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Why Did They Think They'd Get Away With It?

How powerful men can end up making really stupid decisions.

Tiger Woods, Jesse James, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton.... you get where I'm going. It's only too obvious what these men have in common. Each of them cheated on his wife, not once, but (allegedly) many, many times. And because they are all public figures of one kind or another, each of them was taking a bigger-than-usual risk every time. The possibility of exposure increases with fame, as do the potential consequences, and no doubt they were all well aware of it. Whatever you may think of these men - that they are despicable, that they are sex addicts, that their actions might be in some sense justifiable - you really can't help but wonder how in the world they thought they would get away with it. In the age of 24-hour news, relentless paparazzi, and countless internet gossip sites, it's gotten awfully hard to keep a secret. Why did these men think that theirs would be the exception?

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The answer, at least in part, may lie in something else that they have in common. Each man, in his own way, was in a position of significant power when he engaged in his extra-marital shenanigans. They were all men of influence, whose decisions impacted the lives of many others. And as we all know, power does funny things to people. More specifically, feeling powerful can lead someone to engage in riskier behavior than they otherwise would, because power makes you more optimistic about risk.


A series of studies by Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when male and female participants felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans (with bigger potential rewards) to more conservative plans, divulged more information and were more trusting during negotiations, chose to "hit" more often during a game of black-jack, and were more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand (sound familiar?) This was true whether the participants had a generally higher sense of power (like the aforementioned sports stars and politicians), or were momentarily made to feel powerful in the experiment.


These researchers also found that when in power, people focus more on the potential payoffs of their risky behavior, and much less (if at all) on the possible dangers. This leads to being overly-optimistic, even about things no one could possibly control (like avoiding turbulence on an airplane, or encountering a dangerous snake while on vacation).


So if power makes you prone to risky behavior, why then do some powerful people seem to be so personally conservative and risk-averse? After all, not every politician has a weakness for call girls or interns. Well, it turns out that when being in power is your primary focus, and you believe it's possible to lose that power, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative. Basically, you don't want to lose the power you've worked so hard to attain, so you avoid risks. If, on the other hand, you feel your power is irrevocable - that no one can take it away from you - then caution is once again thrown to the wind.

So to those of you in positions of power, I've got two pieces of advice. First, before you make any decision, be sure to give some serious thought to the potential dangers you may encounter. If things don't work out as you planned, exactly how bad will that be for you? Second, remember that in this day and age, no one has irrevocable power. Make the wrong choices, and you can lose everything. Is it still worth it?

 

C. Anderson & A. Galinsky (2006). Power, optimism, and risk-taking. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 511-536.


A. Galinsky, D. Gruenfeld, & J. Magee (2003) From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 453-466.


J. Maner, M. Gailliot, D. Butz, & B.M. Peruche (2007) Power, risk, and the status quo: Does power promote riskier or more conservative decision making. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 451-462.

 

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

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