Women evaluate their partners’ sexual infidelity:
Trade-off between disease avoidance and
1Institute of Education, University of Pécs, Pécs, Hungary, EU
2Institute of Psychology, University of Pécs, Pécs, Hungary, EU
3Institute of Education, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary, EU
The first author is supported by a grant of
the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA) – PD83794
Abstract: The aim of our study was to investigate how two evolutionary challenges, namely threat of
abandonment resulting from partner's emotional infidelity and threat of infections, affect women's
attitudes toward their partner's hypothetical betrayal on them. First, we presumed that women evaluate the
two threats differently depending on the context of betrayal. Accordingly, we asked women to rate the
perceived threats in different scenarios of their long-term partner's betrayal. Second, we presumed that
women would form their preferences or disapprovals towards their partners’ betrayal with different
persons (former partner, new partner, casual sexual partner, prostitute) in terms of avoidance of
abandonment resulting from partner's emotional infidelity. Based on this hypothesis, we expected women
to disapprove of their partner's sexual relation with a prostitute the least. Female students (n=208)
completed a questionnaire with a thought-experiment, with a hypothetical case, where they temporarily
cannot have sex with their partner for medical reasons. Our results confirmed the first hypothesis. The
second hypothesis was partially disconfirmed, because we found patterns of preference or disapproval
cannot be predicted from the sole perspectives of disease avoidance and abandonment avoidance. The two
evolutionary challenges discussed in this paper do not explain our results in themselves, so we discuss
social and cultural explanations as well.
Keywords: Sexual strategies, disease avoidance, abandonment avoidance, betrayal
Please cite this paper as follows:
Meskó, N., Láng, A. & Bernáth, L. (2014). Women evaluate their partners’ sexual infidelity:
Trade-off between disease avoidance and abandonment avoidance. In Éva Farkas (Ed.) Acta
Szekszardiensium/Scientific Publications, Tom XVI. (pp. 111-128.) Szekszard: Illyes Gyula
Faculty, University of Pecs.
According to the model of Trivers (1972), differences between men and women in mate-seeking
and mate-choice behavior and underlying psychological motivations are connected to sex differences in
the amount of parental investment. Men nominate more sexual partners as ideal than women do (Schmitt,
Shackelford, Duntley, Tooke, & Buss, 2001), and are more willing to engage in short-term, temporary
sexual relationships with no commitment (Buss, 2003).
Evolutionary psychologists define short and long term mating strategies as solutions to different
adaptive problems (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Long-term relationships raise such adaptive issues as creating
and rearing offspring and mate-retention (Kaighobadi, Shackelford & Buss, 2010), while short-term
(casual sexual) relationships include the problem of disease avoidance (Campbell & Ellis, 2005).
During human evolution, female mate retention strategies (Buss & Shackelford, 1997) have been
formed by two salient forces among others. By the threat of emotional infidelity (emotional infidelity
approach) (e.g. Barrett, Frederick, Haselton, & Kurzban, 2006; Buss & Haselton, 2005) and offspring
resulting from males’ extrapair relations (later referred to from women’s perspective as ‘unwanted
offspring’), women have been selected to be approving of their partner’s affectionless, financially based
sexual relationships contrasted to their partner’s emotionally committed relationships. On the other hand,
the threat of infections and their consequences (disease avoidance approach) (e.g. Curtis, De Barra, &
Aunger, 2011; Faulkner, Schaller, Park & Duncan, 2004) have led women to form bonds with men who
have had the fewest direct or indirect sexual partners.
Emotional commitment The intimate emotional bond has been an important part of long-term
human relationships (Gonzaga Haselton, Smurda, Davies, & Poore, 2008). Commitment in partnership
has been highly favored by natural selection because of conditions in the ancestral environment, such as
relatively small group size, food shortage, and the increased need for mutual help (Back, 2010).
According to our hypothesis, women would support their partners’ relationship with prostitutes because,
under certain circumstances, this kind of sexual relation is less threatening for the lasting bond than
sexual relations with other (non-prostitute) women. Since extrapair relations run the risk of desertion,
women living in long-term relationships regard their partner's emotionally committed sexual relation with
another woman as highly dangerous (Buss, Larsen, Westen, & Semmelroth 1992).
Unwanted offspring The reproductive success of women has not been mainly dependent on the
number of available partners. Instead, it has been determined through evolution by the quantity and
quality of resources possessed by their families, most strikingly by their male partners. Thus, a strong
pressure of selection has forced women to bond with men who are successful at acquiring and retaining
resources. Since the emotional commitment of men and the monopolization of resources are highly
jeopardized by unwanted offspring from men’s extrapair relationships, women living in long-term
relationships are highly sensitive to their partner’s having an unwanted offspring with another woman
Threat of infections At the same time, threat of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has resulted,
we propose, in another preference in women: that their male partners should engage in as few
monogamous sexual relations as possible. Since the early stage of human evolution, signals of the
individuals’ pathogen saturation have been important in forming social bonds. Detecting situations with
the potential of contracting infectious diseases has been adaptive. Even Darwin (1872/1965) noted that
contact with other fellow humans could elicit fear, disgust and rejection, especially if these others were
not closely and intimately related. Thus, disgust and fear that motivate the avoidance of possibly
threatening stimuli have probably been adaptive traits for reducing risk of an infection (Nesse &
Ellsworth, 2009; Rozin, Haidt & Mccauley, 2008). While monogamous relations decrease the risk of
infection, polygyny increases the dissemination of different (not only sexually transmitted) pathogens
(Low, 2000). At the same time, the presence of STDs specifically may have created another selection
pressure for mate choice and female mate retention strategies (Mackey & Immerman, 2000). The fertility
of women in particular is put at risk when they contract a STD. The disease can spread to the fetus or to
the infant as he or she passes through the birth canal, threatening the survival of both mother and
offspring. The strongest predictor of contracting a STD is the number of direct and indirect sexual
partners (Moore & Cates, 1990), and therefore the best way to minimize the chance of STD is to limit the
number of (her own or her partner’s extrapair) sexual partners. Because contracting STDs represents a
higher threat to women (than to men) and their offspring, ancestral women would have benefited from a
more restrictive attitude toward uncommitted sex (Campbell & Ellis, 2005).
Context of betrayal Extrapair sexual relations can take place in different scenarios depending on
the persona of the sexual partner. This context can affect women’s attitudes toward their partner’s
betrayal in a committed relationship. Women unconsciously evaluate and compare the threats of
abandonment and infection. We present four different scenarios that we suggest differ in their level of
betrayal. (1) Betrayal with a former girlfriend carries the possibility that the partner would reestablish the
relationship. Therefore women evaluate this scenario as the most threatening from the emotional infidelity
approach (Schmitt, 2005). (2) The next form of betrayal is with a formerly unknown person, with whom
sexual relation is based on mutual appeal and physical attraction (Buunk & Dijkstra, 2006). Similar to the
former scenario, this also implies that the betrayed woman (wife) perceives the husband’s extrapair sexual
partner as a rival, and therefore a potential threat to cause abandonment. This is because this kind of
betrayal implies the possibility of a long-term relationship. (3) The third theoretical category of betrayal is
a casual sexual relation, a one-night stand (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). In this case the risk of being
abandoned is lower than in the former cases, because one-night stands are probably conceived of as very
short-term relationships by both parties. On the other hand, risk for infections could be higher. (4) The
fourth possible scenario is a financially based sexual relation with a prostitute (Salmon, 2008). In this
form of sexual infidelity, the risk for emotional commitment between the partner and the prostitute is low,
whereas the risk of STDs is higher than in the former scenarios.
Our research was designed with the former four scenarios representing the end points and
intermediate stages of a continuum. One end (sex with a former girlfriend) is characterized by high risk of
abandonment and relatively low risk of STDs. The other end (sex with a prostitute) is characterized by
low possibility of emotional commitment between the partner and the prostitute and high risk for
2. Aims of the study, hypotheses
According to Strategic Pluralism Theory (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000) individuals take
environmental conditions into account when making decisions about long- and short-term relationships.
Women are selected for taking into account hazards stemming from both their partner’s emotional
infidelity and the chance for STDs when forming their strategy about their partner’s betrayal. They
choose an attitude toward their partner’s betrayal depending on which of the above threats interfere more
with their own and their offspring’s survival.
We assume that in the population investigated (with monogamy as a social norm, institutionalized
health care, and low pathogen saturation) the effects of both emotional infidelity and disease avoidance
are of adaptive relevance. Based on the theoretical background presented above, we make the following
Hypothesis 1. Women perceive the threats of their partner’s emotional commitment with the
extrapair sexual partner, the birth of an unwanted child from that relation, and contamination
with infectious diseases differently in the four scenarios of their partner’s sexual infidelity.
a) Women perceive the greatest threat of emotional commitment between their partner
and his sexual partner in the scenario with the former girlfriend. From this point of
view, sex with a prostitute is the least threatening, with the other two scenarios
representing intermediate evaluations.
b) Women consider the possibility of the birth of an unwanted child the highest in the
case where a former girlfriend is their husband’s sexual partner. The possibility of the
birth of an unwanted child is considered the lowest, if the husband has sex with a
prostitute. The other two scenarios represent intermediate values.
c) Women rate the risk of being contaminated with STDs the highest if their husband
has sex with a prostitute. With the other two, intermediate cases, women rate the risk
of contracting STDs the lowest in the scenario, where the husband’s partner is his
Hypothesis 2. In Western societies with developed health care facilities where STDs are more
easily curable, women’s attitudes toward different scenarios of their partner’s sexual infidelity are
expected to be motivated less by disease avoidance than they are from avoidance of
abandonment. Therefore we expect women – in an imaginary situation where they temporarily
cannot have sex with their partner for medical reasons – to rank their partner's sexual relation with
a prostitute as the most acceptable, and sex with a former girlfriend as least acceptable. The other
two scenarios are again expected to represent intermediate cases.
3. Materials and Methods
Participants were voluntarily recruited from first-year female students of the University of Pécs
(n=208, age mean±SD=23.55±7.13, min=18, max=50).
In testing the above hypotheses, women's attitude towards betrayal was mapped with a
questionnaire where they had to imagine four possible types of betrayal by their long-term partner (The
applied method of thought-experiment originates from Buss et al. (1992)).
After asking for basic demographic data, participants were given the following instruction.
“Please think of one of your committed, long-term romantic relationships. It can be one you were in, one
you are in, or one that you desire to be in. Please answer the following questions with regard to this real
or imaginary relationship. In this thought-experiment, you have to imagine and evaluate how it would
affect you if your partner engaged in sex with a third person in one of the following four situations: (1)
your partner has sex with one of his former partners; (2) your partner gets acquainted with an unknown
woman and sex with her is based on mutual appeal and physical desire; (3) your partner has casual sex
with women desirable to him; (4) your partner has sex with one or more prostitutes.”
In our questionnaire participants rated imaginary situations from three aspects: (A) how strong of
an emotional commitment would your partner show in the given relationship; (B) how likely would the
birth of an unwanted child be from that given extrapair relation; (C) how likely would you to be infected
by your partner as a result of the given extrapair relation.
Finally, in a thought-experiment, participants had to imagine that, because of health issues, they
were unable to have sex for a year or two. Participants were asked to rank the acceptability of the four
situations with the first being the most acceptable and the fourth being the least acceptable.
With this ranking of situations, we put respondents in a forced-choice situation with ranking
preferences and aversions, which is highly similar to decisions on actions based on the individual’s
assessment of the costs and benefits.
Participants filled in the questionnaire online and received an extra 2.5% on their semester’s final
exam in an introductory psychology course.
4.1. Women’s perceptions of different threats
Women’s evaluations of different threats were tested with repeated measures ANOVA. The results (Table
1) show that the respondents attributed different amounts of extrapair emotional commitment, they
perceived the probability of the birth of an unwanted offspring differently, and reported different levels of
fear of infection in the four scenarios of betrayal.
4.2. Women’s ranking of the four scenarios
The respondents’ ranking of the different scenarios’ acceptability in the case of a sexually
disabling medical condition was tested by the Friedman test. The post hoc pairwise comparison was
produced by the Wilcoxon signed rank test. The results showed (Table 2) that the four different scenarios
evoked statistically distinct rankings.
We investigated how two salient evolutionary challenges – possibility of being abandoned (as a
result of partner’s extrapair emotional commitment) and possibility of contracting infections – influenced
women in forming their attitude toward their partner’s hypothetical betrayal. On the one hand, it was
hypothesized that, depending on the context of the betrayal (sex with a former partner, sex with a new
partner, casual sex, sex with a prostitute), these issues threaten the emotionally committed long-term
relationship of women to different extents. In order to test our assumptions we asked women to rate the
perceived extent of these threats in four different scenarios of their husband’s (long-term partner’s)
extrapair sexual relation. On the other hand, it was hypothesized that women – in an imaginary situation
in which they could not have sex for a while due to medical reasons – base their acceptance (or rejection)
of the different scenarios based on their need to avoid abandonment. Accordingly, women would have the
greatest acceptance of the form of betrayal in which emotional commitment is the least expected to
evolve, namely sex with a prostitute. Our results supported the first hypothesis. Results concerning our
second hypothesis showed that neither abandonment avoidance nor disease avoidance in itself predicted
women’s choices. Our results are discussed in detail in the following sections.
Responding females rated their partner as showing the strongest commitment (Hypothesis 1.a)
when reestablishing a relationship with a former partner or forming a new relationship based on mutual
appeal (the ratings for the two situations above were not statistically different). They rated the threat of an
emotional commitment less probable if their partner engaged in casual sex. The formation of emotional
commitment was considered the least probable if their partner engaged in sex with a prostitute. Women
are highly sensitive to the signs of their partner’s emotional commitment. Traits such as being a loving,
devoted and loyal partner are hypothesized as good partner indicators. Good parenting indicators (e.g.
emotional stability and maturity) could also serve as good partner indicators (Buss & Shackelford, 2008).
Women are more attentive to signs of their partner’s emotional infidelity, which is more emotionally
distressing for them than their partner’s sexual infidelity. BUSS and Shackelford (1997) suggest that since
the partner’s emotional infidelity increases the risk of abandonment, there has been strong adaptive
pressure on women to detect these kinds of threats in time. Our results confirm that women evaluate the
four scenarios similarly to our theoretically based hypothesis.
The possibility of an unwanted offspring (Hypothesis 1.b) was rated by the respondents in a
similar way. They evaluated the risk of the birth of a(n) (unwanted) child to be the highest if their partner
reestablished a former relationship or formed a new relationship based on mutual appeal (the ratings for
the two situations were not statistically different). They considered the birth of an unwanted offspring to
be less probable if their partner engaged in casual sex. The birth of an unwanted offspring was rated as the
least likely if their partner engaged in sex with prostitutes. After data collection we realized that the
formulation of the question was ambiguous. It is clear that from a biological perspective we cannot make
predictions about the chance of conception based on the persona of the sexual partner. However, it is also
evident that the pregnancy of the partner’s former girlfriend signifies a greater threat to the ongoing
relationship than the pregnancy of a prostitute with whom the man had had sex before. In the latter case
both the certainty of paternity and emotional commitment to the child are perceived to be lower.
Our female respondents considered the risk of infection by their partner significantly more likely
if he engaged in sex with a prostitute than in the case of casual sex (Hypothesis 1.c). The contraction of
STDs was seen even less likely in the ‘newly met partner’ scenario. Respondents reported that the threat
of being infected was least likely if their partner had sex with a former girlfriend. The disease avoidance
system of our species is especially sensitive to individuals exhibiting visual signals of possible infection
(Neuberg, Kenrick, & Schaller, 2011). In our study we focused on contextual variables, so differences in
the evaluation of infection risk should be explained in relation to the persona of the extrapair sexual
partner. Differences between the scenarios could be explained by the number of further sexual partners
attributed to the extrapair sexual partner. Ex-girlfriends are perceived as the most committed to an
exclusive sexual relation, whereas prostitutes are regarded as indiscriminately engaging in numerous
Although our question seemingly implies a merely cognitive process of evaluation, we are also
aware of the emotional cues leading to functionally adaptive avoidant behavior. While the characteristic
emotion triggering the self-defending system is fear, the disease avoidance system is activated by disgust
(Oaten, Stevenson, & Case, 2009). Accordingly, women are hypothesized to react with disgust to their
partner’s potential sexual relation with a prostitute. In the thought-experiment of our study, women
regarded ‘sex with a prostitute’ scenario as the least acceptable option (Hypothesis 2). Sex with a former
girlfriend was significantly more acceptable than sex with a prostitute, but less favored than sex with a
newly met woman or a casual sexual partner. Their partner’s having sex with a casual partner turned out
to be the most acceptable option for women in our imaginary situation. Sex with a newly met woman with
mutual appeal was ranked between sex with a former girlfriend and sex with a casual partner,
significantly differing from both other options.
If male’s infidelity (in our four scenarios) is regarded from the perspectives of disease avoidance
and abandonment avoidance, a casual sexual relationship seems to be an optimal choice for women. In
this option the threat of extrapair emotional commitment remains relatively low. At the same time, risk of
STDs is also lower, than is the ‘sex with a prostitute’ scenario. According to our results, women do not
make decisions based solely on either the one or the other perspective, but sum up accessible information
and decide accordingly.
At the same time, one question remains open. If women reject their partner’s sexual relation with
a prostitute more than with a former girlfriend (i.e. disease avoidance is more important than avoiding
extrapair emotional commitment), why are they more tolerant toward a casual sexual relation than toward
sex with a newly met partner (i.e., disease avoidance is less important than avoiding extrapair emotional
commitment)? To explain this contradiction some alternative explanations should be taken into account.
Intrapsychic variables ignored in our introduction can play an important role in forming women’s attitude
toward prostitution. Self-esteem and prejudice toward prostitutes can be such variables. One possibility is
that it is difficult for women to tolerate the fact that their partner had sex with a self-devaluing woman of
low social status (i.e. a prostitute), since this might imply that they, the respondents, are interchangeable
with such a woman.
Women’s attitudes toward prostitution can be further shaped by the norms of the given society,
which can moderate (or at least supplement) the simple evolutionary logic of disease avoidance and
abandonment avoidance (resulting from partner’s extrapair emotional commitment). Varying opinions are
formed regarding the tolerance or rejection of prostitution and its social benefits and harms depending on
the degree of sanctions and regulations on prostitution on the society in question. At the time of this
study, prostitution was legal in Hungary, but promoting prostitution was a crime (Malinowski, 1997).
Women’s attitudes toward prostitution are formed by other social factors as well. Human
psychology regarding the formation of reputations and sensitivity to the effect of reputation is likely to
have evolved in small groups where life-long repeated interactions among individuals were the norm
(Rucas, Gurven, Kaplan, Winking, Gangestad, & Crespo, 2006). Piazza & Bering (2008) found that
generous behavior can be motivated by concerns about one's reputation that are specifically mediated by
the threat of gossip. In the case of sexual infidelity, our ancestors applied different strategies of jealousy,
dependent on their sex, to minimize reproductive loss (e.g. Buss, Larsen & Westin, 1996). At the same
time, being cheated on is strongly connected to the loss of reputation. Therefore, humans have evolved to
be sensitive to keeping the fact of betrayal a secret. This can be important to avoid becoming a target of
gossip and the loss of reputation (Tooby & Cosmides, 2008).
Our study has several limitations. Since attitudes toward betrayal have cultural biases as well, our
results are limited in investigating only a Hungarian sample.
Using the thought-experiment procedure also has its methodological constraints. Nevertheless, we
consider the data from this methodology to be valid. It is part of human nature to make non-conscious
evaluations of the consequences of their possible future actions in everyday social situations. This means
that potential positive and negative consequences of our behavior are reviewed, and the behavior with the
best cost-benefit evaluation is selected. The topic of our study is this type of complex social situation.
Since our study was not aimed at revealing the actual mechanisms behind women’s reactions to betrayal,
this remains an open question. At the same time, the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis is
assumed as the evolutionary background of the acceptance of a scenario where potential benefits exceed
the imaginary costs.
7. Further Research
Our paper presents novel questions and results, which can form the starting point of further
studies. We found that women would view relationships with prostitutes as a lesser threat for their
committed, long-term relationship from the perspective of emotional infidelity. At the same time, sexual
betrayal with prostitutes would be more threatening from the perspective of disease avoidance. A further
investigation into this tradeoff would be very helpful in determining the limits of each perspective: at
what point would women risk more disease for a decreased risk in emotional fidelity and vice versa?
Further research can clarify the role of pathogen saturation in the genesis of women’s evaluations.
It is possible that in territories where pathogen saturation and therefore chance for STDs is higher (and
health care is more scarce) sex with a prostitute is more disapproved. At the same time, affectionate
extrapair sex could be tolerated more in spite of the danger of emotional commitment. To investigate the
issue together with historical biases towards prostitution cross-cultural research is to be done. Beliefs
about partner’s use of condom in extrapair intercourse can also interact with perceived threat of
contracting STDs. Further research should address how women evaluate the probability of their partner’s
condom use in different extrapair scenarios.
Besides cultural variables the role of individual differences must be revealed in the genesis of an
approving (or disapproving) attitude toward betrayal. In restricting the aim of our study to the
investigation of the contextual variables on women’s reactions to their partner’s extrapair sexual relations,
we did not intend to include the individual differences in mate retention strategies (BUSS et al., 2008).
However, this can have considerable effect on this process of evaluation. Adult romantic attachment and
several personality traits can also effect the individual's reaction to betrayal. Answering these questions
can be the aim of further research.
The first author was supported by an OTKA (Hungarian National Scientific Research Fund) Postdoctoral
Fellowship (PD 83794).
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Table 1. Women’s ratings of factors endangering long-term relationship compared across four different hypothetical scenarios of betrayal.
engages in sexual
relations with one
of his former
“Your partner gets acquainted
with an unknown woman and
engages in sexual relations
with her based on mutual
appeal and physical desire.”
engages in casual
sex with women
desirable to him.”
“Your partner engages in
sexual relations with (one
or more) prostitutes
where he pays for sex.”
“In your opinion, how strong
an emotional commitment
would your partner show in
the given relationship?”
“In your opinion, how likely
is the birth of an unwanted
child from that given
FEAR OF INFECTION
“In your opinion how likely
is it that you would become
infected by your partner as a
result of the extramarital
Note: Means in the same row with different indices differ significantly based on the Bonferroni pairwise comparison (p<.05)
Table 2. Women’s acceptability ranking of the four different hypothetical scenarios of betrayal.
“Your partner engages in
sexual relations with one
of his former partners.”
“Your partner gets
acquainted with an
unknown woman and
engages in sexual
relations with her based
on mutual appeal and
engages in casual
sex with women
desirable to him.”
engages in sexual
relations with (one
or more) prostitutes
where he pays for
Acceptability rank of the
given situation for
female respondents in
the case of a
Note: Higher rank mean shows greater rejection. Rank means with different indices differ significantly based on the Wilcoxon
signed rank test (p<.05)