Clinton [in the Presidential primaries a decade later] because she forgave then-President Bill Clinton’s infidelity”, these researchers looked at how male and female observers viewed male and female victims of infidelity based on how they responded to their partner’s behavior.

The researchers did three separate experiments:

The first experiment used 100 male fraternity members (aged 18 to 24 years) who read a story about (ostensibly) a member of their own fraternity whose significant other had posted photos of her infidelity on Facebook. (This is tempting to visualize–what sort of photos do you imagine were purportedly on Facebook?) When confronted, the woman apologized and in response, the fraternity brother either forgave her, broke up with her, or slashed his (ex-)girlfriend’s vehicle tires.

In the second experiment, 114 “female voters” (aged 20 to 79 years) read the story of a woman who was presented as a political candidate. Her spouse of 25 years had an affair with his secretary and when confronted, he apologized. The “female voters” in this study read that the woman either forgave him, divorced him, or slashed his car seats.

In the third experiment, (dare we anticipate the use of a knife again?), 94 male and 131 female undergraduate students (ranging in age from 17 to 55 years of age) participated. Half of them read the story (ostensibly published in their college newspaper) of “Natalie Lewis, a student at a “sister” campus who learned that her male partner, a student body president at another campus and chair of the statewide student senate, was unfaithful”. The other half read a similar scenario but in this case it was a male student leader (“Brandon Thomas”) who learned his female partner had been unfaithful. When confronted, as in the other two experiments, the unfaithful partner apologized. In response to the infidelity, the victim either forgave the partner, broke up with the partner, or (wait for it) posted embarrassing details about the partner’s sexual inadequacy on Facebook. (Well, at least the aggression avoided knife-play!)

We think maybe these researchers have some anger issues (and what is it with all these knives and public shaming?), but here is what they found:

The young fraternity brothers in Experiment 1 rated the “brother” who forgave as about the same level of maturity but as less competent than the brother who left the relationship. However, they did see the forgiving brother as violating shared values as to how one should respond to a publicly revealed infidelity. They rated the brother who forgave as more competent and less damaging to their group reputation in comparison to the brother who slashed her tires. (This is reassuring.)

The “female voters” in experiment two rated the forgiving politician as less competent, slightly weaker, and less worthy of support in comparison with the politician who divorced her philandering spouse. The female voters thought the forgiving politician damaged the group’s (presumably all of womankind) power and status and violated their shared values. They did see the car seat slashing politician more negatively than the forgiving politician (which again, is reassuring).

Finally, in the third study which included male and female undergraduates and featured male and female student leaders with unfaithful partners–observers rated the leader who forgave his or her partner as just as mature as the leader who broke up with the partner and as more mature than the one posting scandalous information on Facebook. However, the one who forgave was seen as weaker, less competent and less worth voting for than the student leader who left the relationship. The one who forgave was seen as violating shared group values and damaging the group’s power and status more so than the one who left. Overall, they preferred the leaver to the forgiver, but in one final gesture of reassurance, these undergraduates preferred forgiveness to retaliation.

In other words, even though participants across all three studies agreed that forgiveness can be mature–it also can make the forgiver appear weak and incompetent. In every experiment, the participants preferred the partner who left the relationship (despite the researcher’s insistence on incorporating slashing knives and public shaming into the scenarios) to the one who forgave–although they preferred the one who forgave to the one who retaliated.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, you need to think carefully about how to repair perceptions of competence and strength if your client has chosen to remain in a relationship after a public infidelity. Obviously, this is more often in the news with male politicians publicly apologizing to their constituents and to their spouses who stand (publicly shamed and likely humiliated) behind them. But, regardless of whether your client is male or female–choosing to stay has consequences. Mature but incompetent and weak political candidates are less electable. We’d guess Hillary’s consultants are on this one, and, if not, she can call us.

It would be interesting to see whether there are correlates of these findings for other forms of trust betrayal. What happens if a company finds an employee has used company assets improperly for personal reasons? Or violated confidentiality? Or violated behavioral guidelines (drinking or drugs on the job, or making sexist jokes, or aggressive behavior). Certainly the current controversy about the degree to which domestic violence should result in workplace ramifications is the biggest headline in professional football right now. Is this going to be treated as an anger management problem that calls for treatment, or misogyny and thuggery that is intolerable? This is an intriguing first phase of a research design with huge social ramifications.

J. Smith, H., Goode, C., Balzarini, R., Ryan, D., & Georges, M. (2014). The cost of forgiveness: Observers prefer victims who leave unfaithful romantic partners European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2054

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