Does cheating run in the family?

kennedy brothers
Can science explain the Kennedys' history of cheating? See pictures of famous historical couples.
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The public perception of the legendary Kennedy dynasty could be summed up with three words: Catholicism, politics and, of course, affairs. Over the years, the extramarital infidelities of America's royal family have continually piqued tabloid interest into the goings-on behind the Kennedy compound gates. As recently as February 2012, in fact, a former White House intern came forward with her story of an interlude with President John F. Kennedy, whose wandering eye was already widely acknowledged [source: Reuters]. And the Kennedy canoodling didn't stop at the threshold of the Oval Office.

The former president's married brother Robert F. Kennedy may have engaged in dalliances with screen siren Marilyn Monroe, and some allege that he and Jacqueline Kennedy carried on after her husband's assassination [source: McGreal]. In 1969, youngest brother Ted Kennedy also raised eyebrows when he abandoned the Chappaquiddick Island drowning site of Mary Jo Kopechne's -- a woman he left a party alone with while his wife, Joan Kennedy, was pregnant [source: TIME]. Bobby's daughter Kerry became embroiled in a public divorce from the future New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he discovered her long-term affair with a family friend in 2003 [source: CBS News].


Was there something in the water at Camelot? Clearly, that handful of Kennedys isn't the only cluster of Americans guilty of sexually straying from husbands and wives. Collective data on cheating behavior among married couples projects that between 20 and 40 percent of men and 20 and 35 percent of women have committed adultery against their respective spouses, which is actually a testament to the institution's monogamous bedrock, since 70 percent of dating couples report cheating [source: Tsapelas, Fisher and Aron]. Moreover, certain environmental factors may have predisposed Kennedy family members to extramarital activity. For instance, relationship psychology research has linked flusher bank accounts with higher likelihoods of cheating, since money literally affords more opportunity and access to sex [source: Tsapelas, Fisher and Aron].

But recent scientific findings also point to a more basic explanation for the Kennedys' common habit of cavorting away from the conjugal bed. Perhaps cheating is simply inherited, passed along the branches of the sprawling family tree through their blue-blooded Westchester genes.


The Infidelity Gene Debate

unfaithful woman
Genetic variations correlate to cheating behavior.
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In October 2011, Czech anthropologists published a study possibly explaining the Kennedy brothers' -- Robert's, John's and Ted's -- common tendency to seek sex outside of marriage. They surveyed a group of 86 cohabitating couples about their relationship satisfaction and infidelities, in addition to their knowledge of any parental unfaithfulness. The only correlation they unearthed was between fathers' and sons' cheating behavior. Specifically, a father's known history of extramarital affairs predicted a higher probability that his son would follow in his philandering footsteps [source: Havlíček et al]. Lo and behold, the Kennedy pater familias, Joseph, carried on his fair share of extramarital romances, including one with cinema icon Gloria Swanson in the late 1920s [source: Korda].

Scientists worth their salt know that such correlative relationships don't prove population-wide causations, but that 2011 Czech study nevertheless supported earlier evidence of a genetic component to infidelity. A 2008 headline-sparking genetic investigation out of Sweden identified allele 334, a genetic variation associated with male infidelity because it interferes with the brain's processing of vasopressin, a neurochemical associated with monogamous pair bonding [source: Karolinska Institute]. Men with two copies of allele 334 were twice as likely to have weathered a major relationship crisis, compared to men bearing one allele copy[source: Tsapelas, Fisher and Aron]. Their romantic partners also reported the lowest relationship satisfaction among the participant pool.


Two years later, a separate team of scientists implicated the brain's dopamine D4 receptor gene, linked to addictive behavior, as another key in the infidelity ignition [source: Garcia et al]. One type of D4 genetic variation called a 7R+ allele effectively diminishes the concentration of dopamine receptors in the brain's reward system; previous studies have likewise associated it with sensation-seeking behavior, including monetary spending, promiscuity and cigarette smoking. And, indeed, infidelity study participants possessing the 7R+ allele reported higher numbers of sexual partners than those with a standard 7R- allele. Compellingly, the 7R+ folks were no more prone to cheating than their 7R- counterparts. Once they crossed the adultery line, however, they tended to do so with a higher number of sexual partners [source: Garcia et al].

But those savvy scientists would also admonish against treating genetic predisposition as crystal ball predictions, despite splashy news stories suggesting otherwise. A genetic study published in November 2010 from Saint Thomas' Hospital in London supports this. Their analysis of 1,600 adult female twin pairs attributed 38 percent of unfaithful behavioral to inheritable genes, discrediting the notion that predisposed cheaters are completely at the mercy of vasopressin- and dopamine-mangling DNA [source: Cherkas et al]. In that case, the ultimate fate of romantic fidelity -- to cheat or not to cheat -- is left up to environmental chance and personal choice, naturally.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • CBS News. "Nightmare in Camelot." Feb. 11, 2009. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Cherkas, Lynn F. et al. "Genetic Influences on Female Infidelity and Number of Sexual Partners in Humans: A Linkage and Association Study of the Role of the Vasopressin Receptor Gene (AVPR1A)." Twin Research. Vol. 07, No. 06. Aug. 30, 2004.
  • Garcia, Justin R. "Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity." PLoS ONE. Nov. 30, 2010. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Havlíček, Jan et al. "Correlates of extra-dyadic sex in Czech heterosexual couples: does sexual behavior of parents matter?" Archives of Sexual Behavior. December 2011. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Karolinska Institute "Infidelity Gene? Genetic Link To Relationship Difficulties Found." ScienceDaily. Sept. 02, 2008. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Korda, Michael. "Joe Kennedy's Hollywood Fling." Thae Daily Beast. Feb. 04, 2009. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • McGreal, Chris. "Author alleges Jackie and Bobby Kennedy began affair after JFK assassination." The Guardian. July 07, 2009. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Peele, Stanton. "Reckless Sex and Power III: The Top Seven Kennedy Sex Scandals." Psychology Today. May 21, 2008. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Reuters. "Former intern reveals 18-month affair with JFK." Feb. 06, 2012. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • TIME. "Chappaquiddick: Suspicions Renewed." May 11, 1970. (Feb. 21, 2012),9171,878212,00.html
  • Tsapelas, Irene; Fisher, Helen E.; and Aron, Arthur. "Infidelity: When, Where, Why." The Dark Side of Close Relationships II." Taylor & Francis. Aug. 30, 2010. (Feb. 21, 2012)
  • Vedantam, Shankar. "Study Links Gene Variant in Men to Marital Discord." The Washington Post. Sept. 02, 2008. (Feb. 21, 2012)