Loyalty and trust are viewed as key requirements for relationships with friends (Parker & DeVries, 1993; Savin-Williams & Berndt, 1990) as well as with romantic partners (Holmes & Rempel, 1989; Larzela & Huston, 1980). Friendships typically involve a willingness to self-disclose, and an understanding that such self-disclosure will be held in confidence. Romantic relationships, similarly, tend to involve an explicit understanding of exclusivity. Accordingly, trust and related concepts such as honesty and truthfulness are generally ranked as core elements of both friendships (Bernath & Feshbach, 1995; Parker & DeVries, 1993) and romantic relationships (Masters, Johnson, & Kolodny, 1982). Acts of betrayal, which violate the trust on which these relationships are based, are generally viewed as moral violations, because they involve issues of fairness and justice and because they have consequences for the welfare and well-being of others (Turiel, 1998).
In the present study we focus on two distinct kinds of betrayal that adolescents and young adults are likely to encounter in their lives - betrayal of a friend's confidence by breaking a promise not to tell information the friend shared with them, and sexual betrayal by a romantic partner despite an agreement to be monogamous. These two forms of betrayal have a number of common structural characteristics: they involve horizontal (non-hierarchical) relationships with age mates or near age mates; they refer to ongoing personal relationships involving trust and which are of considerable significance; they involve specific negotiated arrangements (promises, commitments) designed to augment the trust that is inherent in the relationship; and finally, both forms of betrayal involve situations where the transgressor acts as a free agent (i.e., is not under duress) and thus is responsible for the decision of whether or not to betray.
Despite widespread disapproval of sexual betrayal (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999a), and presumably of broken promises as well (Rotenberg, 1986), there is a growing recognition that moral evaluations are complex and that behaviors are rarely judged in absolute terms (Robinson, 1996). The circumstances under which an act of betrayal occurs will affect the extent to which such behavior is viewed as acceptable or unacceptable. The present study explores, in particular, the degree to which attitudes regarding betrayal depend on the following circumstances: the type of relationship (friendship vs. dating), the sex of the transgressor, and the reasons for betrayal. In addition, we explore how attitudes to betrayal are related to characteristics of the respondent.
Justification for Betrayal
Moral evaluations are rarely simple and are likely to be influenced by the justification or circumstances that surround the event. For example, to kill is generally morally unacceptable, however to kill while defending one's country is less unacceptable; to lie openly and directly is generally unacceptable, but if the lie is instrumental to saving innocent lives, it is more acceptable. Thus, the acceptability of a behavior may rely upon a variety of considerations beyond the nature of the act itself.
In empirical research, it has been found that people take into account the prevailing circumstances when judging the acceptability of behavior. Young school-aged children take into account the intentionality of the act (Piaget, 1965) whereas older children and adolescents are able to take into account more complex justifications. For example, Keltikangas-Jarvinen & Lindeman (1997) found that among adolescents between the ages of 11 and 17, transgressions such as lying, theft, and fighting were most acceptable when the transgressor was provoked or when these behaviors were performed under duress. Cauffman, Feldman, Jensen, & Arnett (under review) found that violence against peers was more acceptable when committed in defense (of self and others) and when the transgressor was provoked. Petersen, Petersen, & Seeto (1983) found that self-protective lies were judged as less acceptable than other kinds of lies and untruths. One purpose of the present study is to investigate the effect of different justifications on the acceptance of two kinds of betrayal.
Evaluation of betrayal has generally been studied on a dimension of acceptance/rejection with relatively little attention devoted to the conditions under which betrayal occurs. Yet the literature on sexual betrayal suggests that there are many different reasons for engaging in betrayal, including dissatisfaction with the ongoing relationship (e.g., lack of communication, insufficient intimacy; lack of sexual gratification); a desire for sexual variety or excitement; revenge, anger or jealousy; insecurity about the relationship; immaturity and lack of commitment; and strong attraction to or being in love with the extradyadic partner (Buunk, 1980; Feldman & Cauffman, 1999a; Glass & Wright, 1992; Kitzinger & Powell, 1995; Roscoe, Cavanaugh, & Kennedy, 1988; Thompson, 1984). In one of the few studies that compared how justifications for betrayal influenced its acceptability, Feldman & Cauffman (1999a) found that betrayal was more acceptable when there was a bad relationship between the partners, or when there was a magnetic attraction to a new partner, and least acceptable when the transgressors felt they could escape detection, wanted to test the relationship, or were being vindictive and attempting to even a (real or imagined) score.
There are, to our knowledge, no studies examining the effect of different justifications on the acceptability of betraying a friend's confidence. However, we posit that such betrayal is likely to be viewed in the same light as deception, a moral violation about which considerably more is known (see Robinson, 1996). It seems likely that a broken promise, like other forms of deception, might be judged more or less acceptable depending on circumstances. For example, a broken promise in order to help a friend might be judged as more acceptable than when the motive is self-gain or revenge. Likewise, an inadvertent disclosure of a friend's secret, especially if the friend's identity is not divulged, might be evaluated less negatively than a deliberate disclosure made in the knowledge that the betrayed friend would do nothing about it. Thus, despite an absence of both theory and extant empirical work, it seems reasonable to expect that justification for betrayal will influence the acceptability of betraying a friend's confidence, just as it is likely to influence the acceptability of sexual betrayal of a romantic partner.
Sex of the Transgressor
The acceptability of betrayal is not only influenced by the justification for the betrayal but is likely to be influenced by the sex of the transgressor as well. Historically, the double standard, which gives more freedom to men than women, has been operative in the United States, as well as elsewhere. Increases in sexual permissiveness in recent decades have all but eliminated the double standard, as evidenced by similarities in the age of sexual debut and the nature of sexual activity among adolescent males and females (Katchadourian, 1990). Nonetheless, the double standard appears to be alive and well in the realm of sexual attitudes (Feldman, Turner, & Araujo 1999; Moore & Rosenthal, 1993: Sprecher & McKinney, 1993). For example, a history of sexual adventurousness and a variety of sexual partners contributes negatively to the reputation of females but positively to the reputation of males (Lees, 1989; Moore & Rosenthal, 1993). While males and females both show vestiges of the double standard in their thinking, it appears to figure more prominently in the attitudes of males than females (Sprecher & McKinney, 1993). In light of the double standard in the area of sexual attitudes, it is likely male infidelity will be evaluated less negatively than female infidelity, and that the most acceptable of all will be male infidelity as judged by males. However, outside the sexual realm, transgressions by males and females are likely to be judged similarly. Thus, we hypothesize that betrayal of a friend's confidence will be evaluated similarly whether the transgressor is male or female.
Characteristics of the Respondent
While the circumstances surrounding an act of betrayal are expected to affect a respondent's acceptance of such behavior, it is likely that individual characteristics of the respondent will also play a role. In the present research, we focus on four characteristics: the respondent's sex, self-restraint, tolerance of deviation, and self-reported engagement in acts of betrayal. We do not claim that these factors are the only ones likely to influence people's evaluations of betrayal, only that they represent a reasonable starting point for exploration in an area that has been largely under-studied.
Sex of Respondent. Both evolutionary theory (Buss, 1995), which posits that males and females have different mating strategies and different investment in reproductive outcomes, and social learning theory (Wiederman & Allgeir, 1993), with its emphasis on observational learning and direct training of culturally-specific attitudes and behaviors, predict that males will accept sexual betrayal more than will females. Consistent with these viewpoints, sex differences in the acceptance of sexual betrayal are pervasive, with males reporting greater acceptance than females (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999b; Hansen, 1987; Roscoe et al., 1988; Sheppard, Nelson, & Andreoli-Mathie, 1995).
While neither evolutionary theory nor social learning theory suggest sex differences in the acceptability of betraying a friend's confidence, the theorizing of Gilligan (1982) on sex differences in moral reasoning has the potential to do so. She claims that females are more attuned to the interpersonal consequences of actions and their morality grows out of caring, whereas males, with a greater focus on autonomy, develop a morality of impartial justice that is less attuned to the consequences for individuals and relationships. Since betrayal of a friend is likely to have strong interpersonal consequences, Gilligan's perspective may suggest that females are less accepting of betrayal than males. However, from Gilligan's perspective, the opposite could also be argued. For example, males may be less accepting of breaches of trust if they conceive of them as contractual violations. Most empirical studies, however, do not find sex differences in moral reasoning, except when youths and young adults are asked to generate (rather than reason about) important moral issues (Walker, 1984). Thus, despite the absence of a convincing theoretical perspective, understanding the acceptability of betrayal behavior for males and females remains important to investigate.
Self-Restraint. We propose that self-restraint may be one important characteristic associated with both sexual betrayal and betraying a friend's confidence. Self-restraint is a superordinate dimension of personality (Weinberger & Schwartz, 1990; Weinberger, 1997) and thereby subsumes a significant number of conceptually related dimensions. As described by Weinberger (1997), self-restraint refers to and subsumes tendencies to exercise impulse control, to act responsibly and to be considerate of others, as well as to inhibit aggression. As such, this construct shares some conceptual similarities with ego-control, delay of gratification and self-control. Youths who are low in self-restraint find it difficult to modulate impulses and postpone gratification. Since keeping agreements and promises, whether to a romantic partner or to a same-sex friend, requires exercising impulse control (in the face of opportunities and temptations for self-gratification via betrayal) as well as consideration of others feelings, low self-restraint is likely to be associated with acceptance of betrayal.
Tolerance of deviation. The acceptance of deviation or transgression is an attitudinal variable that refers to the degree to which individuals view specific transgressions as wrong (Jessor & Jessor, 1977). Tolerance of deviation includes the acceptance of different types of transgressions ranging from major transgressions (such as violence, lying, cheating) which violate the underlying principles of prevention of harm and the promotion of welfare, fairness and justice; to minor transgressions (such as disrespect to elders, use of swear words) which violate the social organization, accepted rules and procedures, authority relations, and traditions and values of a society. We predict that the tolerance of deviation, in general, will be associated with the acceptance of both forms of betrayal.
Betrayal behavior. The experience of having engaged in betrayal behavior is likely to be associated with acceptance of betrayal, for in an extensive social psychological literature, virtually every domain investigated has shown a significant albeit modest relationship between attitudes and behavior (Ajzen, 1989; Festinger, 1957). The associations are stronger when the attitudes and behaviors are matched in specificity (Kraus, 1995). In the areas of moral development, the study of the relationship between attitudes and behavior has a long history, with findings for children suggesting modest but significant association (see Hartshorne & May, 1927, 1928 for a classic early study; Turiel, 1998). Less research has been conducted on adolescents, but Jessor and Jessor (1977) identified a relation between problem behaviors (a composite of problem drinking, marijuana, non-virginity, activism and delinquency) and a general attitudinal measure called tolerance of deviation. Others have reported associations between a specific transgression and acceptance of that form of transgression and these associations have typically been moderate in magnitude. For example, there are behavior-attitude relationships for academic cheating (Graham, Monday, O'Brien, & Steffen, 1994), lying to parents (Jensen, Arnett, Feldman, & Cauffman, 1998) and violence against peers and against dates (Cauffman, et al., under review). Furthermore, the few studies of sexual betrayal behavior and attitudes in adolescents reveal a significant association between the two (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999b; Hansen, 1987). These associations lead us to expect a relationship between acceptance of betrayal in each situation and adolescents betrayal behavior.
This study investigates the moral judgments or evaluations of late adolescents and college-aged young adults regarding two forms of betrayal -- betrayal of a (same-sex) friend's confidence and sexual betrayal of a romantic partner. The study has three major foci. First, we investigate whether acceptance of betrayal varies as a function of the characteristics of a transgressor in a hypothetical situation. Specifically, we hypothesize that:
Second, we investigate whether acceptance of betrayal varies as a function of the respondent's characteristics. We focus on sex of respondent as well as on self-restraint, tolerance of deviation, and self-reported betrayal behavior. Specifically, based on our literature review we predict:
Sample and Procedure
We recruited a sample of convenience from college students attending a popular introductory psychology class (attended by many non-majors) in a large Mid-Western university. Surveys were distributed during class and served as one of several alternative ways to meet one of the class requirements. All students present on the day completed the survey, after giving informed consent. The battery of questionnaires included background information, six scales concerning the acceptability of different types of violation, rating scales assessing socio-emotional adjustment, self-reports of behavior that violates community standards, and a number of other scales not used in the present study.
The sample was restricted to unmarried young adults under the age of 24. Twelve students were excluded because they did not meet these requirements. The final sample consisted of 261 single, predominantly white, college students, aged between 18 and 23 years (Mean = 20.35 years, SD = 1.23), 35% percent of whom were male, 65% female.
Six different violations were described in vignette form, and students were asked to rate the acceptability of each of the violations given different justifications for the behavior. Each vignette appeared in two forms - one in which a male was the transgressor, and a second in which the female was the transgressor. Students were randomly assigned to receive one form of each vignette, with the restriction that three of the six violations should have a male transgressor, three a female transgressor. The sex of the transgressor in the two betrayal vignettes was always the same.
Acceptance of Betrayal. We assessed two kinds of betrayal. The following vignette and question assessed Acceptance of Sexual Betrayal (with female transgressors): "Karen and her boyfriend have been going together for 8 months. They have an agreement to be monogamous, that is, not to date or have any physical relations with anyone else. One night, Karen has sexual intercourse with another man. For each item, rate how acceptable this behavior is." Twenty different justifications were given, which students rated on 4-point scales (1 = totally unacceptable, 4 = totally acceptable).
Acceptance of betrayal of friend's confidence (with male transgressor) was assessed by the following vignette "Tom's good friend confides in him that his girlfriend is pregnant and they have decided to get an abortion. He makes Tom promise not to tell anyone. Next day, Tom shares his friend's secret with someone else. For each item, rate how acceptable this behavior is." Eighteen different justifications were given, each of which was rated on a 4 point scale (1 = totally unacceptable, 4 = totally acceptable).
To generate the justifications for each form of betrayal, we first reviewed the relevant psychological literature and constructed a large number of plausible justifications. We then conducted three focus groups with college students to help narrow down the list. Finally, we sought to have parallel justifications hold across different forms of betrayal. This procedure resulted in 12 different categories of justifications, 11 of which were common to the two forms of betrayal. We also permitted in each set of justifications any justification that was salient for one (but not both forms) of betrayal. We then piloted these justifications with 45 students and made final editorial corrections to the wording of the justifications. The resulting justifications for the two types of betrayals were comparable, although not identical, as shown in Table 1. For each type of betrayal, there were justifications related to self-gain, redressing perceived inequity, conformity to peers, the ability to escape detection, involunatarism, among others.
To score the acceptability of each type of betrayal, we averaged the ratings across the 18-20 items to give acceptance of betrayal scores. The two acceptance of betrayal scores had good internal consistency (acceptance of sexual betrayal, alpha = .94; acceptance of betrayal of friend's confidence, alpha = .83). Although we conducted two PCAs with varimax rotations -- one on the sexual betrayal items and another on the betrayal of friend's confidence items -- the resulting solutions yielded factors that were not parallel and that were difficult to interpret. Attempts to create a priori clusters results in highly intercorrelated composites (e.g., correlations coefficients greater than .60 for several of sexual betrayal scores). Thus we elected not to use the factor or composite scores but to use the overall acceptance of betrayal scores.
Tolerance of Deviation was assessed using a set of vignettes describing different transgressions, which respondents rated in terms of acceptability under 19 different circumstances. The acceptance score for each of the different transgressions was satisfactory: acceptance of lying to parents (alpha = .96, 19 items), acceptance of cheating at school (alpha = .96, 19 items), acceptance of giving a classmate a bloody nose during an altercation (alpha = .91, 19 items), and acceptance of date violence (alpha = .91, 19 items). The tolerance of deviation score consisted of the mean of five different acceptance scores -- the above listed four scores together with a betrayal score. When we considered tolerance of deviation as a correlate of sexual betrayal, we included betrayal of a friend's confidence in the tolerance of deviation composite. Analogously, when tolerance of deviation was studied as a correlate of betrayal of a friend, we included acceptance of sexual betrayal in the tolerance of deviation composite.
Behavioral Violation was assessed by student ratings (1 = never to 5 = 10 or more times) of the frequency with which they had engaged in behavioral violations which matched the two forms of betrayal: Behavioral Sexual Betrayal was the rating of the item, "When in an exclusive romantic relationship where you agreed to date only each other, how often did you have sexual intercourse with someone else?" Behavioral Betrayal of Friend's Confidence was the rating given to the question, "When a friend has told you a secret, how often have you told that secret to someone else?"
Data Analysis Plan
The key variables -- acceptance of sexual betrayal and acceptance of betrayal of a friend's confidence -- were not normally distributed. In both cases, responses clustered around the "totally unacceptable" end of the dimension. In light of the non-normal distributions, we analyzed the data using non-parametric analyses. Specifically, for within-subject measures (justifications) we used Wilcoxon tests and for between-subject measures (sex of respondent, transgressor) we used Mann-Whitney tests. To assess correlations we used Spearman rank correlations. The results assessing group differences were identical to those obtained from parametric analyses. Because it is easier to interpret parametric analyses (means are easier to interpret than mean ranks) and because parametric analyses permit the testing of interaction terms (whereas non-parametric analyses do not), we have chosen to present the results for the parametric analyses.
The results are presented in three sections. First, we provide descriptive information about the acceptability of sexual betrayal and examine the factors that influence it. In the second section we undertake parallel analyses for acceptability of betrayal of a friend's confidence. In the final section we briefly compare the results for the two kinds of betrayal.
The Acceptability of Sexual Betrayal and Factors that Influence it
To explore the effects of justification on the acceptability of sexual betrayal, we first conducted a repeated measures ANOVA with justification as a within-subject factor. Although sexual betrayal was generally rated as unacceptable (mean overall acceptance = 1.42, SD = 0.49), justification for betrayal was nonetheless strongly significant (F19,234 = 17.2, p<.0001). Table 2 shows that the most acceptable justifications were fell in love, came from a different culture, and the regular partner had engaged in sex with someone else. The least acceptable justifications were that the transgressor had gotten away with the same behavior before, and that their friends did the same thing. Although on 19 of the 20 items males were more accepting than females of sexual betrayal, the rank order of acceptability of the different justifications was the same for males as for females (rho = .94, p<.001).
We had predicted that males would be more accepting of sexual betrayal than females, that betrayal by male transgressors would be judged as more acceptable than betrayal by female transgressors, and that there would be a significant interaction between sex of respondent and sex of transgressor. To assess these hypotheses, we conducted two way ANOVAs on the total acceptability of sexual betrayal score. As predicted, sex of respondent was significant (F1,255=30.5, p<.0001), with males (Mean = 1.63) markedly more accepting than females (Mean = 1.31) of sexual betrayal. This result held not only for the total acceptance score but for 19 of the 20 items as well. The effect of transgressor was more complex and gave only partial support to our hypothesis. Specifically, the main effect of transgressor was not significant (F1,255=2.9, p=ns, Mean 1.45 for male transgressors and 1.39 for female transgressors). However, as predicted, there was a significant interaction between sex of respondent and sex of transgressor that has been drawn in Figure 1. In accord with the hypothesis, males were more accepting of sexual betrayal by male than female transgressors (F1,89=11.6, p<.001), whereas females were equally unaccepting of sexual betrayal regardless of whether the transgressor was male or female (F1,166=1.9, p=ns). Looking at the data another way, males were more likely than females to be accepting of sexual betrayal by males (t(119df) = 6.9, p<.001), but males and females were equally likely to judge as unacceptable sexual betrayal by females (t(136df) = 1.4, p=ns).
Personal Characteristics and the Acceptance of Sexual Betrayal
We examined the association between acceptance of sexual betrayal and three characteristics of the respondent - tolerance of deviation, self-restraint, and behavioral sexual betrayal. We calculated correlations for the total sample and separately by sex. The results (Spearman rank correlations) are shown in Table 3.
Consistent with our predictions, acceptance of sexual betrayal was associated positively and significantly with tolerance of deviation and behavioral betrayal, and negatively associated with self-restraint. The strongest correlates were tolerance of deviation (a score which included acceptance of five different violations including betrayal of a friend's confidence) and self-restraint. The correlates of acceptance of sexual betrayal were generally similar for males and for females.
In summary, despite finding very low levels of acceptance of sexual betrayal, we nonetheless succeeded in identifying important factors that are associated with it. In addition to the type of justification for the betrayal, sex of respondent, and (for males) sex of transgressor, we found that tolerance of deviation, self-restraint, and behavioral betrayal were associated with acceptance of sexual betrayal.
Acceptability of Betraying a Friend's Confidence and Factors that Influence it
The effect of justification on the acceptability of betraying a friend's confidence was assessed by a repeated measures ANOVA. As predicted, justification significantly influenced the acceptability of betrayal of a friend's confidence (F17, 235 =22.6, p<.0001). The most and least acceptable justifications are shown in Table 4. The prosocial justification -- enabling the friend to obtain needed help -- was by far the most acceptable justification; other relatively acceptable motives included ensuring protection of the friend's identity and cultural differences. These were similar for males and females. The least acceptable justifications involved peer pressure or peer recognition, the ability to escape detection, and the knowledge that there would be no adverse consequences. The rank ordering of acceptability of the different justifications was highly similar for males and for females (rho = .98, p<.001)
Although we had not made predictions regarding the sex of respondent effects, we had predicted an absence of sex of transgressor effects. A two-way ANOVA on the total acceptance score for betraying a friend's confidence found that sex differences were present but modest in magnitude (F1,255 = 4.6, p<.05), with males more accepting than females of betraying a friend's confidence. At the item level, sex differences (at p<.01) were found for six of the 18 justifications. As predicted, the effect of the transgressor was not significant (F1,255 <1.0, p= n.s.), nor was the interaction between sex of respondent and sex of transgressor (F1,255 = 1.22, p=n.s.). In other words, the level of unacceptability of betraying a friend's confidence was independent of the transgressor's sex.
Personal Characteristics and the Acceptance of Betraying a Friend's Confidence
Correlations between personal characteristics of the respondents and acceptance of betraying a friend's confidence are shown in Table 5, separately for the total sample and for males and females. Consistent with our predictions, tolerance of deviation, lack of self-restraint, and behavioral betrayal were associated with acceptance of betraying a friend's confidence.
In summary, our predictions were largely confirmed. Acceptance of betrayal of a friend's confidence was related to justification for betrayal, personal characteristics of the respondent, (including tolerance of deviation, self-restraint, betrayal behavior and sex of respondent) but unrelated to sex of transgressor.
Comparing Sexual Betrayal to Betraying a Friend's Confidence
To compare the acceptability of the two types of betrayal we used a three-way repeated measures ANOVA with betrayal type (sexual betrayal vs. betrayal of a friend's confidence) as a within-subject factor, and sex of respondent and sex of transgressor as between-subject factors.
The effect of betrayal type was highly significant (F1,255 = 40.4, p<.0001), with sexual betrayal rated as more acceptable (Mean = 1.42, SD = 0.49) than betrayal of a friend's confidence (Mean = 1.32, SD = .36). There was also a significant effect of sex of respondent (F1,255 = 24.4, p<.0001), with males more accepting than females of betrayal. However, the main effects of sex and betrayal type must be interpreted in light of a significant statistical interaction term. As shown in Figure 2, acceptance of betrayal was relatively similar across types of betrayal and across males and females with one exception. In contrast to the other groups, males showed relatively high rates of acceptance of sexual betrayal. Specifically, males were more accepting of sexual betrayal than betrayal of a friends' confidence (F1,90 = 17.3, p<.001), whereas females were equally unaccepting of both kinds of betrayal (F1,165 = 2.12, p=n.s.). Furthermore, males ratings of acceptability of betrayal of a friend's confidence were not significantly greater than females' ratings (Mean Difference =. 07, t = 1.8, 255 df, p=n.s.) whereas males were much more accepting than females of sexual betrayal (Mean Difference = .32, t = 5.2, 257df, p<.0001).
Whether the transgressor was male or female did not significantly influence acceptance of betrayal (F1,255 = 3.5, p>.05), although it did interact with betrayal type (F1,255 = 11.9, p<.001). Specifically, there was more acceptance of male transgressors in sexual betrayal than in betrayal of a friend (F1,90 = 17.3, p<.001), whereas respondents were equally unaccepting of females betrayal in both situations (F1,165 = 2.1, p>.05). However, this finding is further qualified by a strong three-way interaction (F1,255 = 31.0, p<.0001) which has been drawn in Figure 3. Although there are many differences between the various groups in Figure 3, there are two notable features. First, there is one group that shows markedly more acceptance of betrayal than any other. Specifically, males accept male perpetration of sexual betrayal more readily than male perpetration of betrayal of a friend (which is the least acceptable form of betrayal from a male's perspective). Conversely, while females are generally low in acceptance of both kinds of betrayal, females accept female perpetration of sexual betrayal more readily than female perpetration of betrayal of a friend's confidence (which again is the least acceptable form of betrayal from a female's perspective). In other words, for both males and females, the most acceptable form of betrayal is sexual betrayal by a member of their own sex and the least acceptable form of betrayal is betrayal of a friend's confidence by a member of their own sex.
In this study we found that young adults strongly disapprove of betrayal, although the type of betrayal (whether of a romantic partner or a same sex friend), the justification for the betrayal, and the characteristics of the respondents influenced the degree of unacceptability. Specifically, there was greater acceptance of sexual betrayal than betrayal of a friend's confidence, of male than female transgression, and by males than females. However, these factors interacted in important ways, and most findings of statistical significance resulted from the fact that compared to others, males showed relatively high acceptance of sexual betrayal by male transgressors. Beyond sex of respondent, characteristics such as tolerance of deviation, behavioral betrayal, and self-restraint were also associated with acceptance of betrayal.
Before we discuss these findings in detail, we discuss three factors that may limit the generalizability of our findings. First, our sample was limited to primarily white college students, and results may be somewhat different for high school students and for ethnically diverse samples. It is noteworthy, that we sought but were denied permission (by high school principals) to collect data from high schoolers on sexual betrayal. The restriction of the sample to mostly white college students is likely to underestimate the acceptability of betrayal, as in other work we found an association between amount of education and acceptance of betrayal (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999b) and a greater permissiveness in sexual attitudes in non-Asian minority groups than in White students (Feldman, et al., 1999). Nonetheless, despite being limited to primarily one age and ethnic group, our key results were very strong and therefore likely to hold up -- and even be enhanced -- by a more diverse sample.
Second, each type of betrayal was assessed by only one vignette and it is likely that vignettes with different content may modify the results. For example, the sexual betrayal vignette in our study described a person as having sexual intercourse with a new partner while in a monogamous relationship. We know, however, from other research, that many youth include in their definition of betrayal such behaviors as emotional involvement, dating, kissing, and petting (Hansen, 1987) although, in general, they do not judge these as serious a form of betrayal as sexual intercourse (Feldman & Cauffman, 1990a). Had we focused on one of these extradyadic behaviors instead of sexual intercourse, there may have been somewhat more acceptance of sexual betrayal. The vignette describing betrayal of a friend's confidence focused on an issue that involved a possible health risk -- a secret about planned abortion of an unintended pregnancy. The topic of the secret may have made betrayal more acceptable, given that abortion is an issue on which emotions run high and at least some youths may have felt that there was a higher morality -- saving a life -- that had precedence over protecting a friend's confidence. A different vignette, in this case, may have elicited even less acceptance of betrayal of friend. Thus, the specific details of the betrayal may influence the acceptability of betrayal. Nonetheless, the very low rates of acceptance of betraying a friend's secret suggests to us that the topic of the secret, in reality, did not greatly color the findings.
Third, self-report measures used in this study are subject to reporting biases. Social desirability effects are likely to be especially salient given the near-universal disapproval of betrayal. It is thus important to keep in mind, when interpreting the results of this study, that disapproving attitudes toward betrayal are likely to be overstated.
In recent years, alarm has been expressed about the moral judgments and values of adolescents and young adults. Specifically, concern is expressed that many youths have failed to internalize moral values and instead have developed a morality of expediency -- doing what is good for them with relatively little regard as to how it affects others (Bennett, 1994). Evidence for this concern is found in increasing rates between 1980 and the mid 1990's of antisocial behavior, including gang-related violence, sexual assault, robbery, drug use, cheating in school, among other things (Jendrek, 1992; Stahl, 1998). Our data, however, are not consistent with such pessimism about the moral evaluations and standards of youths. At least among college youth, we found high consensus on the unacceptability of betrayal -- even in situations deliberately designed to make betrayal somewhat more acceptable. Our findings clearly reflect that emerging adults, at least in principle, endorse "trust" as an important value, and "betrayal" as an unacceptable violation of this value.
Disapproval of betrayal -- whether sexual betrayal or betrayal of a friend's confidence -- was widespread. Mean scores of acceptance were very low -- almost creating a floor effect. For example, despite diverse justifications provided for betrayal, 20% of youth judged sexual betrayal as totally unacceptable in all 20 of the circumstances we described, and 17% found betrayal of a friend's confidence totally unacceptable in each of the situations described. However, the majority of youths were more differentiated in their thinking. While generally strongly disapproving of betrayal, there nonetheless were certain justifications that made betrayal somewhat more acceptable.
Justifications for Betrayal
Although the nature of the justification was an important influence on the acceptability of betrayal, our attempts to classify justifications were unsuccessful. There were three findings that led us to abandon our search for a classification scheme of justifications. First, using PCA we failed to obtain meaningful groupings of justifications. Second, despite using many parallel justifications for the two betrayal situations, the resulting classifications were dissimilar in structure. Third, we tried to use the classification schemes of others, based on conceptual analysis and empirical work, but did not find them helpful. For example, Gruenich (1982) described motives for an immoral act (such as lying or betraying others) as positive, negative, or neutral. While we had no trouble finding items that fit this classification, the neutral category was very large, with very diverse justifications included. Other classification schemes resulted in highly correlated scores. In contrast to our difficulties in creating a meaningful classification of justifications, our composite score of acceptance or unacceptance of betrayal had highly satisfactory psychometric properties. Thus it remains a task for others to find a useful and generalizable classification of justifications.
We examined the effect of specific justifications (at the item level) on the acceptability of betrayal. Among the most acceptable justifications for both forms of betrayal was the justification that the transgressor was from a different culture. It appears that by invoking culture, the issue was ostensibly changed from a moral issue, one involving harm to another person, albeit psychological harm, to a conventional issue in which it was simply a matter of implicit or explicit understandings or custom as to how to behave (Turiel, 1998). Even more interestingly, while cultural norms were deemed an acceptable justification for betrayal, peer group norms were deemed among the least acceptable justifications. Respondents thus seem to indicate that one should have the perspective to avoid transgressions arising from peer pressure, but that larger-scale societal or cultural influences cannot reasonably be resisted.
"Fell in love with a new partner" was the most acceptable justification for sexual betrayal in this Mid-Western sample. This finding replicates previously reported results with different samples in a different part of the country (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999b). Furthermore, it is consistent with the actual motives given by people who have betrayed a partner (Feldman & Cauffman, 1999a). Since there is evidence that the actual or expected frequency of an immoral behavior influences its acceptability (Keltikangas-Jarvinen & Lindeman, 1997; McGraw, 1985) we were not surprised that this justification was one of the more acceptable reasons for betrayal. As was the case for cultural influences, emotional or romantic attraction appears to be considered beyond an individual's control, and therefore a more acceptable justification for betrayal. This finding is consistent with previous research which has described the "romantic narrative" as one of the central themes of our culture, especially among young adults (Kirkman, Rosenthal, & Smith, 1998).
If a self-serving justification was the most acceptable justification for sexual betrayal, a prosocial (or positive) justification "Enable friend to get help" was the most acceptable justification for divulging a friend's secret. Indeed, this was the most acceptable justification for either form of betrayal and was the only justification which had a mean score greater than 2 (somewhat unacceptable). This justification potentially pits two moral issues - keeping one's word and helping people from harming themselves or others -- against one another. Especially since the issue involves abortion, which in the eyes of some people involves the taking of a life and at a minimum has health risks for the mother associated with it -- some youths may have judged the moral priority of obtaining (unasked for) help to be greater than that of keeping a promise.
The least acceptable motives for sexual betrayal and betrayal of a friend were similar, and involved the ability to escape detection. This finding suggests that the young adults of this study accept the internalization of standards and it is not simply the desire to avoid getting caught or consequent punishments or embarrassments that influences their judgments of acceptability. These findings on the least acceptable reasons for betrayal, however, are at odds with the factors that influence moral conduct. Both children and adolescents are more likely to engage in transgressions such as cheating, lying and stealing when the chances of detection are low (Dornbusch, 1987; Hartshorne & May, 1928; Keltikangas-Jarvinen & Lindeman, 1997).
This study reported a number of important findings, including that there was more acceptance of sexual betrayal than betrayal of a friend's confidence, that males approved of betrayal more than did females, and that betrayal by a male transgressor was more acceptable than by a female transgressor. However, each of these results either held under some conditions and not under others or held more strongly for some circumstances than others. At root, there was one group that showed markedly more acceptance of betrayal than any other group and that contributed to all the major group differences in this study. Specifically, the finding that males showed relatively high approval of sexual betrayal by male transgressors accounts for virtually all other findings, including those pertaining to betrayal type (i.e., greater acceptance of sexual betrayal than betrayal of a friend's confidence), sex of respondent, (i.e., that males approve more of betrayal than do females) and effect of transgressor (i.e., that there is more acceptance of sexual betrayal when perpetrated by a male than a female).
A number of different theoretical perspectives help explain the greater acceptance by males of male sexual betrayal. On the one hand, from a sociobiological perspective (Buss, 1995) males engage in a variety of different strategies, including mating with as many different partners as possible, to improve their reproductive odds. As a result, males tend to have permissive attitudes regarding sexuality, in general, and betrayal by males, in particular. In an extension of this argument, men in general are more concerned about and less accepting of sexual infidelity by females because it interferes with the likelihood that they are the father of their partner's offspring. Females, on the other hand, are from an evolutionary perspective, likely to benefit from the assistance of a mate during child rearing, and thus they strongly value intimacy and loyalty by both males and females. They find betrayal unacceptable because it could lead to loss of their partner's much-needed time and resources in child rearing.
The finding that males have relatively high acceptance of sexual betrayal perpetrated by males is also consistent with social learning theory. From this perspective, young men and women learn to value sexual involvement and emotional commitments differently by observing the actions of those around them. Mass media and popular culture are replete with male role models ranging from the classic James Bond to the more modern rap idol Puff Daddy which stress strong expressions of sexuality coupled with minimal affection for their sexual partner (Huston & Wright, 1998; Moore & Rosenthal, 1993). In fact, the masculine gender stereotype portrays males as interested in sex and attempting to get it by any means possible (Lees, 1989).
Our results suggest that the double standard is not yet dead, despite claims to the contrary. At least as judged by males, sexual betrayal by male transgressors is much more acceptable than sexual betrayal by female transgressors. While data from the last decade has shown that males and females are converging in terms of sexual behavior (age of sexual debut, numbers of partners, etc.) our data suggest that among males, attitudes lag behind behavior, and in the realm of acceptability of betrayal, the double standard still remains in operation. It is interesting to note, however, that young adult women no longer accept the double standard -- they report that sexual betrayal is unacceptable regardless of whether it is carried out by male or female transgressors.
Correlates of Acceptance of Betrayal
The present study focused on three correlates all related to misconduct -- an attitudinal measure which involved the tolerance of deviation, a behavioral measure of misconduct relating specifically to betrayal, and a personality measure which involved lack of self-restraint. These correlates were associated in similar ways with both forms of betrayal. Specifically, youths who were tolerant of deviation, had low self-restraint, and had engaged in betrayal in their own lives were likely to be accepting of both sexual betrayal and betrayal of a friend's confidence. We had initially selected these variables because they were associated with a wide array of problem behaviors, such as fighting, early sexuality, and heavy drug and alcohol use. We had posited that low impulse control and little consideration for others would make it likely that young adults would be accepting of behavior that had immediate gratification and self-gain as a goal. In this regard, our prediction was general to acceptance of deviance, rather than specific to acceptance of betrayal. We would expect, and indeed data support the expectation, that low self-restraint and tolerance of deviation are associated with many different kinds of transgressions (Dryfoos, 1990; Feldman & Weinberger, 1994; Jessor & Jessor, 1977; McCord, 1990). The finding that the same correlates are also associated with acceptance of two different types of betrayal suggests that acceptance of betrayal may be part of a larger package of problem behaviors.
We predicted and found that behavioral betrayal is a correlate of acceptance of betrayal. There are two aspects of this finding that are worthy of note. First, the size of the relationship, while significant, was of modest magnitude and notably less than the other correlates of this study. This observation raises the question as to why the association is so low, especially since the behavior and attitudes we assessed were matched in level of generality. We suspect the answer has to do with our methods. Our study focused on the evaluations or appraisals of acceptability. What we did not focus on was the salience of moral concerns to the identities of these students. When moral concerns are salient to the identity of youths there is a higher correspondence between behavior and attitudes than when moral concerns are not salient (Walker, Pitts, Hennig, & Matsuba, 1995).
Second, although we document a modest association between appraisals and behavior we do not know the direction of effects. It is as likely that behavior precedes attitudes (as claimed by Cognitive Dissonance theory) as the converse, that is, that attitudes influence behavior. Indeed, it is likely that the direction of effects works both ways. Suffice to say at this point, that the two were related -- those with greater acceptance of betrayal were more likely to have engaged in betrayal than those who reported lower acceptance.
Our study has focused on late adolescents' and young adults' acceptance of two forms of betrayal. Until this point, the few extant studies on betrayal focused only on sexual betrayal, making it difficult to know whether the findings pertain primarily to the sexual domain (which has a strong salience for this age group) or whether it pertains to betrayal or violated agreements more generally. By including two different forms of betrayal, and by finding marked similarities in the data, we are now in a position to answer this question. College students strongly disapprove of both forms of betrayal -- and they disapprove even more strongly of betrayal of a same-sex friend than of a romantic partner. Similar characteristics -- namely tolerance of deviation, behavioral betrayal, and lack of self-restraint -- are related to acceptance of both forms of betrayal. However, large sex differences were found only in the acceptance of sexual betrayal and only modest sex differences were found in betrayal of a friend's confidence. Specifically, the strong finding that males show relatively high approval of sexual betrayal by males -- suggests that sex roles and cultural scripts continue to influence the sexual domain in a way that they don't influence the moral domain more generally.