Last year, when the world learned that the No. 1 rule in Vice President Mike Pence’s “How to Avoid Cheating on Your Wife” playbook was to never eat alone with a woman who hadn’t vowed to be with him forever (i.e., his wife), social media erupted. Many commenters pointed out how the personal standard reeked of old-school sexism. As one columnist opined at the time, “Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone.”
But maybe—just maybe—there’s something to the vice president’s thinking here. Wait, wait, now hear me out.
The premise behind the Mike Pence rule—also known as the Billy Graham rule—is that to preserve the sanctity of their marriages, men should avoid putting themselves in precarious situations where they may be tempted into infidelity. Obviously, there are some serious issues here with this rule, including the problem of men relegating women to the role of seductress as well as leaving them out of important workplace scenarios, thus perpetuating the awful gender inequality that pervades society.
But there is evidence that shows diverting attention away from possible relationship alternatives does, in fact, decrease the likelihood of infidelity, according to a study published earlier this year.
Because of the increased availability of relationship options out there—thanks to social media and dating apps—a team of researchers became interested in getting a better understanding of the psychological processes that help minimize the risk of cheating. They focused specifically on our ability to disengage our attention from and devalue potential romantic partners. (In other words, is your partner the guy in this popular meme?)
The study’s authors followed 233 newly married couples for up to three-and-a-half years; participants filled out surveys answering questions about marital and sexual satisfaction, commitment, whether they had engaged in infidelity, among other things. They were also asked to view photos of men and women who were both highly attractive and average-looking as researchers assessed how long it took them to take their eyes off the photos, and had to rate the attractiveness of some subjects.
Ultimately, the study’s authors determined that the ability to direct attention away from and mentally downgrade attractive people was associated with a decreased probability of infidelity. In their analysis, they found that being even 100 milliseconds faster at glancing away from a pretty face or rating their good looks two points lower than the average was associated with nearly 50 percent less odds of cheating.
Faithful people, it seems, are less likely to give much of their attention to people they might consider sleeping with; they also just don’t think hot people are all that hot.
It’s important to point out that these responses are automatic. "People are not necessarily aware of what they're doing or why they're doing it," Jim McNulty, a professor of psychology and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "These processes are largely spontaneous and effortless, and they may be somewhat shaped by biology and/or early childhood experiences."
Perhaps, at the end of the day, it doesn’t serve us to stress over what it takes to make a long-term relationship successful. Maybe we don’t need to institute a Mike Pence rule just to avoid possible temptation. According to this research, at least, we appear to have all the psychological tools we need to make our marriages last.