Before I even begin talking about this study, let me make my stance clear: cheating is not okay. Ever. It’s empirically among the worst things you can do to someone you love—and I write this as someone who has both cheated and been cheated on.
But infidelity happens. A lot. I’m not referring to the gray-area-emotional-cheating we’ve discussed over at the magazine—I mean full out affairs or one-night stands with people who aren’t your significant other. It’s estimated that approximately 30 to 60 percent of all married people in the U.S. will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage (and it’s even higher in Russia).
“What we found was that individuals with a certain variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to have a history of uncommitted sex, including one-night stands and acts of infidelity,” said Justin Garcia, head researcher for the study.
After thoroughly surveying the sex habits of their test subjects—how many partners, criteria for intercourse—researchers collected DNA samples and compared the subjects’ DRD4 profile with their sexual histories. The results? The level of DRD4 and the level of fooling around tended to line up.
But how can genetics affect something that’s clearly a conscious choice? Garcia and his team point to dopamine, the neurotransmitter behind motivation, reward and sexual gratification, among other impulses. Scientists have already identified the chemical as a key player in risky behaviors like gambling and drinking, and Garcia hypothesized that it might play a role in high-wire sex too.
The motivation seems to stem from a system of pleasure and reward, which is where the release of dopamine comes in. In cases of uncommitted sex, the risks are high, the rewards substantial and the motivation variable—all elements that ensure a dopamine rush.
Garcia is quick to warn against labeling DRD4 as the promiscuity gene; it’s too early to tell whether it’s causation or correlation. He also made it clear that the study in no way lets transgressors off the hook:
These relationships are associative, which means not everyone with this genotype will have one-night stands or commit infidelity. [The] genes do not give anyone an excuse, but they do provide a window into how our biology shapes our propensities for a wide variety of behaviors.
For me, the study picks at one of the basic questions of human existence: to what degree do we choose our behavior? (Evolutionary biology has a tendency to bring that up.)
Here on Good Feed, we’ve talked a lot about how our bodies can unconsciously affect our behavior. It’s kind of creepy that pumpkin pie can turn us on (sexually). It’s even creepier to read about how daughters distance themselves from their fathers when they’re most fertile (purportedly to lower the chance of inbreeding). But infidelity brings into play, a whole other complex level of human morality.
Here’s my take on the matter: I don’t care if there is a physiological propensity for cheating. As a species, we have the luxury—and the burden—of conscious choice; whether mother nature or father DNA thinks it might be fun to fool around with the cute girl you met abroad, ultimately a choice is a choice is a choice. And that’s what we’re bound to.
But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think, readers? Is there a situation in which cheating could be forced upon you? (Am I being too black and white?) Discuss!