As new details emerge about the extramarital affair that led to the resignation of David Petraeus from his post as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, it is interesting to see how people seem shocked by these events.
To be clear, Petraeus has provided important service to our country, ably serving as the commander of the multinational coalition of military forces in Iraq before accepting his new assignment at the CIA. Appointed by President George W. Bush and retained and promoted by President Barack Obama, Petraeus was admired by people regardless of their political stripes (no mean feat in this day and age).
Yet, people are now left scratching their heads. How could a distinguished four-star general with more than 37 years of service in the U.S. Army engage in behaviors that so quickly led to the unraveling of his distinguished career? How could a man entrusted with U.S. Central Command make such poor choices? How could someone widely admired for his candor and good judgment be brought down by his own "extremely poor judgment" (his own words)? Part of the difficulty in grasping the situation reflects a naivety about personality and our ability to predict behavior across contexts.
Personality: More limited than we realize
It is natural for people to assume that a man like Petraeus who became known for his honorable military service would act honorably in all facets of his life. Yet, doing so reflects an overly-broad view of personality.
Most people reveal some consistencies in their behaviors. An introvert tends to be quiet and shy in many settings. A conscientious person probably has both a well-organized desk at work and a relatively well-organized kitchen at home. Yet, such expectancies can be overly generalized. Sometimes, we also learn that an organized co-worker has a house that looks like it should appear on an episode of the TV series Hoarders.
As Ross and Nisbett (1991) point out in their excellent book The Person and the Situation, there is surprisingly poor consistency in predicting people's behavior across situations (the amount of predictable consistency, based on experimental research, averages around 10%).
In short, the situation can dictate behavior over people's dispositions. Everyday people will administer electronic shocks to unconscious people because an experimenter orders it (Milgram, 1974), seminary students will ignore an injured man when they are in a hurry to give a lecture on "The Good Samaritan" (Darley & Latane, 1973), and older men will succumb to the charms of younger, attractive women who are drawn to their status and power (Petraeus & Broadwell, 2012)
Self-presentation: It's hard to really know someone
Another important dimension of the situation is that successful people, especially those in political structures such as the U.S. Army or in Washington D.C., are effective because they are skilled at the art of self-presentation.
That is, knowing how to project one's image appropriately to key audiences is at the heart of what makes people successful. This skill, known as self-monitoring (Snyder & Gangestad, 2000), is a critical part of the impression management toolkit. Successful people are very adept at self-monitoring, and one does not rise to powerful positions like Petraeus without being very skilled at modulating one's appearance both in front of TV cameras and to political leaders throughout the world.
Clearly, part of Petraeus's appeal was his perceived candor in various senate hearings and press conferences, especially during challenging moments in the Iraq War. For example, Monica Crowley nominated Petraeus for "Most Honest Person of the Year" in 2008 on the McLaughlin Group television news program because he never "sugar-coated" the truth.
But again, perceptions such as these are part of one's persona, and being skilled at selective presentation is essential for someone who rises to the heights of power in the political world. Yet, people's impression of Petraeus could only be derived from what was on display for public consumption and these opportunities were certainly considered and crafted performances by a skilled political figure.
The self: Context-dependent rather than global
Finally, it is important to understand that even the nature of one's own self-concept is structured around differential expression as a function of context. That is, research shows that one's self-concept is organized in memory by context rather than being one monolithic set of self-relevant beliefs, behaviors, and feelings. In short, it would not be surprising to see that Petraeus's own sense of self might have discrete (and potentially, incompatible) representations for "soldier," "administrator," "father," and "husband."
Indeed, research from our own lab has shown that people's actions and feelings are very context-specific rather than global and general (McConnell, 2011). For example, people who strongly value a concept like "honesty" and use it as a yardstick for assessing themselves and others often only do so selectively in particular contexts rather than across the board (Brown & McConnell, 2009). Thus, even core attributes are not invariant across contexts, but instead, are expressed in specific situations and not in others.
Overall, one's most central and key traits are not "always on," but instead, are activated in particular contexts. When particular goals and circumstances arise, one's most core attributes can be extinguished rather than shedding light on one's judgment and actions.
In this analysis, I am not trying to impugn Petraeus's service to our country or his character. To the contrary, I would assert that each of us is capable of exhibiting some of the same weaknesses that Petraeus has in this episode. Moreover, the study of personality and individual differences is very important and it provides considerable insights for psychology.
Instead, what I wish to suggest is that people are all too often surprised when "good people go bad" as if an honorable person must be honorable in all contexts. The research literature has been teaching us this lesson in various ways for well over 50 years. The Petraeus affair is just the most recent real-world illustration.