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December 2, 2012

What's going on in the brain of a cheater?

(Continued)

A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it's also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious — people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers.

In other words, sexual and social monogamy are driven by different brain circuits. The recent oxytocin study showed that exposing a man's brain to a surge of the chemical immediately before he meets an attractive woman can drive him to keep his distance, but short of carrying a bottle of oxytocin spray in a purse for use just before every cocktail party, what else can we take away from the new study? For one, have more sex. As the study's authors wrote, "the most obvious physiological stimulus for promoting endogenous [oxytocin] release in men would be having sex with their mate." Larry Young believes that kissing, hugging, caressing, and intimate small talk can all help to keep a man's oxytocin high, too.

But there's a problem with this takeaway message. The longer we're with our social partner, the less intimacy and sex we have. When new mates are first introduced, they have sex like crazy. After a time — in marmosets, for example, it's about 80 days — they won't be having much sex at all.

Less sex does not mean we're less devoted. We have other powerful reasons to maintain the social relationship, not least CRF. But depending at least partly on our genetic makeup, our motivation to seek erotic reward can be more or less powerfully awakened by a new potential partner. If the circuit shouts loudly enough, we'll risk the committed relationship, our careers, and our reputations to satisfy fleeting desire.

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