Our Brains Are Hot-Wired To Forgive Betrayal — But Only In Older Relationships

The 1955 movie The Seven Year Itch follows the plight of a faithful husband who must endeavor to resist the charms of a vampy neighbour played by Marilyn Monroe while his wife and son are away on holidays. In the end he resists temptation, but new research suggests his wife would have forgiven him anyway.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Couples are far more likely to overcome breaches of trust in the later stages of a relationship, if new research is to be believed. This is because our brains are triggered in different ways depending on the time-frame of the betrayal. In other words, if you're planning to cheat on your spouse, wait until you're both old 'n' busted to minimise the fallout.

Researchers from the Department of Sociology at the University of California conducted a series of trust experiments to determine whether couples with longer relationship histories are more likely to recover from a trust breach.

Rather cheekily, the researchers duped participants into thinking that their partners had shafted them in a trust–honor game which involved the distribution of money. Participants could either keep $8 on a given trial or transfer it to a partner, in which case the money would be tripled and the partner would decide whether to reciprocate and equally share the $24 or to defect and keep all of the money. In reality, the participants were playing against a computer preprogrammed to violate the participant’s trust.

"We consider the deception involved in our procedures methodologically necessary, as it allowed us to cleanly implement our relationship experience manipulation while also avoiding excessive waste of data collection resources," the report somewhat sheepishly explains.

The results of the experiment suggested that greater relationship experience before a trust breach supports trust recovery. Interestingly, the report claims that our likelihood to forgive is linked to the activation of differing regions of the brain:

A violation of trust can have quite different consequences, depending on the extent of relationship experience before the trust breach.


This behavioral effect is possible because of differential activation of two brain systems: while decision making after early trust breaches engages structures of a controlled social cognition system, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex and lateral frontal cortex, decision making after later trust breaches engages structures of an automatic social cognition system, specifically the lateral temporal cortex.

The researchers conclude that breaching or violating trust is associated with activation of brain areas; evidence that strongly supports the emerging field of organizational neuroscience.

Mind you, we're sure there are many other contributing factors that have little to do with neuroscience. For starters, breaking off a relationship in its later stages is usually a lot more complicated than at the beginning: you're likely living together, have more shared friends and assets and are therefore far less inclined to press the "nuke" button.

Effect of relationship experience on trust recovery following a breach [PNAS]


    Hmm, bit of a long draw to equate cheating your partner out of $24 to banging her sister.
    Whilst the initial mental mechanics may be the same, the emotional payload that $24 has compared to 8 years of marriage/partnership is minuscule.
    It is that payload that amplifies the feelings of betrayal, and makes it harder for reconciliation with both yourself and externally with your partner.
    There is also zero lack of face in losing a small amount of money, but massive loss of prestige amongst your peers (or perceived loss - they may not even know, but initially you'll assume they do - cue 'feeling foolish')

    This experiment is a variation on well known one within Psychology circles, for it's portrayal of trust perception with others, and was never designed to measure intimate trust between partners.

    I'd hypothesise that if they made the monetary amount more in line with the relationship, say $10,000 for every year spent together, then the reactions might be more comparable.

      The point of the study is that trust recovery is facilitated with increasing relationship experience. Obviously fewer partners would be willing to forgive infidelity than being stiffed out of $25. But in either circumstance, those that *do* forgive tend to be in longer relationships. At least, this is what the researchers are arguing, based on their evidence from MRI scans.

    I don't see why they have to be sheepish about it. The breach of trust is illusory, which would obviously become apparent to the participant once the test was completed.

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