John Edwards has joined the parade. The former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate was indicted last week for using campaign contributions to keep his mistress and their baby in hiding during his 2008 run for the White House.
He follows former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who admitted fathering a child with a member of his household staff, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund after he allegedly tried to rape a hotel maid in New York City.
A lot of people are asking, why do they do it? Why are these rich, powerful men willing to chance ruining everything they have achieved for momentary pleasure? Psychology researchers have come up with several answers.
Risks vs. rewards
WRAL TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, interviewed Scott Huettel, associate professor of neuroscience at Duke University, about the Edwards case. Huettel studies how the brain weighs risks and rewards. According to WRAL:
The brain, he says, asks this question when making a decision: “Is what I’m going to receive from this better than what I have now?”
Short-term gains often win, while long-term consequences are discounted, Huettel said.
Factors such as wealth and power do not often correlate with a higher cost on risk, Huettel added. In other words, those who have the most are often willing to risk the most.
More power, more adultery
Time Magazine took this argument further. Not only do powerful men tend to assess risk differently than the rest of us, but they are also surrounded by enablers who have an interest in keeping the powerful person in power, and help cover up the indiscretions.
Time also described forthcoming research:
A study set to be published in Psychological Science found that the higher men — or women — rose in a business hierarchy, the more likely they were to consider or commit adultery. With power comes both opportunity and confidence, the authors argue, and with confidence comes a sense of sexual entitlement.
Type T Personality
Then there’s Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor at Temple University, and former president of the American Psychological Association. He’s come up with what the calls the “Type T Personality.” In response to the Schwarzenegger story, he recently wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled, What makes politicians stray?
In my view the factor most responsible for philandering in public officials is a predisposition for risk-taking, which also happens to be an essential quality for politicians. My label for it is the “Type T personality,” with the “T” standing for thrill.
Farley has been discussing his theory of thrill seeking for quite awhile. He was quoted in a Time Magazine article back in 1985. In 2006, Farley was interviewed about his theory when Ben Roethlisberger, the Super Bowl quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, went riding a motorcycle without a helmet, was hit by a car and suffered serious head injuries.
At that time, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote:
Dr. Farley divides risk takers into Type T positives — inventors, entrepreneurs, explorers — and Type T negatives — compulsive gamblers, criminals, people who engage in unsafe sex.
All of these theories strike me as partially accurate, but incomplete, explanations for the sexual misbehavior of powerful men. Yes, the brain may find rewards now more appealing than consequences later, but certainly more is involved in behavior that has the potential to blow up everything an individual has worked for. A sense of sexual entitlement doesn’t explain this level of arrogant risk, and neither does the thrill factor.
Measuring psychopathy, however, may very well explain what is going on. Components of psychopathy include superficial charm, egocentricity, need for stimulation, deceit, lack of remorse, impulsivity, irresponsibility and promiscuity. Certainly all of these traits are factors in the egregious illicit affairs of powerful men.
But then we’d have to start using the “P” word in reference to politicians and titans of the business world. I’ll bet that a lot of people don’t want to do that.