The Psychology Behind the UK Government Adviser's Resignation Scandal

The press puzzle over why Professor Neil Ferguson broke UK lockdown rules.

Posted May 08, 2020

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical modelling prompted the UK to "lockdown," has resigned from his government advisory positions. The Daily Telegraph Newspaper revealed that he had been flouting official isolation rules to meet his married lover.

 Thomas Angus, Imperial College London, Wikimedia Commons
Neil Ferguson
Source: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London, Wikimedia Commons

The 51-year-old epidemiologist apparently allowed the 38-year-old woman to visit him at his home during the lockdown, while he publicly preached the need for strict social distancing during the pandemic.

The Daily Telegraph Newspaper reports that the woman apparently crossed London to visit the professor at least twice during lockdown, which is against the very regulations the professor’s own research prompted.

The policy was inspired by his estimate that half a million UK citizens might die from the pandemic without lockdown measures; this dramatic number came from the computer-modelling team at Imperial College London, led by Neil Ferguson.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the former government adviser is married with a son, but that he and his wife live apart, however the press have also appeared puzzled that such an eminent mathematician could have so foolishly destroyed his national reputation accrued over many years. Exactly why did he violate the very rules he seemed so passionate about, endangering the credibility of his own advice, threatening public confidence in the lockdown?

Journalist Paul Nuki writing in The Daily Telegraph Newspaper speculated that Neil Ferguson was "felled by a risk-taking character streak and overactive libido," ("Professor Neil Ferguson had to go but Sage will be a lesser body without him," May 7).

Evolutionary psychology predicts that some men pursue high office, precisely in order to gain access to the kind of desirable women they wouldn’t otherwise attract.

Evolutionary psychologists controversially argue we are driven by forces below conscious awareness, suppressed by the veneer of civilization. Evolution, so the argument goes, has shaped our DNA over many generations, meaning we choose mates most likely to disseminate our genes.

Who we fall in love with is not down to our own individual aesthetic preference, but instead reflects a chromosomal choice.

Their theories include that men suffer a biologically based proclivity for sex with as many different women as possible, while women are genetically programmed by a contrasting sexual selection strategy, investing in fewer relationships but with longer-term commitment as this aids the survival of their offspring.

So, women, in contrast to men, are looking for higher quality in character but lower numbers of different relationships. This kind of gender-difference theorising is controversial amongst psychologists in general and is often currently regarded as the height of political incorrectness.

According to evolutionary psychology theory, men are drawn to youthful physical appearance because of the fertility advantages, whilst women value character traits, like ambition and intelligence, which lead to status and wealth. For women, the theory goes, this brings material advantages for her children, but her attraction to these characteristics in men operates below conscious awareness, so women are not aware as to why they find these features in men desirable, just as men are equal victims or slaves to their biology shaping their preferences.

A university professor who has become a national figure and who advises the government becomes attractive to women, according to evolutionary psychology theory, because of his intelligence and status (perhaps wealth will follow).

The Daily Telegraph Newspaper reports that Neil Ferguson met his current lover through an online dating site.

One evolutionary psychology study, entitled "Teaching may be hazardous to your marriage," found that college professors are at greater risk of being divorced or separated. This "politically incorrect" study argued that these older men are exposed to younger women on a daily basis in the form of students. The younger women are genetically programmed to be attracted to high-status males, e.g. senior eminent academics, rather than younger, lower status male counterparts.

The study, published in the academic journal, Evolution and Human Behavior, argued that college professors’ more mature wives appear less physically attractive to the senior academics, and as a result, professors' commitment to their marriage subsequently wanes. For the same reason, the study argued, college professors appear less likely to remarry subsequent to their divorce compared to other divorced men.

This study was inspired by previous research which found that men who were exposed to photographs of physically attractive women subsequently became less satisfied with their current heterosexual relationships and rated their partners as less attractive.

The college professor study contends that the daily exposure to young women draws the college professor’s attention to the contrast between the physical appearance of younger women that men’s evolved psychological mechanisms find more attractive than that of older women.

This sharp contrast, according to this study, then produces discontent in the men’s mind, and it is this dissatisfaction, rather than the younger women themselves or affairs with them, that simultaneously leads to an increased risk of divorce or separation, and a decreased probability of remarriage.

The college professor study analysed one of the largest social science data sets, the General Social Survey, collected from 1972 to 1996, constituted of 532,845 subjects representative of noninstitutionalized adults in the United States.

The results are that simultaneously being male and a college professor statistically significantly increases the likelihood of being currently divorced.

However, a later study, entitled, "One woman’s behavior affects the attractiveness of others’," suggests gender differences may be more fluid than evolutionary psychology predicts.

The researchers from McMaster University, Canada, asked participants to view upper-body photographs of highly attractive opposite-sex underwear models, obtained from men’s and women’s underwear catalogues.

Unattached participants then viewed opposite-sex "average-looking" photographs. They were then asked whether these pictures of the average looking people met the participant’s threshold for a potential date. Women, more than men, in this study, showed a sharper drop-off in desiring the average looking men after seeing highly attractive pictures of the opposite sex.

In other words, when women are exposed to physically attractive men, they then find the average man less desirable, and this shift in "contrast effect" desire is stronger for these women than for men exposed to physically desirable women in this study.

So, the contrast effect suggested in the college professor study appeared to apply more to women being affected by exposure to attractive males in how they then evaluated other men.

However, this study, published in the academic journal Evolution and Human Behavior, went on to examine the impact of being exposed not to physical attractiveness, but instead to a receptive member of opposite sex, who is "moderately attractive."

Videos were shot featuring the same actor, but the pair of videos differed in that in one, the actor behaved receptively towards the viewer: smiling, looking directly at the camera, and generally acting as if encouraging future interaction. In the comparison video, the actor behaved unreceptively: never smiling, gaze wandering, and sounding bored.

When exposed to these two different videos, men more than women then downrated their partners, or other opposite-sex people, on attractiveness.

Mated men’s ratings of their partners, and unattached men’s ratings of other women, were both lower if the interviewee had smiled and acted warmly than if she seemed uninterested. Women exhibited no such effects after watching a male interviewee.

The authors argued this might be because it is more adaptive for men to detect and respond to receptive behaviours, as this leads to a more successful allocation of their mating effort. To the male brain, such signals may indicate an immediate potential mating opportunity. Their results suggest that males, more than females, shift preferences in order to allocate mating effort toward immediate courtship targets.

Evolutionary psychology predicts this sex difference because indicators of interest from the opposite sex are rarer and therefore of more value for men than for women.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that high-status men like those in Neil Ferguson's position, historically repeatedly risk (and eventually lose) prestigious government jobs in order to conduct relationships with these kinds of younger so-called "higher value" women, and so this is not, to them, a puzzle at all. 

They contend that men work very hard to achieve high status, "precisely so that they could gain intimacy with a woman, who looks like this one," as one evolutionary psychologist actually said to me. Evolutionary psychologists therefore contend it would have been a greater puzzle if a man in a position like Neil Ferguson's didn’t have relations with such a woman, just because he had an important government position, and part of his job was to tell everyone to stay home.

The down-side of evolutionary psychology is that it can appear to provide excuses for behaviour that may have been explainable as the "law of the jungle," but is not helpful now that we have become more civilised and seek higher aspirations to transcend our "animal" programming.

The virus is genetically programmed to attack us; our only defense appears so far not to be our own biology, which in fact seems vulnerable to this threat. Instead, we must unleash our best brains to attack it with superior medicine and technology.

But we won't defeat the disease if we allow another part of our biology, our emotional drives and weaknesses, to determine who is on our front line. There is natural indignation and anger at an authority figure breaking the law. Psychology can help us see how common inner conflicts, which are part of human nature, can lead to rule-breaking and political self-destruction. Psychology can help us forgive, so keeping the allies we really need on our team.

For us to lose possible valuable scientific insight just because we are unforgiving of fallibility, which could be part of all of our genetic and psychological make-up, may also be our own undoing.

It won't then be the virus who killed us, but our own psychological enemies within.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this article was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall. 


Teaching may be hazardous to your marriage Satoshi Kanazawaa, Mary Still. Evolution and Human Behavior 21 (2000) 185–190

One woman’s behavior affects the attractiveness of others. Sandeep Mishra, Andrew Clark, Martin Daly. Evolution and Human Behavior 28 (2007) 145 – 149

How Neil Ferguson, the architect of lockdown, was brought down by failing to obey his own rules Government's leading epidemiology adviser set out advice that led to UK restrictions in research paper submitted on March 16 ByAnna Mikhailova, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR ; Christopher Hope, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT ; Louisa Wells and Michael Gillard5 May 2020 • 9:02pm

Professor Neil Ferguson had to go but Sage will be a lesser body without him

History will be kind to Prof Ferguson, his 'suppression' strategy came too late for the UK economy but saved thousands of lives  By Paul Nuki, GLOBAL HEALTH SECURITY EDITOR, LONDON6 May 2020 • 8:58pm