Imagine that you’ve agreed to participate in a scientific study on relationships.
You’re sitting in the lab room, waiting for the experiment to begin, and you can’t help but notice that the participant sitting next to you is super cute.
The experimenter is going through everyone’s paperwork and realises that she’s missing the cutie’s relationship status. “I’m single,” the cutie tells the experimenter.
Score! OK, not really, because you’re in a relationship.
But now the cutie is talking to you, locking eyes with you, telling you about some other crazy experiment they participated in. At one point they gently touch your arm.
When it comes time to complete the survey, you’re asked all sorts of questions about how you’d feel if your significant other (the person you’re dating in your real life, outside of the study) was 20 minutes late or if they told other people about something humiliating you’d done.
How do you answer?
That was the question researchers set out to investigate in 2008. They wanted to know if heterosexual men in a room with an attractive, flirty woman would answer the questions differently than heterosexual women in a room with an attractive, flirty man.
That’s right — the cutie sitting next to imaginary you was none other than … an experimental confederate! Foiled again!
And as it turns out, men and women did answer the questions differently after interacting with that confederate. Specifically, after flirting with their neighbour, men were less tolerant of their partner’s hypothetical transgressions while women were more tolerant.
A follow-up experiment suggests that’s because women perceived the attractive person as more of a threat to their relationship than men did.
But research published in 2010 adds some nuance to these findings.
For that study, researchers had heterosexual participants play a computer game in which they had to “shoot” certain people. Sometimes the person was an attractive member of the opposite sex; sometimes the person was an average-looking member of the opposite sex.
Results showed that both men and women in relationships were more likely to accidentally “shoot” the attractive person — but this effect was stronger for men in relationships. The researchers theorise that this is because men found the attractive women threatening.
These results might seem to conflict with the earlier findings. Yet the researchers behind the 2010 study write that it’s possible heterosexual men
are highly threatened by attractive women, but that their way of protecting themselves doesn’t necessarily translate into strengthening their existing relationship.
Interestingly, the 2008 study also found that men could be taught to use “if-then” strategies to defend their relationship from tempting alternatives. In other words: “When an attractive woman approaches me, I will do [whatever] to protect my relationship.” In fact, after developing their if-then strategy, men were just as likely as women to protect their partnership, as measured through a virtual-reality game.
Obviously, if every time an attractive person glances your way, you feel animosity toward your partner and are tempted to jump ship, you might be in the wrong relationship. Just saying.
But what if you’re satisfied in your relationship and you simply feel flattered and a bit intrigued when someone super-cute deigns to flirt with you? Perhaps — no matter your gender — the best weapon against temptation is one prepared in advance, like an “if-then” strategy.
It’s hardly romantic to think about using a psychological tactic to prevent yourself from flirting, or worse, with someone other than your partner. But there’s no shame in accepting a little help from science to keep from losing the good thing you’ve got going.
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