Are the Powerful More Likely to Be Unfaithful?

Does power make women unfaithful too?

Posted Jul 04, 2019

By Dr. Raj Persaud

Boris Johnson, who is currently the favorite candidate in a two-horse race to become the next Prime Minister of the UK, has tried to keep his personal life out of the political debate.

He has argued that details of his sometimes stormy relationship with girlfriend Carrie Symonds should have no place in determining how people decide who to vote for.

Most recently a neighbor called the police after hearing shouting and plate-smashing coming from the flat where the couple live. Boris Johnson has adamantly refused to answer questions about what happened that night.

 Annika Haas (EU2017EE) This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Informal meeting of foreign affairs ministers (Gymnich). Round table Boris Johnson (36913612672).jpg
Source: Photo: Annika Haas (EU2017EE) This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Is he right, that the personal is not political?

Two academic psychologists, Joris Lammers from the University of Cologne and Jon Maner from Florida State University, recently argued that experiencing power has transformative effects on an individual’s psychology.

They contend that power changes how people view themselves, how they see the world, and how they engage with others. One key transformative effect of enhanced clout is that people who feel powerful tend to become disinhibited.

Joris Lammers and Jon Maner were interested in the theory that powerful people are able to act on their desires and urges without having to worry as much as others do about being punished, or facing consequences for undesirable behavior.

If powerful people feel psychologically liberated from the influence of social restraints, then domination decreases the chances that they will follow normative patterns of behavior.

This attraction to the "counter-normative" might explain why the powerful are more likely to be unfaithful. This is in contrast to the more conventional theory that influential people are simply found more attractive and therefore are presented with more opportunity, which they seize.

In a study published in The Journal of Sex Research, the psychologists directly tested these two different theories for why infidelity is linked to power, in a large survey of 610 Dutchmen and women.

The research found that among those who were in a committed relationship, participants in non-management jobs (9.1 percent) were the least likely to engage in infidelity, followed by those in lower management (8.5 percent), those in middle management (24.0 percent), and finally those in top management (36.5 percent). Those in top management were approximately four times more likely to engage in infidelity than those below them enduring non-management positions.

Joris Lammers and Jon Maner point out that previous research has confirmed that powerful people demonstrate nonconformity when expressing their personal attitudes. The powerful are more likely (than the powerless) to break the norm of practicing what one preaches by showing moral hypocrisy.

Similarly, Joris Lammers and Jon Maner point to the fact that previous research has found that upper-class individuals (who tend to have more power) are more likely to engage in unethical behavior and to disregard the safety of others.

If power leads people to disregard conventional standards, that may explain why rates of infidelity are higher among more powerful people. Infidelity is widely seen as counter-normative behavior. Most Americans—percentages run as high as 97 percent—find infidelity wrong and unethical, and even in the supposedly more liberal Netherlands, where the current study was conducted, 87 percent of people view infidelity as counter-normative.

However, the Lammers and Maner study, entitled, "Power and Attraction to the Counternormative Aspects of Infidelity," found that power did not predict the likelihood of uncommitted, casual sex. The likelihood that singles engaged in uncommitted casual sex was independent of whether participants were in non-management (50.9 percent), in lower management (50.0 percent), in middle management (60.7 percent), or in top management (40.0 percent).

This is not the finding you would expect, the authors argue, if power simply makes people seem more attractive to others, increasing access to potential mating opportunities. If this were the case, then you would expect to see a similar upwardly pointing trajectory for the rates of uncommitted casual sex in jobs higher up the power curve.

The link between power and infidelity could, therefore, be better explained by the fact that power psychologically licenses people to engage in counter-normative frolicking. Power may be associated with infidelity because power increases the likelihood with which people pursue counter-normative forms of sexuality.

Further support for this theory comes from other results of the study, which found that among participants who are committed to a relationship, power was associated with an increased attraction to the secrecy associated with infidelity.

This finding is particularly interesting in light of any powerful person in a leadership contest protesting that they want to keep their personal lives confidential. This research suggests another deeper motivation that may remain obscure even to themselves, which is that deep down in their psyche, secrecy, and the particular excitement it provokes, is linked with power.

But perhaps the most intriguing finding of all from this study, published in 2015, is that power is linked to infidelity more for women than for men. Joris Lammers and Jon Maner point out that infidelity is still perhaps seen as especially counter-normative for women, so this is further evidence for their counter-normative theory of the link between power and infidelity. If power liberates people from restrictive social norms, then power should overwrite any such effects of routine expectations, particularly liberating women to be more unfaithful.

Joris Lammers and Jon Maner conclude their study with a conundrum, which is: Why is it that so many powerful men, while seemingly so few powerful women, get caught in sex scandals involving infidelity? Countless male politicians have been toppled from office due to sex scandals or found their grip on power threatened. Sex scandals involving female politicians are undoubtedly more difficult to bring to mind.

One possible explanation, according to Joris Lammers and Jon Maner, may be that powerful female politicians are just as profligate as their male counterparts, but that they express their sex drive in a manner that is less easily noticed.

In a two-horse race with just two male candidates competing to be the next Prime Minister of the UK, maybe the country is the eventual loser, because whichever man wins, powerful women, when all is said and done, appear better organized in all aspects of their lives.


Power and Attraction to the Counternormative Aspects of Infidelity. Joris Lammers and Jon Maner  The Journal of Sex Research Volume 53, 2016 - Issue 1