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You’re probably better at spotting a cheater than you think

Have you ever watched a couple together and just felt instinctively that something was off? You were probably right, if science has anything to say about it.

In two new studies from Brigham Young University, researchers tracked how obvious infidelity was to a third party’s naked eye. In the first study, 51 university students in committed relationships filled out questionnaires detailing the private details of their relationships, including whether or not they’d been emotionally or physically unfaithful to their current partner. They then filmed the couples completing a three- to five-minute blindfolded drawing task, which they showed to six “objective coders.”

These participants answered questions about the couples like, “How likely is it that this person flirted or made advances on someone other than the partner?” and, “How likely do you think this person has had sexual intercourse with someone other than his or her partner?” on a scale of one to five. (The second study of 43 participants was similar, except the coders also answered questions about how committed each person was to their relationship and how trustworthy they seemed.) In both studies, the objective coders consistently marked the same people as unfaithful, and were also spot-on when it came to whether or not a partner had actually cheated — strongly associated to whether the coders found the person trustworthy and committed or not.

Given the evolutionary disadvantages of cheating — like raising the wrong offspring, for instance — researchers seem to think this keen eye for picking out philandering partners makes complete sense. I think so, too, for one key reason: My gut always seems to be right. It’s more right than my head, more right than my heart. The biggest issue is whether or not I choose to listen to it, or want to acknowledge it.

That’s why if your friend comes to you with a concern about your partner, you may want to listen. Often your feelings for someone can completely drown out the feeling in the pit of your stomach that something is wrong — but your friend probably sees what you can’t. Sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover (or its behavior toward a partner).

“People make remarkably accurate judgments about others in a variety of situations after just a brief exposure to their behavior,” said the researchers. Right on.

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