It’s news when David Petraeus, the director of the CIA, who previously led U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has an extramarital affair. It’s news when a president cheats. Or a New York attorney general, California governor or candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. We wondered: Are people just more likely to hear about powerful leaders having affairs? Or are powerful leaders more likely to cheat?
A number of studies show that power does corrupt. People in powerful positions are more likely to condemn others’ faults more than their own. Their confidence tends to make them more assertive and impulsive, and they tend to consider themselves more attractive. Of course, each case of infidelity has its own personal reasons. But, taken as a whole, power increases people’s confidence in their ability to attract partners, and that confidence is a strong link to unfaithfulness.
A study last year found the power theory holds regardless of gender. Joris Lammers, a social psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, surveyed more than 1,500 professionals who had differing levels of power in their lives, including roles in management, non-management and top-management. “The researchers found that among powerful people, gender made no difference in past digressions or the participants’ desires to cheat,” a summary of the study states.
It did find that the most powerful people — men and women alike — were more likely than the least powerful people to cheat, and the most powerful people were having more affairs. “People often assume that powerful men may be more likely to cheat because they have risk-taking personalities or because of distance, such as frequent business trips that many powerful people go on. We found little correlation between either of the two,” Lammers said. People are probably less likely to hear about women cheating because there are fewer women in power.
In an interview with National Public Radio, science correspondent Shankar Vedantam said it’s not just the powerful Dutch who are having affairs. Biological effects are at play and hold regardless of nationality. When people are given a fleeting sense of power, how they perceive risks and rewards changes, he said. Scans show that the “positive” or “rewards” part of the brains of people in power becomes more activated than the part tasked with preventing bad things from happening.
The tendency of power to cause people to block out what could go wrong doesn’t only happen to CEOs and elected officials. Even a small amount of power can make someone more flirtatious. Psychologist Jon Maner, at Florida State University, did a study of heterosexual college students where he paired them with someone of the opposite sex. Given a brief feeling of power, the students started flirting with the strangers sitting next to them. When the feeling of power was taken away, the students stopped flirting. Men and women showed the same responses.
“Power-holders tended to touch their subordinates more, they maintained more direct eye contact. They behaved in an overall more flirtatious manner,” Maner told NPR.
People don’t try to understand human behavior in order to find excuses for certain actions. It’s done in order to learn and grow. The topic is certainly complex. But by learning how power may boost confidence and increase the propensity for infidelity, self-reflection is encouraged. Solving problems begins with understanding the reasons behind the problems in the first place.