Power May Increase Promiscuity

Originally published on July 20, 2017 4:10 pm
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And Mark Sanford is one of the cascade of politicians linked to sex scandals. If you print out the Wikipedia page for federal political sex scandals, in the U.S. alone, it runs to six single-spaced pages. And recently, it's gotten two names longer, both of them congressman from New York.

NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains why so many powerful people get caught up in sexual indiscretions.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: The confessions we've heard in recent years from powerful men and sex scandals all sounded alike. Listen to Congressman Anthony Weiner, Senator John Ensign, governors Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford, and Senator David Vitter.

Representative ANTHONY WEINER (Democrat, New York): I haven't told the truth and I've done things I deeply regret. I brought pain to people I care about the most and the people who believed in me...

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Last year, I had an affair. I violated the vows...

Mr. ELIOT SPITZER (Democrat, Former Governor, New York): I've acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family, and that violates my or any sense of right and wrong.

Mr. MARK SANFORD (Republican, Former Governor, South Carolina): I've been unfaithful to my wife. I developed a relationship with a...

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): I am completely responsible...

Rep. WEINER: And for that I'm deeply sorry...

Mr. SPITZER: I'm truly sorry...

Mr. Sanford: And I'm so very, very sorry.

VEDANTAM: Yes, the confessions and apologies follow a familiar script. But there's something else: all these are men's voices. Don't women ever get involved in sex scandals? We put the question to a panel of pedestrians in downtown Washington. Here are Brendan McNamara, a legal assistant, and Debbie Wilcox, a visitor from Canada.

Mr. BRENDAN MCNAMARA (Legal Assistant): I don't want to speculate, but I think that women have done it less.

Ms. DEBBIE WILCOX: I think it goes along with the culture and the society and the position of power and taking advantage of people that are not in a position of power.

VEDANTAM: So would you imagine that women would do the same thing in positions of power?

Ms. WILCOX: Never.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VEDANTAM: They're right and they're wrong. Power is the problem, but it turns out it is just as much a problem for women as for men.

Professor Joris Lammers in the Netherlands, recently conducted a survey of more than a thousand professionals. He asked him to describe whether they were in positions of power in their workplaces. He then asked...

Mr. JORIS LAMMERS (Department of Social Psychology, Tilburg University Professor): Whether they ever committed adultery, whether they foresee that they ever would engage in a adulterous relationship. And, yeah, we found it affects both men and women. The more they have power, the more they are likely to engage in infidelity.

VEDANTAM: Lammers found that the most powerful people in his survey were 30 percent more likely to have affairs than the least powerful people. The most powerful people were also having way more affairs. And this is not just about the Dutch.

Studies done in other places have shown the same correlation between adultery and power. And there is preliminary research that might explain why power increases infidelity. When you stick people inside a brain scanner and give them a fleeting sense of power, the way they view risks and rewards changes.

Mr. LAMMERS: So you can even see this in brain activation. If people feel powerful, and you can see that brain structure associated with positive things - with rewards - is just much more activated than the part that is steered towards preventing the bad things from happening.

VEDANTAM: So when you get a sense of power, you start to focus on all the things that could go right. And you get blinders on for all the things that could go wrong. But that's not all.

Psychologist Jon Maner, at Florida State University, recently sat heterosexual college students down with an opposite sex partner. Maner found that when students were given a brief feeling of power, they were more likely to start flirting with the stranger sitting next to them. Take away the power, the flirting disappears - and it wasn't just the men. Women given power behaved exactly the same.

Mr. JON MANER (Florida State University, Department of Psychology Professor): Power-holders tended to touch their subordinates more, they maintained more direct eye contact. They behaved in an overall more flirtatious manner.

VEDANTAM: Power also causes both men and women to see themselves as more attractive than they really are. And it makes perfectly innocuous comments from subordinates and strangers sound like come-ons. Volunteers with the power believe their lab partners were acting in sexual ways even when they were not, Maner said. In other words, when you say hello to someone, an ordinary person thinks you said hello. A powerful person thinks you meant hel-lo, and it doesn't take much power to trigger this.

Mr. MANER: I don't think this is going to be limited to powerful politicians or CEOs at big companies by any means. I think this can happen in every day social interactions. In fact, in our own research, just giving people power over a small amount of money in a short laboratory interaction was sufficient to elicit this overestimation of sexual interest.

VEDANTAM: But none of these studies explain why there are so many more sex scandals among men. Our panel of pedestrians in Washington included Barley Bahla(ph), a local writer.

Powerful men tend to be at the center of these scandals, she said, because men are at the center of power in our society.

Ms. BARLEY BAHLA (Writer): Well, women in power have done some pretty inappropriate things. Think of Catherine the Great.

VEDANTAM: Catherine the Great was an 18th century Russian empress, one of the most powerful women in the history of the world. Over three decades, she took up with a slew of lovers. When she grew bored she discarded them by dipping into the national coffers to hush them up. Frankly, her sexual escapades make uploading dirty pictures to Twitter sound tame.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.