Though it's romantic to believe that love always trumps money, it's well established (by science) that money makes a significant difference in how attractive men appeal to women as longer-term mates. Now, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggests that straight men who believe they're richer than their peers may feel more entitled to cheat on their romantic partners—and find fault with her appearance. Womp.
A tale of two studies
Researchers from Beijing Normal University in China recruited male and female undergraduates in serious relationships to participate in two studies. The first was basically a mind game that tricked each participant into thinking they either made more or less money than most people their age. All participants were asked to report where, along a spectrum of income brackets, they fell. To foster illusions of wealth, half indicated their annual salary from a range of low annual earnings—making them feel like they earned a lot by comparison. The other half established their positions from a range of high annual earnings, which created the opposite feeling. (Turns out, the mere belief that you make more or less than your peers makes or breaks how financially well-endowed you feel.)
Afterward, the undergraduates rated how satisfied they felt with their partner's appearance. The twentysomething-year old women who'd been given the impression they were less well off didn't seem to change their appraisals any more than the other women led to believe they were loaded. Twentysomething-year-old men made to feel flush with cash, however, were far more likely to express dissatisfaction with their partners' appearance than their same-gendered peers who believed they were poorer.
In a separate study, the researchers recruited a new batch of undergraduates to test whether feeling wealthy would have any effect on their likelihood to approach an attractive member of the opposite sex—a barometer gauging how likely they might be to, say, get that attractive other's number, and then eventually cheat on their partners. Somewhat of a jump, perhaps, but bear with me. Men and women in serious relationships (ranging in age from 18 to 30) were invited to read and fill in blanks peppering one of two essays: either one about growing up wealthy or one about being raised pinching pennies. (This was a new way to trigger those I'm loaded / I'm poor perceptions in participants.)
Afterward, each subject was shown a photo of an objectively hot man or woman. Then, a researcher said they'd have the lucky chance to speak with this hottie in T-minus three, and led them into an empty room where there was a coat and bag, suggesting the imminent return of this anticipated other. Yet again, the impact of feeling richer had a stronger influence on men than on women. Guys deluded into thinking they had greater amounts of dough sat closer to the chair where the hot woman was expected to sit than the guys primed to feel not so well off. Women, regardless of their perceived financial status, tended to keep a greater distance.
Per the reasoning of evolutionary psychology, having more money increases men's "mate value" (aka, how much he's worth in the eyes of himself and of others). Under the impression his mate value is higher, a man may assume he could nab a comparably (if not more) valuable mate. Finding fault with a current female partner's appearance and looking elsewhere likely reflect a man's increased appraisal of what he feels he deserves: Not just one partner (who, after a few months or years, looks "less perfect" than she did on date no. 1) but multiple lovers, each of whom validates his assumed worth—or offer additional opportunities to spread his highly lucrative seed.
So … does this mean all men with more money can be expected to cheat? Or that fidelity is only to be found in guys hailing from the middle to lower rungs of the socioeconomic spectrum?
It takes more than money
"Money may facilitate cheating—especially since people with higher incomes often travel for work, offering them more opportunities to cheat—but it doesn't necessarily cause it," says Dr. Kelly Campbell, PhD, associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.
Genetics may also stack a man's deck in favor of cheating: A 2010 study published in the journalPloS ONE found that men (and women) possessing one variant of a dopamine receptor gene were more likely to have cheated on their partners. So too can personality: The less conscientious and agreeable a man is, Campbell explains, the less likely he might be to restrain himself from temptations or other behaviors that might upset his significant other. (Though same goes for any woman.)
The stability of a man's childhood bonds with his primary caregivers during childhood also plays a huge role: Partners with avoidant attachment styles are quicker to withdraw in response to conflicts, Campbell says, and may cheat to feel less dependent on their girlfriend or spouse to meet their needs.
Of course, what's going on in the relationship a man strays from—not to mention his non-romantic personal and professional life—can trump any innate or socialized predispositions. A man's partner may be particularly temperamental, cold, or avoidant herself; resentment may have been breeding within the couple he belongs to for weeks, months, maybe years; he may feel distressed at home, work, or within his family. Cheating in these cases may be a man's attempt to escape an arduous situation, regain some sense of control, or simply be reminded that someone desires him—that he's still wanted.
Or he may just be bored. (The reasons to stray are, alas, endless.)
It's not all bad
Researchers estimate that at least 25 percent of married men cheat on their partners. (Over 15 percent of married women are expected to follow suite.) Money may make a difference (too much or too little of it can be the straw that breaks the monogamous camel's back.) But it shouldn't be feared as the only reason men will stray.
Nor, as an increasing number of sexuality experts argue, should straying necessarily be a deal breaker. Life can resume after infidelity—especially, says Wedge, if both partners make a concerted effort to rebuild trust, understand what went wrong in the first place, and agree to move forward. (Though she does point out that most couples typically require about six months of joint therapy to really let go.)
Your best bet isn't to avoid men who are wealthy for fear they can never be trusted. Rather, it seems, you're much better off getting a feel for their character, doing your part to keep the relationship strong, and being sure to establish your own identity outside the relationship—so that, if it ruptures, you're not completely destabilized.
That being said, if you find yourself with a serial cheater who doesn't appear willing to change and can be easily swayed by a few extra dollar signs in his bank account? Letting him chase after someone who isn't you may, in the long run, be the smarter option than clinging to a mate who doesn't share your desire to settle down.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.