An important question that Henderson raises in his article, and rightly so, is to what extents can these findings be applied to human populations? Can vasopressin and its receptors be implicated in the same way as they are in voles? Henderson cites a recent study by Walum et al (2008) in which 2,186 twins and their partners were tested on the three genetic variations in the human vasopressin receptor. Detailed measures of marital problems, personal mental health, and relationship quality were self reported on a Partner Bonding Scale (PBS) and DNA was extracted from each participant via a ‘mouth wash’. DNA was then analysed and heritability of the genetic variant was identified.
One of the most common alleles (named 334), that is, one of a number of variants of the gene in question, was found to be associated with perceived partner bonding in men as assessed in the PBS. Furthermore, a correlation was found between AVPR1a receptor and human pair-bonding behaviours similarly to that reported in voles. It seems that Henderson’s initially reporting, that men who inherit the genetic variant 334 are indeed less likely to be married, less likely to form long lasting bonds and experience marital problems was correct.Although these results are in line with previous observations, their reliability however might be drawn into question if one looks closely at the methods employed in the study. Participants were asked to self report on the state of affairs in their relationship via a questionnaire and so objectivity was virtually impossible. In order for more reliable results, measures of pair-bonding that are more objective than self report would be required, for example proneness to living alone versus cohabiting, marriage and divorce.Much remains unknown regarding the aetiology of human sexual infidelity.
Such variability in results suggests that cultural and social factors can also exert a major influence on promiscuous behaviours in men. Although the Henderson article states that it would be ‘impossible to predict whether any individual would be unfaithful or a bad partner on the basis of genes’ alone, it does not however, consider the other possible contributory factors involved with infidelity.Gender alone, for instance appears to be strongly correlated with infidelity. Some authors assert that many more men compared with women engage if infidelity (Alien ; Baucom, 2004), have significantly more sexual partners outside of the primary relationship (Spanier ; Margolis, 1983; Wiggins ; Lederer, 1984), have more permissive attitudes towards sex outside a relationship (Thomson, 1984; Lieberman, 1988) and possess a much stronger desire to engage in infidelity.Choi (1994) however found that men were only marginally more likely than women to engage in acts of infidelity and according to Oliver and Hyde (1993) men and women’s rates of infidelity are becoming increasingly similar. Perhaps more importantly, gender also appears to be related to different types of infidelity and the meanings attached to the behaviour. For example, women place greater emphasis on emotional connection, whereas men place more emphasis on the sexual experience (Glass & Wright, 1992).
Furthermore, research suggests that marriage deters men from engaging in infidelity. Treas and Giesen (2000) report that married men are less likely to engage in infidelity than those who cohabit. Atkins et al (2001) found that as marital happiness or satisfaction decreases, instances of extramarital sex increase whilst Forste & Tanfer (1996) report that the religious behaviour of an individual may have an effect on the likelihood of engaging in infidelity. In support of this view, Amato & Rogers (1997) discovered that attendance at religious services was associated with lower rates of infidelity.Interestingly and with respect to culture, Widmer (1998) sampled over 33,000 individuals from 24 countries and found strong disapproval of extra marital relationships, although several countries including Russia, Bulgaria and Czech Republic appeared to have more tolerant views than others.
Furthermore, Solstad & Music (1999) attribute the permissive attitudes of Danish men to the ‘over liberal values’ of Danish society.Atkins et al (2001) concluded that highly educated individuals, more specifically those with degrees, are more likely to have had extra marital sexual encounters than those with less than a high school education. This study also proposed that income and extramarital sexual encounters are positively correlated. Although they suggest that it might not be the money per se that leads to infidelity, but rather factors such as stress levels, education, entitlement and opportunity.Also, the risks of engaging in infidelity might be too great for those individuals who are financially dependent on their partners. Additionally, when partners are both unemployed, the incidence of extramarital sex is lower than it is when one partner works (Atkins et al, 2001). Those with a strong interest in sex are also more likely to engage in sex outside a relationship (Liu, 2000) and prior sexual experiences are also positively associated with infidelity (Treas & Giesen, 2000).Bandura’s Social Learning Theory may also shed light on the current discussion.
The idea that humans learn and comprehend attitudes and sexual behaviours as a result of social interactions with others is not inconceivable. According to Amato ; Rogers (1997) parental divorce generally increases the likelihood of their children engaging in infidelity as does parental infidelities themselves. The influence of the mass media must also be considered a contributory factor, along with popular film and television. Pornography for instance, it has been argued, portrays women as commodities or sexual objects, that simply enflame the already over-potent sexual male desire and normalize the issue of infidelity.In conclusion, social variability’s such as these are what set us apart from the male prairie and meadow vole. The Henderson article attempts to highlight similarities between pair bonding behaviours in voles and humans but fails to recognise the complex abilities that set humans apart from other animals. The unique ability to feel, experience emotions, make decisions, verbalise our thoughts, hold conversations, our ability to think in the way we do, are among just a few.
The article itself is also victim to the trappings of a society eager for sensationalism, gossip and hearsay, the title of which is a clear example. It ‘dumbs down’ fascinating scientific research for a lay public who would fail to grasp it’s key concepts, and in doing so looses it’s real meaning and substance. It is something short of a summary that on a more serious note does not quantify the impressive work of the scientists involved and the intricate and technically advanced methods they use.
It fails to acknowledge the mind blowing complexity of the human nervous system, the effects of peptides across species, and it does not provide any useful definition of important key terms nor does it consider the multitude of social factors involved in human living. While animal models have achieved great insight into how neuropeptides contribute to the regulation of social behaviour, there is also an expanding body of research from human studies. Understanding the links between genes and behaviour is challenging but crucial and, whilst the field is still in the formative stages, its future remains a bright one.References:Allen, E.
S., & Baucom, D. H.
(2004). Adult attachment and patterns of extradyadic involvement. Family Process, 43, 467-488.Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997.
A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 612-624.Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H.
, & Jaconson, N. S (2001). Understanding infidelity: Correlates in a national random sample. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 735-749.