Ashley Madison: can we blame it on stress?


The ‘outing’ of subscribers to the Ashley Madison adultery website this week has revealed a very real facet of modern life: the temptation of temptation. Ashley Madison is targeted towards individuals who are in a relationship and wish to engage in an illicit affair. In an age when dating websites for ‘singles’ are reaching saturation point, where relationships are pursued entirely out of choice and not to satisfy cultural obligations, one would expect those who are in a relationship and are unhappy, to simply leave.

If the exit is wide open, why do we stay ......and misbehave? To a degree, the answer boils down to brain wiring.

Many of us pursue a long-term relationship because we think it will bring long-term pleasure. The reward is not instantaneous but slow and gradual. During a long-term relationship there will be moments of temptation when we are made to choose between the instant hedonistic and risky pleasure of an affair and the safer, long-term good that will come from resisting temptation and remaining faithful.

There are three key players in the brain who mediate our response to temptation. One is the wise sage who recognises the long-term rewarding consequences of an action. His name is the ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’ or dlPFC. The second player is an impulsive and hedonistic playboy. He is all about the pleasure that can be experienced at this instant. His name is the ‘ventral striatum’. The third is the mediator. He has to take both points of view to reach a balanced decision regarding what must be done. His name is the ‘ventromedial prefrontal cortex’ or vmPFC. The vmPFC is constantly assimilating information from the dlPFC and the ventral striatum and taking into account any risks involved, to reach a trade-off decision.

If his ‘connectivity’ with the playboy is particularly strong, he might tend to unwisely approve immediately rewarding courses of action, even if they bring less reward than one that requires waiting. On the other hand, if his ‘connectivity’ with the wise sage is stronger, then he might sanction actions with delayed gratification where although the pleasure is not immediate, it will be greater than any pleasure currently available. Using Ashley Madison as an example, subscribing to temptation involving instant gratification over the delayed pleasure of a long-term faithful relationship suggests the ventral striatum (the hedonistic playboy) is triumphing over the dlPFC (the wise sage).

The balance between the three players can be influenced by psychiatric illness. It can also be strongly influenced by stress.

In the mania component of bipolar disorder, the vmPFC has been shown to be strongly swayed by the prospect of reward but it seems less affected by the chances of loss. As an example, one may choose to pursue a course of action with a potentially big pleasurable reward, despite a high risk of loss where the risk of loss would normally negate the reward's temptation. This applies to gambling and also applies in the setting of Ashley Madison, where the pleasure gained from an illicit affair is perceived as overwhelmingly tempting, despite its risk to one’s relationship.

Stress can also tip the balance between the three players. A recent study has shown how stressed participants are powerfully swayed by the current pleasure of a temptation, even if it brings long-term harm. Stress seems to ‘strengthen’ the bond between the vmPFC (the mediator) and the ventral striatum (the hedonistic playboy) swaying decisions in favour of the ventral striatum. At the same time, stress seems to ‘weaken’ the bond between the dlPFC (the wise sage) and the vmPFC (the mediator), pushing decisions further in favour of the ventral striatum. The 'pleasure factor' in immediate situations is made more salient by stress. For instance, when asked to choose between a meal that is 'tasty' but unhealthy in the long-term and one that is 'healthy' but perhaps not quite as tasty, the ventral striatum of stressed people reacts more strongly to the 'tastiness' of the unhealthy food. The difference in the 'pleasure factor' between the two choices is also perceived more powerfully.

In short, stress makes us give in to temptation and reduces our self-control. We lose sight of the long-term goal and tend to focus and draw on the ‘here and now’. We know from other studies that chronic stress can change the balance of neurotransmitters and affect empathy and even morality-related decisions.

If brain-wiring and chronic stress play a significant role behind the temptation to ‘stray’ with Ashley Madison, then other moral and ethical dilemmas can enter the issue. For instance, if someone who is chronically stressed from a pressurized job ‘cheats’, should we treat the cheating as a consequence of his or her ‘brain wiring’ and not purely as something voluntary? Can this absolve the responsibility of the cheater? At what point does a change in brain wiring become an ‘illness’ that diminishes our responsibility for our actions? If we are at the mercy of our brain’s wiring, then how much of the brain’s wiring makes us who we are?

References

1) Maier SU, Makwana AB, Hare TA. Acute Stress Impairs Self-Control in

Goal-Directed Choice by Altering Multiple Functional Connections within the Brain's Decision Circuits. Neuron. 2015 Aug 5;87(3):621-31.

2) Mason L, O'Sullivan N, Montaldi D, Bentall RP, El-Deredy W. Decision-making and trait impulsivity in bipolar disorder are associated with reduced prefrontal regulation of striatal reward valuation. Brain. 2014 Aug;137(Pt 8):2346-55.

3) Bermpohl F, Kahnt T, Dalanay U, Ha ̈gele C, Sajonz B, Wegner T, et al. Altered representation of expected value in the orbitofrontal cortex in mania. Hum Brain Mapp 2010; 31: 958–69.

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