YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


How our brains resist straying

September 15, 2008|Regina Nuzzo | Special to The Times

In the pursuit of happily-ever-after, the odds seem to be stacked against us.

Men and women reap huge benefits when they stick around with a good partner -- staying happier and healthier, living longer and passing along more genes. But the sticking-around part is a challenge. We don't get long-term relationship payoffs right away. And until then -- between the once-upon-a-time and the happily-ever-after -- plenty of temptations can beckon.

Not that it's wrong to shop around before settling down. But there always will be enticing alternative mates -- whether heart-grabbing or merely eye-catching. So researchers wonder: With so many attractive alternatives, how do humans manage to maintain relationships at all?

The brain appears to have some tricks up its neural sleeve. A new line of research is exploring how automatic psychological mechanisms kick into action when the eye starts to wander, helping resist temptation and strengthening the relationship -- even without us being aware of it.

Here's a sample from some recently published experiments (all on heterosexual men and women in committed monogamous relationships) that show how our brain keeps us connected to -- and, yes, even happy with -- the old ball and chain.

(Spoiler: When it comes to relationships, men and women are a bit different.)


Subconscious alarm bells

An early-warning alert system signals threat.

In an experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in July, researchers at McGill University in Montreal asked 150 men and women to imagine chatting with an attractive member of the opposite sex. For comparison, another 150 imagined boring encounters with people of the same sex. After the visualizations, all participants played fill-in-the-blank word games designed to reveal subconscious thoughts.

When presented with "THR_AT," for instance, women who'd thought about hunky men tended to write "threat." But men more often wrote "throat." Likewise, given "LO_AL" after the hunk visualization, women saw "loyal," but men tended to see "local." (Men and women who imagined ho-hum encounters answered similarly, so researchers decided the differences were because of imagined flirtation.)

The conclusion? The mere thought of an outside flirtation is enough to trigger alarm bells in women's brains -- but not so much in men's. "It's an amazing outcome," says John Lydon, professor of psychology at McGill University and leader of the study. "The same things weren't coming to mind for the men."


Extra tolerance

A flirtation can trigger increased niceness toward a partner -- or not.

In this experiment, the McGill researchers upped the ante. Each participant encountered a live temptation: a good-looking actor of the opposite sex, trained in the art of subtle flirtation (and pretending to be another participant signed up for the same study). A comparison group included aloof fake subjects who made no conversation.

After interacting with the beautiful actor, participants were then asked to imagine how they would react if their own partner were to act not-so-beautifully -- being late for a date, for instance, or lying about going out with friends.

Men who were paired with the chatty attractive woman were less likely to forgive their girlfriends' hypothetical bad behavior (compared with men paired with the taciturn fake participant). Women, on the other hand, did the opposite: Those who had interacted with the good-looking man were more likely to be extra forgiving and make excuses for their boyfriends' slip-ups.

The conclusion? Subconsciously, men saw the flirtatious woman as a good alternative mate and so felt a bit less committed to their girlfriends. Women, too, saw the friendly guy as an attractive alternative -- but they also saw the threat he posed. So women tried to strengthen their relationships -- essentially pitching in to do more of the "heavy lifting" of relationship upkeep, Lydon says.



Sometimes we mentally push away temptation.

Here the McGill researchers turned to computer games. They asked 115 men and women to explore an immersive virtual reality and play with the position of images dangling in space: photographs of animals, fruit and attractive people.

Women who had been first primed to think subconsciously about their relationships tended to shove away the images of the handsome men. The male participants, on the other hand, didn't push away the good-looking women -- if anything, they pulled them closer.

Women may automatically know how to protect a relationship better than men do, Lydon says. So the researchers tried to teach men's subconsciousness a new trick: planning ahead for temptation.

Los Angeles Times Articles