The Psychology of Betrayal

Can Michael Gove's alleged betrayal of Boris Johnson teach us about ourselves?

Posted Jul 01, 2016

Plastered across the British Press are terms such as ‘betrayal’ and ‘back-stabbing’, as Britain reels in reaction to the news that Boris Johnson, widely tipped to the be the UK’s next Prime Minister, has had his ambitions thwarted by his close colleague, Michael Gove.

The fellow Parliamentarian’s decision to stand for election has mysteriously coincided with Boris Johnson’s sudden and unexpected last minute withdrawal from the leadership contest of The Conservative Party.

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The result is that the candidate most widely tipped to win, has dramatically, and at the very last moment, pulled out of a fight to become the country’s next Prime Minister, despite apparently harbouring this determination for many years.

The political machinations behind the scenes lead the political pundits to speculate as to whether Michael Gove had plotted all along to become Prime Minister, by first getting rid of David Cameron.

After all, the Prime Minister’s resignation was inevitable had he lost the referendum vote. It may have been Gove who actively recruited Boris Johnson into becoming the lead campaigner of the ‘Leave’ campaign, when the charismatic and popular politician was allegedly wavering over the issue.

It was partly, yet significantly, down to Boris Johnson, most political pundits feel, that the campaign was victorious, then triggering the Prime Minister’s resignation.

Michael Gove, the allegation is, used Boris Johnson to get David Cameron out, and then scuppered Boris Johnson’s chances of standing, so creating an opportunity for Michael Gove to become the UK’s next Prime Minister.

The betrayal, if that is what it was, comes at the end of a closely plotted ‘game of chess’ which began many moves ago, and which has left Boris Johnson looking at best naïve, at worst foolish.

Psychologists might argue that in fact it is this last impact which could in the long run destroy Boris Johnson’s career. If this is true, then Michael Gove, widely perceived as the less charismatic and popular politician, very much the underdog in any competition with Boris Johnson, may have pulled off a remarkable coup, in grasping power through political machinations, despite being the less viable candidate.

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Julie Fitness, head of the Psychology Department of Macquarie University, Australia, in a book chapter entitled ‘Betrayal, Rejection, Revenge, and Forgiveness: An Interpersonal Script Approach’, cites research that suggests nearly 19% of men reported having been betrayed by a colleague at work.

Is it possible that betrayal may be a key tool in the Machiavellian art of climbing the greasy pole in any competitive career? If so, then any ambitious person may have a lot to learn from the alleged strategizing of Michael Gove?

Or is betrayal a high risk gamble which inevitably produces a backlash, coming back to haunt and damage the ‘back-stabber’?

In a study of her own, into anger in the workplace, Fitness found betrayal-related ‘rule violations’ (e.g., lying and exploitation) were amongst the most frequently reported types of anger-inducing offence amongst co-workers.

If so, then betrayal, at least when it’s detected, is so upsetting that maybe it’s not worth it?

Fitness points out that treachery and betrayal have been, throughout all human history, considered amongst the very worst relationship offences people could commit. Dante, for example,  Fitness reminds us, relegated traitors to the lowest and coldest regions of Hell, to be forever frozen up to their necks in a lake of ice with blizzards storming all about them. Worldwide, the crime of treason continues to merit the most severe penalties, in some places including capital punishment.

From an evolutionary perspective, our survival in ancestral environments within ancient tribes, meant that having evolved as social beings, we critically depended on the degree to which valued others accept and respect us.

Betrayal could have such devastating consequences, it was vital that we developed a mechanism to detect potential ‘cheaters’ and learned only to invest our resources with colleague who were not going to let us down.

This also applies to romantic commitment where the costs of infidelity were so large that it made sense we should be invested in finding intimate partners who were not going to betray us. It is no accident therefore, according to this evolutionary theory, that when it comes to betrayal, women appear much more upset by emotional unfaithfulness in a male partner with another woman, while men are more disturbed by sexual infidelity in a female partner.

Even today psychologists find women are more upset by an emotional betrayal in a male partner while men are most angered by a sexual infidelity in a female partner.

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This pattern follows from the theory that back in our evolutionary past women depended most on male emotional commitment as this built an alliance which provided resources to help raise children, whereas men could never be absolutely certain the child a woman produced was their own, so it would be a fatal evolutionary error to commit to a woman who passed on another man’s genes into future generations.

Evolutionary Psychologists therefore go as far as arguing we may have some kind of psychological modules built into our brains to detect betrayal. We are likely to be particularly sensitive to it as it’s so very dangerous to us in a competitive world (as Boris Johnson has just discovered).

But in the ‘arms race’ that is betrayal those individuals who could exploit others through treachery and therefore gain an advantage might also have benefitted from this strategy, so passing on ‘duplicity’ genes into future generations.

You don’t have to competing to be the next Prime Minister for betrayal to become a high stakes game.

Fitness appears to argue in her chapter that key to understanding the psychological reaction to a betrayal and whether, for example, revenge and hatred will be enacted, lies in the realm of how humiliating the experience has been.

For example Fitness concludes from her own research that public humiliation by superiors at work is one of the most destructive long-term outcomes of these kinds of betrayal incidents.

Fitness argues the humiliating discovery that one has been the “last to know” about a partner’s infidelity, may trigger as much pain as the act of betrayal itself.

A key implication is that it’s the power balance between two parties which has been profoundly disrupted. In particular, when a betrayal has been accompanied by deceit or humiliation, Fitness points out, the betrayer effectively assumes a “one-up” position to the betrayed, who has been duped or demeaned.

Evolutionary psychologists contend this is so catastrophic for our social standing, that people will therefore go to extreme lengths to avoid looking weak or foolish.

Is this the key psychological problem that Boris Johnson now faces?

The next move in this chess game of betrayal, according to Fitness, is therefore often pursuit of revenge, to “even the score” between the two parties.

Evolutionary psychology therefore predicts that we may still have some way to go before the machinations between Boris Johnson and Michael Gove reach ‘checkmate’.

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