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Trust Becomes Habitual in Longterm Relationships

Update Date: Sep 04, 2013 03:39 PM EDT

Will your partner forgive you if you cheat? The answer may depend on the length of your relationship.

Researchers at Stanford University found that early betrayal affects the brain differently than deception later on in a relationship.

The study revealed that people who were betrayed early in a relationship use regions of the brain associated with controlled, careful decision marking when deciding if they should continue to trust the person who deceived them. In contrast, people who were betrayed later in a relationship are more likely to forgive because they tend to use areas of the brain associated with automatic, habitual decision-making.

In the study, researchers performed an online experiment where participants received eight dollars and could either keep the money or give it to an unseen partner. If the participant gave the money away, its value would triple.  However, the partner would then decide whether to keep it all or give half back to the participant.

Participants did not know that the "partner" was actually a computer that was sometimes programmed to betray the subject early in the game and sometimes programmed to betray the subject later.

Researchers found that participants were more likely to keep the money after an early betrayal than after a late betrayal.

Researchers repeated the experiment with participants hooked up to fMRI scanner.  They found that the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with conscious learning, planning and problem solving, and the lateral frontal cortex, associated with feelings of uncertainty, became more active after early betrayal. On the other hand, the lateral temporal cortex, associated with habituated decision making, became more active after late betrayal.

Researchers also found that early betrayal increased the amount of time taken to make a decision.  Researchers say the findings suggest that victims of early betrayal put more thought into their decisions than those who were deceived later in the game.

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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