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Temptation at your door: Receiving mate poaching attempts and perceived Partners' desirability

Authors:
  • Reichman University (IDC Herzliya)

Abstract

Committed individuals cope with the threat of alternative partners by using strategies that undermine their allure. However, in an era, in which alternative mates lurk around every corner, these strategies may lose their effectiveness. Two studies investigated this possibility , examining how being the target of online mate poaching influenced perceptions of current and alternative partners. In both studies, partnered undergraduate students chatted online with a confederate of the other sex who behaved either flirtatiously or neutrally. Then, participants completed a measure of implicit perception of their partner (Study 1) or described a sexual fantasy (Study 2). The fantasies were coded for expressions of desire for current and alternative partners. Results showed that receiving mate poaching attempts decreased the appeal of current partners while increasing the desirability of alternatives. These findings Statement of Relevance: Committed individuals cope with alternative partners by using strategies that undermine their allure. However, in an era, in which alternative mates lurk around every corner, these strategies may lose their effectiveness. Two studies investigated this possibility, showing that receiving mate poaching attempts decreased the appeal of current partners while increasing the desirability of alternatives. These findings demonstrate the circumstances that weaken resistance to temptations, pointing to a route by which online interactions impair relationship functioning.
ARTICLE
Temptation at your door: Receiving mate
poaching attempts and perceived Partners'
desirability
Gurit E. Birnbaum
Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology, Reichman University (IDC, Herzliya), Herzliya, Israel
Correspondence
Gurit E. Birnbaum, Baruch Ivcher School
of Psychology, Reichman University
(IDC, Herzliya), P.O. Box 167, Herzliya
46150, Israel.
Email: birnbag@gmail.com
Funding information
Israel Science Foundation, Grant/Award
Number: 1210/16
Abstract
Committed individuals cope with the threat of alterna-
tive partners by using strategies that undermine their
allure. However, in an era, in which alternative mates
lurk around every corner, these strategies may lose
their effectiveness. Two studies investigated this possi-
bility, examining how being the target of online mate
poaching influenced perceptions of current and alterna-
tive partners. In both studies, partnered undergraduate
students chatted online with a confederate of the other
sex who behaved either flirtatiously or neutrally. Then,
participants completed a measure of implicit perception
of their partner (Study 1) or described a sexual fantasy
(Study 2). The fantasies were coded for expressions of
desire for current and alternative partners. Results
showed that receiving mate poaching attempts
decreased the appeal of current partners while increas-
ing the desirability of alternatives. These findings
Statement of Relevance: Committed individuals cope with alternative partners by using strategies that undermine
their allure. However, in an era, in which alternative mates lurk around every corner, these strategies may lose their
effectiveness. Two studies investigated this possibility, showing that receiving mate poaching attempts decreased the
appeal of current partners while increasing the desirability of alternatives. These findings demonstrate the
circumstances that weaken resistance to temptations, pointing to a route by which online interactions impair
relationship functioning.
Received: 25 March 2022 Revised: 12 June 2022 Accepted: 16 June 2022
DOI: 10.1111/pere.12433
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits
use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or
adaptations are made.
© 2022 The Author. Personal Relationships published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of International Association for Relationship
Research.
Pers Relationship. 2022;115. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/pere 1
demonstrate the circumstances that weaken resistance
to temptations, pointing to a route by which online
interactions may impair relationship functioning.
KEYWORDS
attractive alternatives, mate poaching, relationship threat, sexual
desire, sexual fantasies
1|INTRODUCTION
People who enter monogamous relationships typically hope to maintain sexual and romantic
exclusivity with their partners. Thus, when faced with the threat of alternative partners, they
are likely to use strategies that help them resist the temptation of straying, such as paying less
attention to the presence of the alternatives (Lydon & Karremans, 2015). However, in an era, in
which alternative mates lurk around every corner of the internet, these relationship-
maintenance strategies may lose their effectiveness. Past research has mainly investigated the
reactions of committed individuals to the mere presence of alternative mates (e.g., viewing dat-
ing profiles; Brady et al., 2020; Maner et al., 2008), precluding conclusions about the effective-
ness of these strategies while confronting active flirtatious advances from alternative partners,
which are more difficult to ignore. The present research explored the circumstances that
weaken the ability to defend the relationship against the allure of alternative partners, focusing
on mate poaching, which occurs when people try to form a romantic or sexual relationship with
an individual who is already in a romantic relationship with someone else (Schmitt &
Buss, 2001). Specifically, the research examined how being the target of active mate poaching
attempts on the internet influenced perceptions of current and alternative partners.
2|COPING WITH THE TEMPTATIONS OF ALTERNATIVE
PARTNERS
People in monogamous relationships often experience a self-control conflict between their
intention to commit to the current partner and the temptation to pursue alternative mates
(Lydon & Karremans, 2015). Forging relationships with attractive alternative partners offers
multiple benefits (e.g., heightened status and reproductive success; Frevert & Walker, 2014;
Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999) that explain why these partners are more attended to (Aharon
et al., 2001; Van Straaten et al., 2010) and sought for than less attractive people (Buss, 2016).
Over-attentiveness to attractive alternatives, however, involves also costs, such as the increased
risk of infidelity (Brady et al., 2020 McNulty et al., 2018) or relationship friction, even when
over-attentiveness does not lead to adulterous behavior, such as when doubts about being hap-
pier with a different partner erode commitment over time (Solomon & Knobloch, 2004).
Interdependence perspectives (e.g., Rusbult et al., 2004) suggest that people who are com-
mitted to their romantic relationship are motivated to engage in processes that protect their
relationships and thus resolve the conflict between short-term pleasures and long-term commit-
ments by enacting strategies that help them override temptations. Emphasizing the adaptive
value of maintaining long-term relationships, contemporary evolutionary perspectives
2BIRNBAUM
(e.g., Kenrick et al., 2003) add that humans developed psychological strategies that defend their
primary relationships from the threat of attractive alternative partners, eventually increasing
the survival chances of offspring. Research has supported this theorizing, showing that com-
pared to their single counterparts, romantically involved individuals are more likely, for exam-
ple, to be inattentive to potential alternative mates (e.g., Maner et al., 2008) and to inhibit
thoughts about them (Gonzaga et al., 2008). When committed individuals do encounter alterna-
tive mates, they tend to see them in a less appealing light (e.g., Lee & O'Sullivan, 2019 Lydon
et al., 2003), disclose their relationship status to them (Linardatos & Lydon, 2011), and express
less interest in interacting with them (e.g., Karremans & Verwijmeren, 2008).
And yet, as demonstrated by the high prevalence estimates of infidelity (which can range up
to 70%; Allen et al., 2005; Blow & Hartnett, 2005), these strategies often fail to succeed (Lee &
O'Sullivan, 2019). Indeed, certain environments may create conditions that eventually erode the
motivation to protect the relationships from the threat of alternative mates (Pronk et al., 2011),
fostering flirtatious interactions with them (Drigotas et al., 1999; Lee & O'Sullivan, 2019). The
internet is one such environment, as it increases the perceived availability of alternative mates
and facilitates secrecy from the primary relationship partner (Clayton et al., 2013 McDaniel
et al., 2017 Vossler, 2016). The internet has not only made it easier than ever to connect with
alternative partners but also specifically with those who are already mated (Sharabi
et al., 2021), as indicated by the rise of sites designed exclusively for those seeking extradyadic
involvement (Finkel et al., 2012 Vossler, 2016).
Still, these environmental conditions alone are not enough for infidelity to occur. Partnered
individuals are likely to defend their relationship when they perceive that the threat imposed
on their relationship is high, such as in the case of realizing that an attractive individual shows
romantic interest in them (e.g., Lee & O'Sullivan, 2019 Lydon et al., 1999). Alternative mates
may be more successful in their pursuit, however, when they not only express interest but also
make active efforts to attract their targets of interest away from their partner, thereby under-
mining their defenses. For example, within the context of friendships, which allows for the
deployment of direct mate poaching tactics (e.g., acting helpful, developing an emotional con-
nection; Schmitt & Buss, 2001), the targets of poaching attempts tend to experience declines in
their commitment to their current partners, along with greater romantic desire for the poacher
over time (Lemay & Wolf, 2016). These psychological changes in targets of mate poaching
should determine the success of poaching attempts, increasing the likelihood that targets will
abandon their current partners for a desirable poacher (Davies & Shackelford, 2015 Lemay &
Wolf, 2016). To be sure, mate poaching is estimated to be responsible for the initiation of as
many as 10 to 15 percent of romantic relationships (Schmitt, 2004 Schmitt & Buss, 2001).
3|THE PRESENT RESEARCH
The present research investigated the circumstances that reinforced the tendency to succumb to
the temptations of poachers, examining how a manipulation of active mate poaching attempts
during online interactions affected perceptions of current and alternative partners. Prior studies
on the effectiveness of mate poaching attempts suffered from methodological limitations, such
as the use of correlational designs (e.g., Sharabi et al., 2021) and the investigation of partnered
individuals' reactions to the mere presence of alternatives rather than to active mate poaching
attempts (e.g., Brady et al., 2020 Maner et al., 2008). Another limitation was the focus on the
specific context of friendships (e.g., Lemay & Wolf, 2016), which decreased the costs of
BIRNBAUM 3
poaching, precluding generalization to the context of online interactions between strangers.
Also, there have been no direct empirical tests of the effect of mate poaching on targets' percep-
tions, except for a study relying on participants' perceptions of hypothetical mate poaching situ-
ations (Mogilski & Wade, 2013) that may divert from their reactions to mate poaching attempts
during actual interactions.
Two studies examined whether participants who were the target of active mate poaching
attempts would perceive their current partner as less appealing while perceiving alternative
partners as more appealing than participants in a control condition. In both studies, romanti-
cally involved participants chatted online with a confederate of the other gender who behaved
either flirtatiously or neutrally. Then, participants reported their perceptions of current and
alternative partners. In Study 1, participants completed an implicit measure of automatic affec-
tive attitudes toward their partner (McNulty et al., 2013), which proved useful in predicting the
seeds of relationship deterioration even when explicit partner evaluations failed to do so (Faure
et al., 2018 Lee et al., 2010). In Study 2, participants were asked to report the first sexual fantasy
that came to their mind following an online interaction with the poacher. These fantasies were
coded for expressions of desire for current and alternative partners. Sexual fantasies were used
as they offer a window through which to observe hidden desires (Birnbaum, 2007 Birnbaum
et al., 2011). The employment of these different expressions of desire in Studies 1 and 2 was
intended to rule out method-bound results and thereby strengthen the validity of the findings.
Both studies were approved by the local ethics institutional review board.
4|STUDY 1
Study 1 was designed to examine the effect of receiving mate poaching attempts on perceptions
of the current partner. For this purpose, romantically involved participants interacted online
with an attractive confederate of the other gender who behaved either flirtatiously (in the mate
poaching condition) or neutrally (in the control condition). Participants then completed an
implicit measure of automatic affective attitudes toward their partner and rated their partner's
attractiveness. It was hypothesized that participants in the mate poaching condition would per-
ceive their current partner as less appealing than participants in the control condition.
4.1 |Method
4.1.1 | Participants
A convenience sample of 130 undergraduate students [65 women (31 of whom were in the con-
trol group), 65 men (33 of whom were in the control group)] was recruited from psychology
classes at an Israeli university. Participants received course credit for participation. G*Power
software package (Faul et al., 2009) was used to determine sample size while ensuring 80%
power to detect an effect size, d, of 0.50 at p< .05. This hypothesized effect size was based on
findings from prior research exploring how relationship threat affected the desire for sex with
current and alternative partners (Birnbaum, Mizrahi, et al., 2019). Potential participants were
recruited if they were in a monogamous heterosexual relationship of longer than 4 months. Par-
ticipants ranged from 20 to 28 years of age (M=24.10, SD =3.52). Relationship duration
ranged from 4 to 264 months (M=22.42, SD =31.65).
4BIRNBAUM
4.1.2 | Measures and procedure
Participants who agreed to take part in a study of impression management in social media
attended a 30-min laboratory session individually. Prior to each session, participants were ran-
domly assigned to one of two conditions in which they interacted with a confederate of the
other gender who either (a) flirted with them (the mate poaching condition) or (b) behaved
neutrally (the control condition). When participants arrived at the laboratory, an experimenter
informed them that the study focused on how people create and manage impressions on social
media and in real life, leading them to believe that they would chat online with another partici-
pant who was in another room. In reality, the person in the other room was a confederate.
Then, the experimenter informed the participants that they and the other participant (the con-
federate) would see each other's photos. To do so, the experimenter took the participants' photo
and sent it to the confederate. After sending their photo, the experimenter showed the partici-
pants the ostensibly other participant's photo. In truth, all participants viewed the same photos.
Previous studies verified that the male and female versions of these photos were both similarly
(and moderately) attractive (e.g., Birnbaum, Zholtack, & Reis, 2020).
Following the photo exchange, the experimenter asked the participants to chat with the con-
federate over Instant Messenger for a couple of minutes to get to know each other. To make
sure that the chats were reasonably consistent in both experimental conditions, the experi-
menter requested that participants would ask and reply to specific questions within the chat
(e.g., How are you?;What is your name?;Where do you live?;What do you study?). In
this way, the confederate could use a fixed chat script for each condition.
In the mate poaching condition, the confederate used the following script:
Hi my name is Guy. How are you? I'm good, thanks. What's your name? Where do you live? I live
in Tel Aviv. I study computer science. What do you study? I've heard that psychology students
(or whatever the participants reported they studied) are the coolest. Now I see it's true. So, what do you
do in your free time? Cool! I play the guitar. I also make time for sport at least twice a week, mostly
swimming and running. On weekends, I'm usually hanging out with friends. Where do you like to
travel? Great choice! I'd like to visit there too! We should go there together! What are your best traits?
You are beautiful both inside and out! I'm creative and outgoing. What are your future plans? Sounds
promising! I really don't have a clear direction yet. I might pursue graduate studies.
In the control condition, the confederate used the same script, except for the flirtatious
remarks, as follows:
Hi my name is Guy. How are you? I'm good, thanks. What's your name? Where do you live? I
live in Tel Aviv. I study computer science. What do you study? Sounds interesting! So, what do you
do in your free time? Cool! I play the guitar. I also make time for sport at least twice a week, mostly
swimming and running. On weekends, I'm usually hanging out with friends. Where do you like to
travel? I like to travel the country. What are your best traits? I'm creative and outgoing. What are
your future plans? I really don't have a clear direction yet. I might pursue graduate studies.
After a couple of minutes, the experimenter asked participants to end the chat and complete
four items assessing the extent to which they felt the other participant was flirting with them
(e.g., To what extent did you feel the other participant was courting you?;To what extent did
you feel the other participant was flirting with you?;α=0.91). This measure of perception of
the confederate's flirtatiousness was used as a manipulation check to determine whether a par-
ticipant in the mate poaching condition perceived the confederate as more flirtatious than did
participants in the control condition.
Participants then completed an implicit measure of automatic affective attitudes toward
their partner, which was a version of an associative priming task (McNulty et al., 2013) that was
BIRNBAUM 5
programmed using DirectRT software. This task required participants to categorize seven affec-
tively charged positive words (e.g., charming, fabulous) and seven affectively charged negative
words (e.g., repulsive, sickening) as either positive or negative while doing so as quickly as pos-
sible. Prior to viewing each of these words, participants were exposed to 300-ms primes of pho-
tographs of their partner, themselves, and strangers of the other sex. Photos of the partner and
self had been sent by the participants before they attended the session.
Participants first completed a practice trial in which they responded to each word twice
(28 trials) after being exposed to a neutral prime (a row of asterisks). Following this practice
trial, participants completed two blocks of 42 trials each (each of the 7 positive and 7 negative
target words following each of the three categories of primes). The time it took participants to
categorize the valence of the words was measured (in milliseconds). Originally, we intended to
exclude participants whose average response time was greater than 3 SDs above the sample
mean, but no participant reached these exclusion criteria. An index of automatic attitudes was
then created by subtracting reaction time to the positive words from reaction time to the nega-
tive words. Higher scores indicated more positive attitudes. Only the measure that was derived
from the partner primes was used, as the measures derived from other primes were not the
main focus of the present investigation.
Following the implicit task, participants rated three items assessing their explicit perception
of their partner's attractiveness (Birnbaum, Iluz, et al., 2020, e.g., To what extent do you think
that your current romantic partner is attractive?;α=0.67). Participants rated all items on a
5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all)to5(very much). Finally, participants reported demo-
graphic information, including their age and the length of their current relationship, and were
fully debriefed. The data collection ran from March 2020 to June 2020.
4.2 |Results and discussion
4.2.1 | Manipulation check
At-test on perceptions of the confederate's flirtatiousness yielded the expected effect. Partici-
pants perceived the confederate as more flirtatious in the mate poaching condition than did par-
ticipants in the control condition (see Table 1).
TABLE 1 Means, standard deviations, statistics, and effect sizes of participants' implicit and explicit
perceptions in the experimental conditions (study 1)
Mate
poaching Control t(128)
Cohen's
d
95% CI for
Cohen's d
Confederate's perceived
flirtatiousness
3.64 (0.79) 1.69 (0.82) 13.70*** 2.40 [1.95, 2.85]
Implicit perception of current
partner
5.82 (128.77) 111.05 (327.38) 2.69** 0.47 [0.15, 0.81]
Explicit perception of current
partner's attractiveness
3.98 (0.78) 4.29 (0.50) 2.65** 0.46 [0.14, 0.81]
Note:N=130. **p< .01, ***p< .001. Explicit measures were rated on 5-point Likert scales. Implicit perception of current
partner is a difference score, created by subtracting reaction time to positive words from reaction time to negative words, such
that higher scores indicate more positive perceptions of current partner. Standard deviations are presented in parentheses.
6BIRNBAUM
4.2.2 | Main analyses
At-test on implicit attitude toward the partner yielded the expected effect. Participants were
less likely to have positive automatic attitudes toward their current partner in the mate
poaching condition than in the control condition. A t-test on explicit perceptions of the part-
ner's attractiveness also yielded the expected effect. Participants perceived their partner as less
attractive in the mate poaching condition than did participants in the control condition (see
Table 1).
1
These findings show that being the target of active mate poaching attempts leads people to
perceive their partners in a more negative light, suggesting that such attempts impair the moti-
vation to protect the current relationship against the allure of alternative partners. The findings
also suggest that once a temptation of attractive alternatives becomes more tangible as in the
case of receiving active poaching attempts, the ability to resist the temptation to stray weakens,
unleashing the desire for alternative partners. Study 2 addressed this possibility.
5|STUDY 2
Study 2 was designed to replicate and extend the findings of Study 1 by using a different mea-
sure of participants' reactions to poaching attempts that enables to assess their desire for both
current and alternative partners. Study 2 also aimed to examine the process that underlay the
unleashing of extradyadic desires. To do so, romantically involved participants interacted online
with an attractive confederate of the other gender who behaved either flirtatiously (in the mate
poaching condition) or neutrally (in the control condition). Participants then rated their attrac-
tion to the confederate and described in writing the first fantasy that came to their mind. Inde-
pendent raters coded these fantasies for expressions of sexual desire for current and alternative
partners. It was hypothesized that participants in the mate poaching condition would express
less desire for their current partner and greater desire for alternative partners than participants
in the control condition. Given that active poaching attempts might erode participants' ability
to devalue the attractiveness of alternatives and resist continuous temptations (Lee &
O'Sullivan, 2019 Sharabi et al., 2021), it was also hypothesized that the effect of mate poaching
attempts on the desire for alternatives, as expressed in sexual fantasies, would be mediated by
the heightened attraction to the confederate.
5.1 |Method
5.1.1 | Participants
A convenience sample of 130 undergraduate students [65 women (32 of whom were in the con-
trol group), 65 men (33 of whom were in the control group)] was recruited from psychology
classes at an Israeli university. Participants received course credit for participation. G*Power
software package (Faul et al., 2009) was used to determine sample size while ensuring 80%
power to detect an effect size, d, of 0.50 at p< .05. Potential participants were recruited if they
were in a monogamous heterosexual relationship of longer than 4 months. Participants ranged
from 21 to 32 years of age (M=24.48, SD =2.89). Relationship duration ranged from 4 to
274 months (M=31.65, SD =35.72).
BIRNBAUM 7
5.1.2 | Measures and procedure
Participants who agreed to take part in a study of virtual expressions of intimacy attended a
30-min laboratory session individually. When participants arrived at the laboratory, an experi-
menter informed them that the study focused on how people create and express intimacy dur-
ing online and imagined interactions. The experimenter further added that if they were
uncomfortable, they were allowed to stop their participation in the study at any time without
any penalty. Participants then followed the same initial procedure as in Study 1. After chatting
with the confederate, participants completed four items, which were described in Study
1, assessing the extent to which they felt the confederate was flirting with them (α=0.93), and
a single item assessing their sexual attraction to the confederate (To what extent do you feel
attracted to the other participant?).
Then, the experimenter explained to the participants the definition of sexual fantasy
(Leitenberg & Henning, 1995), indicating that sexual fantasies included any mental imagery
that was sexually arousing to them. Following the procedure of Birnbaum (2007), the experi-
menter asked the participants to think of a sexual fantasy that involved the current partner,
adding that the fantasy might involve other people as well or the current partner only. Par-
ticipants were explicitly asked to think of a sexual fantasy that involved the current partner
(rather than any individual) because the main focus of the study was how mate poaching
influenced the perception of current partners. The experimenter further instructed the par-
ticipants to report the first fantasy that came to their mind while describing in detail the spe-
cific scene and the sensations and thoughts that they and the objects of their fantasy
experienced.
After describing their fantasy, participants completed four items assessing their sexual desire
for people other than their current partner who appeared in their fantasy (e.g., I feel a great
deal of sexual desire for people other than my current partner who appeared in my fantasy;
α=0.74). These items were adapted from a measure of sexual desire used by Birnbaum et al.
(2016) to reflect the desire for sex with someone other than the current partner. The experi-
menter instructed participants to rate these items as 1 if their fantasy did not involve other peo-
ple. Participants also completed two items assessing their desire for the current partner
(Birnbaum et al., 2016, e.g., To what extent would you be interested in having sex with your
partner;r=0.61, p< .001). Participants rated all these items on a 5-point scale ranging from
1(not at all)to5(very much). Finally, participants reported demographic information and were
fully debriefed. The data collection ran from March 2020 to June 2020.
Coding fantasmatic expressions of desire for alternative and current partners
Two trained independent psychology students, who were blind to the experimental condition,
coded participants' fantasies. Each judge read the fantasy and indicated whether someone other
than the current partner was involved in this fantasy, creating a dichotomous variable compar-
ing participants whose fantasies involved only their current partner (N=88) to those whose
fantasies involved other people as well (the confederate or other individuals; N=42). Inter-
rater agreement for the judgment concerning whether the fantasy included someone other than
the participant's partner was perfect (Krippendorff's alpha =1.00). Then, coders rated the extent
to which participants expressed sexual desire for current partner in a single overall coding of
sexual desire for the current partner. Coders also rated the extent to which participants
expressed sexual desire for someone other than the current partner in a single overall coding of
sexual desire for alternatives (fantasies that did not involve other people were rated as 1).
8BIRNBAUM
The coders made their ratings on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all)to5(very much),
relying on a coding scheme that was employed successfully in past research (e.g., Birnbaum
et al., 2014; Birnbaum, Zholtack, et al., 2019). Specifically, the coders based their impressions
on expressed interest in sexual interactions and portrayals of engagement in sexual activity,
including making out. Inter-rater reliability was high with intraclass correlation coefficients
(ICCs) of 0.87 and 0.93 for desire for current and alternative partners, respectively. Coders' rat-
ings for each participant were therefore averaged.
5.2 |Results and discussion
5.2.1 | Manipulation check
At-test on perceptions of the confederate's flirtatiousness yielded the expected effect. Partici-
pants perceived the confederate as more flirtatious in the mate poaching condition than did par-
ticipants in the control condition. Table 2presents the means, standard deviations, and
statistics for this analysis.
5.2.2 | Main analyses
To examine whether the manipulation of mate poaching (manipulation, control) affected the
choice of the object of fantasies (current partners only, current and alternative partners), a Chi-
square analysis for the independence of measures was conducted. The analysis indicated that
the manipulation significantly affected the choice of the object of fantasies, χ
2(1)
=14.07,
p< .001, such that 83.1% of the participants in the control conditions fantasized only about
their partner as compared with 52.3% of the participants in the mate poaching condition. These
findings show that being the target of mate poaching leads people to fantasize more about
someone other than their current partner.
TABLE 2 Means, standard deviations, statistics, and effect sizes of participants' perceptions and desire for
current and alternative partners in the experimental conditions (study 2)
Mate
poaching Control t(128)
Cohen's
d
95% CI for
Cohen's d
Confederate's perceived flirtatiousness 3.71 (1.02) 1.94 (0.68) 11.60*** 2.03 [1.61, 2.46]
Attraction to the confederate 3.54 (1.34) 2.52 (1.26) 4.45*** 0.78 [0.42, 1.14]
Self-reported desire for alternative
partners in the fantasy
4.03 (0.82) 3.48 (0.95) 3.58*** 0.63 [0.27, 0.98]
Self-reported desire for current
partner
4.32 (0.78) 4.55 (0.58) 1.84
#
0.32 [0.00, 0.66]
Coded sexual desire for alternatives 1.98 (1.17) 1.43 (0.98) 2.93** 0.51 [0.16, 0.86]
Coded sexual desire for current
partner
2.27 (1.15) 2.79 (1.30) 2.42* 0.42 [0.10, 0.77]
Note:N=130. #p< .07, *p< .05, **p< .01, ***p< .001. All measures were rated on 5-point Likert scales. Standard deviations
are presented in parentheses.
BIRNBAUM 9
T-tests on measures of desire for current and alternative partners yielded the predicted
effect. Participants in the mate poaching condition experienced more sexual desire for alterna-
tive partners and less sexual desire for their current partner (although with a small effect size)
than did participants in the control condition (see Table 2). This pattern of results was consis-
tent across both self-reported and coded measures, showing that being the target of mate
poaching affects not only self-reported desire but also displays of desire that were coded by
raters. This consistent pattern indicates that people's accounts of their own desire for current
and alternative partners can be observed by external coders, ruling out an explanation of moti-
vated construal process (Reis & Gable, 2000).
Mediation analysis
To examine whether the effect of the manipulation of mate poaching on coded sexual desire for
someone who was not the current partner was mediated by self-reported attraction to the con-
federate, PROCESS (Hayes, 2013, model 4) was used. The manipulation of mate poaching was
the predictor, sexual desire for someone other than the partner, as rated by coders, was the out-
come measure, and attraction to the confederate was the mediator. Figure 1shows the final
model. This analysis revealed a significant effect of the manipulation of mate poaching on
attraction to the confederate (b=1.02, SE =0.23, t=4.45, p< .001, β=0.37, 95% CI [0.21,
0.53]), and a significant effect of attraction to the confederate on coded desire for alternative
partners (b=0.25, SE =0.07, t=3.68, p< .001, β=0.31, 95% CI [0.15, 0.47]). Also, attraction
to the confederate was uniquely associated with coded desire for alternative partners after con-
trolling for the manipulation of mate poaching (b=0.20, SE =0.07, t=2.81, p=.006,
β=0.25, 95% CI [0.07, 0.43]).
More importantly, this analysis indicated that the 95% CI of the indirect effect for the
manipulation of mate poaching as a predictor of coded desire for alternative partners through
attraction to the confederate did not include zero and thus is considered significant (b=0.20,
SE =0.09, β=0.09, 95% CI [0.03, 0.18], 5000 bootstrapped samples). The same mediation anal-
ysis with self-report of desire for alternatives as the outcome measure (rather than coded sexual
desire for alternative partners as the outcome measure) was conducted. This analysis also indi-
cated that the 95% CI of the indirect effect for the manipulation of mate poaching as a predictor
of self-reported desire for alternative partners through attraction to the confederate did not
include zero and thus is considered significant (b=0.31, SE =0.09, β=0.17, 95% CI [0.08,
0.27], 5000 bootstrapped samples), showing consistency across the two analyses. The analyses
thus supported the proposed mediational pathway, such that a manipulation of mate poaching
FIGURE 1 Mediation model showing that attraction to the confederate mediated the effect of manipulated
mate poaching on desire for someone other than the current partner, as expressed in sexual fantasies in study
2. Path coefficients are standardized. The value in parentheses is from the analysis of the effect without
attraction to the confederate in the equation. **p< .01, ***p< .001.
10 BIRNBAUM
attempts by a confederate predicted attraction to the confederate, which, in turn, was associated
with experiencing more desire for alternative partners in sexual fantasies.
Overall, these findings replicated those of Study 1, using a different measure of desire for cur-
rent partners. The inclusion of different expressions of desire was conceptually broadening and
enhanced the validity of the findings by ruling out method-bound results. The findings of Study
2 also extended those of Study 1, revealing that mate poaching attempts are likely to unleash the
desire for sex with alternative mates in addition to decreasing the current partner's appeal. Study
2 also points to the process by which mate poaching influences extradyadic desires, indicating that
being actively courted by attractive mate poachers makes it more difficult to devalue their attrac-
tiveness, which, in turn, releases repressed desires for these or other alternative partners.
6|GENERAL DISCUSSION
With offspring dependence on biparental caregiving, both men and women evolved to form
long-term pair bonds (Eastwick, 2009 Fletcher et al., 2015) that are commonly intended to be
monogamous (Anderson, 2010 Conley et al., 2013). The hegemony of monogamy, however, can-
not carry the promise of fidelity. The growing demand for applications that facilitate
extradyadic affairs (Finkel et al., 2012 Vossler, 2016) indeed demonstrates that sex is often
sought outside of what is considered a committed relationship (e.g., Allen et al., 2005 Blow &
Hartnett, 2005). Whereas most prior studies have focused on partner and relationship factors
that make both online and offline infidelity more likely (see Fincham & May, 2017;
Vossler, 2016, for reviews), the present research turns the spotlight on the characteristics of the
alternatives that lessen people's ability to resist their allure.
Two studies show that receiving online mate poaching attempts from attractive poachers
(versus engaging in a neutral interaction with them) can render romantically involved individ-
uals more vulnerable to infidelity. Study 1 indicated that being the target of mate poaching led
participants to view their current partners in a more negative light and to desire them less, as
expressed both implicitly and explicitly. Study 2 replicated these findings and extended them,
revealing that being the target of mate poaching not only decreased the appeal of current part-
ners but also increased the desirability of alternative mates. Study 2 also spoke to the process by
which active mate poaching attempts might weaken partnered individuals' motivation to
defend their current relationship. Specifically, being actively courted by attractive mate
poachers apparently interfered with the strategy of devaluation of attractive alternatives, which,
in turn, further unleased extradyadic desires, at least as manifested in sexual fantasies.
The internet presents endless opportunities for personal and interpersonal growth, such as
connecting people all over the globe and improving access to education. However, with these
opportunities come challenges that may impair personal and relationship well-being, such as
coping with addiction and distraction. The present research demonstrates the destructive poten-
tial of the internet for relationship functioning, showing how temptations in the interpersonal
domain jeopardize existing romantic relationships. Past studies have already found that spend-
ing time on social media may harm existing relationships, as it offers an easy route to behaviors
that often lead to jealousy, dissatisfaction, and even breakups (e.g., communicating with alter-
native partners and engaging in cybersex; Clayton et al., 2013; McDaniel et al., 2017). The pre-
sent research adds to these studies by focusing on what it is that makes alternative partners
difficult to resist, indicating that good looks in and of itself may not encourage infidelity.
Rather, active courting attempts are required in order to penetrate through the shield of
BIRNBAUM 11
relationship maintenance strategies and undermine partnered individuals' ability to resist the
allure of alternative mates.
Overall, the present research firms up a causal connection between receiving mate poaching
attempts and experiencing extradyadic desires, shedding light on when and how interacting
online with attractive strangers provides the extra push needed to pursue short-term pleasures
rather than the long-term goal of relationship maintenance. And yet, the present results should
be interpreted with a degree of caution as overt behavioral expressions of desire, such as
engagement in offline involvement, were not assessed. It is therefore unclear whether the effect
of receiving mate poaching attempts on the desire for current and alternative partners would
translate into actual behavior. To be sure, partnered individuals who interact online with
strangers and fantasize about them do not necessarily wish to act out their fantasies, either
because it is too risky (e.g., Critelli & Bivona, 2008) or because fantasizing is rewarding in and
of itself (Birnbaum, Kanat-Maymon, et al., 2019).
Another limitation of the present research is that it involved brief interactions in an artificial
laboratory setting. Thus, it is unclear whether the effect of mate poaching on extradyadic desires
would apply in complex natural settings, which make the potential costs of infidelity more diffi-
cult to handle. Furthermore, although Study 2 indicates the process by which mate poaching
influences the desire for alternatives, it cannot tell whether mate poaching renders poachers
more desirable because they seem bold or because targets of poaching like those who make
them feel valued. It would be therefore revealing to explore whether the effect of mate poaching
on the desirability of the poacher would be observed when an unattractive (rather than an
attractive) poacher flirts with participants, possibly making them feel less valued, compared to
a condition in which participants receive mate poaching attempts from an attractive poacher.
On the whole, more research is needed to explore the long-term outcomes of online mate
poaching in more natural settings, examining whether and why it is effective in motivating the
targets to form relationships with poachers in the real world.
Notwithstanding these caveats, the present research demonstrates the circumstances that
weaken resistance to temptations of alternative partners, pointing to a route by which online
interactions may diminish relationship well-being and lead to offline affairs. In doing so, the
findings underscore the need to identify couples who are especially susceptible to temptations
of attractive alternatives so that they may receive appropriate counseling. Such counseling
should focus on the enhancement of appetitive processes, which have proven effective in insti-
gating sexual desire between partners and helping them prioritize the goal of relationship main-
tenance (e.g., provision of responsiveness and making one's partner feel special;
Birnbaum, 2018; Birnbaum et al., 2016,2021).
ACKNOWLEDGMENT
Gurit E. Birnbaum would like to thank Kobi Zholtack, Adi Dan, Maayan Nagar, Shir Hand-
elsman, and Julia Glikshtein for their assistance in conducting the research.
FUNDING INFORMATION
This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant 1210/16 awarded to Gurit
E. Birnbaum).
DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author
upon reasonable request. (Gurit E. Birnbaum: birnbag@gmail.com)
12 BIRNBAUM
ORCID
Gurit E. Birnbaum https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2033-4839
ENDNOTE
1
In both studies, we examined the interactive effect of gender and manipulation of mate poaching as well as of
relationship length and manipulation of mate poaching on participants' perceptions of current and alternative
partners. This interactive effect was not significant in any of the analyses.
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https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12433
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Research addressing the underlying functions of sexual fantasies has mainly focused on variables associated with frequency and content of fantasies. Relatively less is known about how sexual fantasizing affects the relationship. Four studies examined the contribution of fantasizing about one's partner ("dyadic fantasies") to relationship outcomes. In Studies 1 and 2, participants fantasized either about their partner or about someone else and rated their desire to engage in sex and other non-sexual relationship-promoting activities with their partner. In Studies 3 and 4, romantic partners recorded their fantasies and relationship interactions each evening for a period of 21 and 42 days, respectively. In Study 4, partners also provided daily reports on relationship perceptions. Overall, dyadic fantasizing was associated with heightened desire and increased engagement in relationship-promoting behaviors. Relationship perceptions explained the link between dyadic fantasies and relationship-promoting behaviors, suggesting that such fantasies benefit the relationship by enhancing partner and relationship appeal.
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