Have you ever heard of Ashley Madison, the website that advertises itself as a discreet dating service for married people? For better or worse, back in 2015, a hacker made sure that many of us became familiar with it after he publicized the names and private information of 1 million paid U.S. users. I’m sure there were quite a few outraged spouses among them.
What was a philanderer’s nightmare turned into a researcher’s dream. They now had access to a ton of information about the lives of unfaithful cops, doctors, financial advisors, and a host of other professionals. And one of the questions they pondered was how much behavior in one arena of your life might spill over into another. Specifically, if you cheat on your spouse, will you also cheat at work?
Here’s what they did. These researchers took 11,235 Ashley Madison subscribers and matched them with misconduct-free individuals of similar ages, genders, and life experiences. They also controlled for a lot of business and cultural variables. What they found was that people with histories of misconduct were significantly more likely to use the Ashley Madison website.
Their findings suggest a strong connection between people’s actions in their personal and professional lives and that perhaps there are certain personality factors that form a general propensity to cheat. A second study also concluded that our own propensity to cheat may be more likely than situational factors to determine whether or not we break the rules.
The Cheater’s Personality
This is not to say that everyone who succumbs to temptation on one occasion has no moral compass. There are situational variables that contribute to infidelity. But there is research to suggest that people who are repeatedly unfaithful to a spouse are also likely to engage in misconduct in the workplace, whether it’s sexual harassment, bullying or fraud. And it may be the same personality traits that leads them to make similar choices across situations:
Narcissistic⏤Someone with a high degree of narcissism is self-centered, has a strong need for flattery and attention, and a limited ability to consider the needs and feelings of others. This trio of traits does not lead to a lot of introspection or insight; when tempted, these folks are much more likely to rationalize their behavior (my partner doesn’t meet my sexual needs) and blame their partner (I’d be faithful if s/he appreciated me). S/he adopts the same strategy in business, putting his or her own needs above all else and doing whatever it takes to gain status, control or power.
Thrill-Seeking⏤Some people just want to live on the edge. These individuals are easily bored and are addicted to that “rush” they feel when something important is at stake. In fact, the very things that are deterrents to many of us – the lies and fear of getting caught – can fuel their fire. Throw in someone who is impulsive and it’s a recipe for deception because s/he will have a hard time letting any temptation pass. Whether it’s gambling the company money, coming on to a subordinate, or picking up a stranger in a bar, the feelings s/he gets from the pursuit outweighs the benefits of an honest relationship, whether it’s at the office or at home.
Amoral⏤Lacking a moral compass to consistently guide them, they aren’t burdened by such mundane concerns as discerning the line between truth and fiction; they lie, cheat and steal with little guilt and no remorse. They often have a family history of antisocial values, where they were taught that the world was a hostile place and that it was better to be a predator or the prey (which are the only two choices). As such, devious or abusive actions are seen as preemptive strikes or signs of intelligence or cunning. Underneath this, of course, is often a history of trauma in which the now-adult was subjected to an abusive or neglectful childhood environment that was, at the time, framed as “toughening him up” or “teaching her how the world works.”
The Bottom Line
One of my brother’s favorite sayings is, “there’s no shortcut to any place worth going.” When it comes to long-term relationships, business or romantic, this seems to be true, especially in the short term. As Peter Singer said, Cheats prosper until there are enough who bear grudges against them to make sure they do not.