It seems that every few months (or less) the breaking news of the day is related to some sex scandal involving a man of power and influence. Schwarzenegger, Woods, Weiner, Edwards. I could go on ... and on and on. Suffice it to say that the high road of power, wealth, and fame is lined with the dead or badly wounded careers of many powerful men, all ensnared by infidelity of some variety or another.
This has led many to wonder why men who seem to have it all--successful careers, promising futures, beautiful families--risk it all on a fling ... or two or three. Is it ego? Narcissism? Risk-taking? Opportunity? Or is it just a male power thing?
It's certainly a fair question. After all, we never hear Brian Williams opening Nightly News with lurid tales of the sexual indiscretions of Bachmann, Shriver, Wasserman Schulz, Couric, or Winfrey, do we? Powerful women simply don't seem to get caught up in lascivious scandals like their male counterparts do.
So how do we explain a study, soon to be published in Psychological Science, that has found that power, not gender, predicts infidelity? According to Joris Lammers, social psychology professor at Tilburg University and lead author of the newly published study on infidelity, the gender discrepancy we see among cheaters is a function of power differentials, not personality, risk-taking, increased travel, or gender. In a press release from Psychological Science, Lammers notes, "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 and his colleagues studied over 1200 male and female professionals, ranging from executives to clerks, and discovered that power plays a significant role in infidelity among both men and women. The study found that, irrespective of gender, the more powerful a person is and feels, the more confident that person is in his/her ability to attract partners. And not only was this effect found for actual infidelity, it was also found for intentions to be unfaithful in the future.
Interestingly, Lammers is not the only one discovering these kinds of results. In a study examining interactions between heterosexual college students and opposite sex partners, Florida State University professor Jon Maner found that when students are made to feel as if they have a bit of power, they are more likely to start flirting with the stranger sitting next to them. Yet when that power is taken away, the flirting disappears--and not just among males. Women given power behaved in the same manner.
In an interview with NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam,1 Professor Maner reported that "power-holders," regardless of gender, "tended to touch their subordinates more, they maintained more direct eye contact, they behaved in an overall more flirtatious manner." Vedantam reported that studies have also found that power causes both men and women to view themselves as more attractive than they really are. It also leads them to perceive innocuous comments from strangers as come-ons. For example, Maner's research found that subjects who were given just small amounts of power believed that their lab partners were acting in sexual ways even though they were not, leading Maner to conclude that this effect isn't limited to the most powerful and influential people in our society. He believes that this happens in every day social interactions. "In our own research," Maner tells NPR, "just giving people power over a small amount of money in, again, just a short laboratory interaction was sufficient to elicit this overestimation of sexual interest."
Why does power have this affect on us? Lammers cites preliminary research from brain studies that have shown that when people are given even a brief sense of power, their brains react in interesting ways. He says that when we feel powerful, the brain structures associated with positive feelings, with rewards, are much more activated than the structures that help steer us away from bad choices. In other words, when we feel powerful, we are more likely to focus on the things we enjoy, the things that are rewarding to us, and ignore the potential consequences.
This still, however, doesn't explain why we don't hear more stories about powerful women and infidelity. If powerful women are cheating and flirting as much as men, why haven't we heard at least a story or two of affairs or sexual scandals among high powered women?
In an interview with Professor Lammers, I asked this exact question. "I think there are several reasons for this," Lammers told me. "One is that there are simply much less women in high power positions. So, it is just a matter of odds. Second, I think that women are more careful. We studied infidelity, but mere infidelity is not likely to end up as a scandal."
Lammers explained that while extramarital affairs may sometimes make headlines in highly public people's lives (such as politicians and superstars), most cases of infidelity alone wouldn't be newsworthy enough to report in most countries. On the other hand, "... sexual aggression or behavior that makes someone easy to blackmail is," he said.
In conclusion, Lammers said, "I think power makes women (just as it does to men) more likely to follow their desires and impulses--they may have the impulse to start an affair. But for some reason they seem to lack the desire to upload pictures of their private parts to Twitter or to sexually harass or attempt to rape a bellboy or so. I guess women have less of such sexual aggression impulses than men."
© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
1 To hear the entire NPR story, click here.
Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).