The Petraeus scandal is a recent example of a well-worn theme from evolutionary psychology. Socially successful men parlay their prestige into conquests in the bedroom. Moralists claim to be appalled. Should they be? Or are we merely observing one of the great truths of human sexual psychology playing out?
That truth is that successful men from King Solomon to Genghis Khan to President Kennedy enjoyed many wives, concubines, or lovers. Their high-testosterone profile helped them acquire leadership positions and also boosted their sex drive. All that is like the tinder that fuels the forest fire of uncontrolled passion. The spark is provided by attractive young women whose knees go weak in the presence of alpha males.
Spark and tinder
There is a certain monotony in each of these sex scandals involving leaders, most of whom are politicians whose antics are revealed because they are so much in the public eye. Whether it is Elliot Spitzer, Silvio Berlosconi, Arnold Schwarzennegger, or Herman Cain a position of prominence encourages a feeling of sexual entitlement – a sense that the rules, and even laws, regulating sexual conduct for most people, do not apply.
That kind of sexual assertiveness is characteristic of prominent men throughout history from Pharaohs and Popes to generals and geniuses. Male leaders arrogantly assume that they can treat women as they please with impunity. That is certainly the impression one gets from reading the history of noblemen, monarchs, and emperors (1).
This alpha-male syndrome is quite familiar to animal behaviorists. When an animal achieves high social status, his testosterone level rises. This phenomenon may be illustrated by gorillas where each group has one dominant male that inseminates all of the females. The dominant male has a silver back that is evidently explained by his high testosterone level.
Men do not have silver backs, of course, but testosterone is more important for human sexuality than most psychologists like to concede. In particular, high status men are sexually assertive, sometimes to the extent that they break laws.
Testosterone also rises with competitive success for humans, and even with sexual intercourse so there is a positive feedback loop whereby prominent men acquire high testosterone levels along with increased social status (2).
And that brings us to the other vital ingredient in this story – the psychology and behavior of women who provide the spark for this combustible mix, not merely because they are attractive but because they go out of their way to seduce powerful men.
There are several good reasons why women are attracted to high-status men. They are generally - but not always - better looking than lower-status men. Women acquire status themselves through such associations. Successful men employ the trappings of their wealth and status to impress women whether it is their clothes, their cars, their houses, their privileges, or their expensive gifts. Confidence, poise, and social skills often compensate for any physical shortcomings so women perceive them as more physically attractive than they are in objective terms.
It might seem that it is a winner-take-all society when it comes to human sexuality. Yet, there is a built-in trap associated with sexual arrogance. Some men find themselves crossing legal lines and getting caught. Others hold positions of public trust that gets compromised by extra-marital relationships thereby ending their careers. The glare of unflattering publicity can also destroy their marriages.
Politicians and public servants like General Petraeus are particularly vulnerable because they have little privacy and are held to a higher standard than others.
Why are the public always so surprised at leaders coming to grief in sex scandals? Apparently they believe that leaders should live up to their duty of avoiding extramarital relationships whatever temptations are placed before them.
Evolutionary psychology suggests otherwise. Our leaders behave exactly like any other alpha male primate crashing through the jungle.
1. Betzig, L. (1986). Despotism and differential reproduction: A Darwinian view of history. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
2. Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience. & Biobehavioral. Reviews, 30, 319-345. .