Georgianna Dolan-Reilly, LMSW

Georgianna Dolan-Reilly, LMSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Sex and the Brain: What is Going on in the Brain of a Cheater?

By Georgianna Reilly, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer

We’ve all heard about the Petraeus scandal recently. Successful man risks title, job, friendships, and marriage for a step away from sexual monogamy. It happens all too often, in all socioeconomic levels, that an individual sexually cheats on a partner in which they are still socially bonded to in a meaningful way. We can say it’s because we fail to resist temptation, or that humans aren’t mane to be sexually monogamous, or maybe that we need to embark on some new conquest for excitement. A few questions thought remian: What is really behind the frequency of infidelity in general? AND Why does it seem that successful individuals appear to be more prone to infidelity?

This recent article from Slate Magazine breaks down the complex brain chemistry of a cheater. In this article, it is suggested that the pathways for sexual monogamy (sex with one person) and social monogamy (emotional and social devotion to one person) are separate mechanisms in the brain which are influenced by different chemical and behavioral triggers. That is, it is possible to be in love with someone and socially devoted to them while partaking in infidelity and cheater. Regarding sexual monogamy,  the article suggests, from research evidence, that there are three things which are at play when attempting to suppress desire: Oxytocin, Stress Hormones Vs. Dopamine, and Genetics. Using Prairie Voles, rather socially monogamous creatures who often cheat sexually, as an example the article says the following:

“A stress-related chemical called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) acts in males separated from their female mates just the way it does in drug addicts who are separated from their supply. “Divorce” a male vole from his mate and you get a very miserable vole whose CRF system has been fired like a gun, triggering yearning and depression. The chemical is helping enforce social monogamy.

The neurochemical dopamine is motivational. It drives us to act to appease a desire, such as for food or sex, and when we do, we get a reward, typically a burst of endogenous opioids. With experience, we learn just how pleasurable it can be to tickle this reward system.  

So our brains are organized according to chemically-controlled circuits, each whispering to us about what it wants. When we see an attractive man or woman, reward circuits tell us how incredibly hot sex with that person would be. But oxytocin- and vasopressin-related circuits are telling us we love our partner, and CRF is helping us picture how miserable we’d be without our mate. The rational part of our brain, primarily the prefrontal cortex, is weighing these possible costs of cheating, and reminding us that the sexy person is married to our boss.

Which system shouts the loudest may depend partly on our genes. But one person’s genome is not exactly like another’s. We have variation.”

So, if you are particularly prone genetically to seek out more of a dopamine rush well then you might be a bit more screwed, both literally and when it comes to being labeled as a cheater because of your actions. Which leads us into our second question: Why does it seem that successful individuals are more prone to infidelity?

While some of us simply might answer by stating that being successful just leaves you more open to public discussion of your family loves, it appears that particular variation in dopamine related genes for which those that are successful are more predisposed to have might leave them more open to failing at sexual monogamy:

“A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers.”

 So when it comes down to it, cheating is just a game our brain chemistry challenges our genetics with and vice-versa. Which ever wins depends on many chemical, neural, social, and behavioral factors which for now are beyond our scope of understanding. Of course science cannot be used to intellectualize the rational of acting on a desire and cheating, but such research as the above can be easily applicable to helping to develop future treatments or perhaps even advise individuals as to whether they might be ‘at risk’ of infidelity.
The mind is a wonderful complex beast, and this is just an example of the millions of decisions that go far beyond breaking the barrier between thinking and action. There is so much more than that thin line.

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