Friday, January 22, 2010

A Culture of Infidelity?

Part 1: The Question

Do some settings tolerate, if not outright encourage, infidelity?

This idea knocked on our door last year. We had a couple of infidelity cases in an affluent suburb. On more than one occasion, independent cases from different clients, the team wound up sitting in the parking lot of the same fitness center. The cases involved trainers at the gym. There was no overlap in the cases: different clients, different trainers…all unrelated, save the common denominator: the gym.

The question came to us: Are some institutions veritable Petri dishes for a culture of infidelity?

Maybe it’s a gym. It could be an office. It might even be a church. Any place people gather and share time, there’s a chance that certain behaviors may spread like contagious illnesses. Groups influence behavior. Commonly, we call it peer pressure, which doesn’t always manifest in the form of, “come on…everybody’s doing it. Don’t you want to be cool?” More often than not, it is a simple sense of acceptance, not an overt push: if the kids you’re hanging out with think nothing of passing around a bong in the afternoon, even though you don’t approve, pretty soon you’re likely to soften your attitude towards the practice. Maybe you’ll even indulge.

Six Bars

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “The Tipping Point,” examines several social epidemic studies that, he would contend, bear out the notion of social networks influencing behavior. One study by an epidemiologist named John Potterat looked into a gonorrhea outbreak in Colorado Springs in the 1990s. He traced the epidemic to a relatively small number of people, a tiny percentage of the infected population who did the bulk of the work of seeding the epidemic. Each of them infected multiple people; and the majority of them hung out at the same places.

In other words, in all of the city of Colorado Springs — a town of well in excess of 100,000 people — the epidemic of gonorrhea tipped because of the activities of 168 people living in four small neighborhoods and basically frequenting the same six bars.

-Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point”

The gonorrhea epidemic in Colorado Springs doesn’t seem to have anything to do with infidelity in a fitness center in Tennessee. But maybe there’s a common denominator: are those six infamous bars in Colorado Springs somehow incubators of promiscuity? Similarly, could that suburban gym we staked out be an incubator of infidelity?

There’s no question that some environments foster their own unique culture, in which certain behaviors proliferate and even thrive: the party school, the glacial bureaucracy, etc. But what about causality? Are these settings drawing like-minded people who already love to party or who tend to shy away from initiative? Or are the institutions themselves turning regular people into wild partiers and slothful bureaucrats?

Culture of Infidelity – Part 2: The Studies.

More likely, it’s a combination of the two: one part “causality” and one part “clustering.” Case in point: the famous Framingham Heart Study.

Family and Friends

Researchers James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard wanted to know whether social networks can influence health behaviors like smoking, exercise, and diet. So they reconstructed data collected from around 12,000 people in the Framingham study for more than three decades. Their findings reflected a combination of clustering and causality: smokers did seek each other out in social networks (as did non-smokers). But Fowler and Christakis also determined that networks of friends or family members sometimes quit smoking in groups, a sort of cascade effect.

“There's no doubt that people are influenced by the behaviors of individuals that are not just one degree of separation from them, but two and three degrees of separation. There's a kind of cascading influence." -Nicholas Christakis for a 2008 NPR story for NPR about the dynamics of smoking in social networks.

If a few bars in Colorado Springs can become incubators for promiscuous sexual behavior, and if friends and families can affect the choices we make about eating and smoking, can we then postulate that some places might give rise to an ideal environment for infidelity?

Nashville therapist “A.J.” (who asked that her name not be used) says an environment like a gym or a workplace isn’t necessarily going to cause infidelity. But if someone is already vulnerable to cheating, certain environments can provide an ideal opportunity.

She says she’s seen a number of common dynamics that make a couple more vulnerable to infidelity. “Maybe the husband works long hours,” says A.J. “If you’re bonding at work and not with your partner…” she points out, “I mean, it’s hard enough…when couples are spending time together.

A.J. says this kind of opportunity can turn up anywhere: among co-workers who spend a lot of time together, with musicians on the road for weeks on end, or even between client and personal trainer. “It’s a perfect set-up,” she says, “whenever there’s a lot of one-on-one interaction.”

As for our original premise that the behavior of infidelity might actually spread in some environments like a contagion, it’s tough to prove. But a quote from that New York Times article about the Framingham might offer some possible conclusions:

“… Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking…. [they] hypothesize that these behaviors spread partly through the subconscious social signals that we pick up from those around us, which serve as cues to what is considered normal behavior.”

So maybe there’s something to our idea of a culture of infidelity. If we get another case at that same gym, I’d be willing to call it a trend…



  1. Given that at a gym people are focused on their, and each other's, bodies, where it's ok to look at and talk about physical attributes, it seems only natural that sexual stimulation will occur there.

  2. Great point and I agree. Though, there are countless gyms where people work out together and focus on their (and others) bodies without hooking up. I'm trying to explore the idea of social acceptance of certain behaviors and see if there's any basis for this idea of places that harbor a culture of infidelity, an acceptance of the practice (be it overt or not/conscious or not). Can, as the post suggests, bad behavior (in this case, cheating) spread to otherwise faithful people? Thoughts?

    Thanks for stopping by. THH

  3. very nice blog .. I liked the theme too! never thought they were going to write about it:) thanks

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