Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why Do Powerful Men Cheat? The Petraeus Chronicles.

You knew these were coming, the stories about why powerful men cheat, why they are willing to throw away everything for the chance of some extramarital sex and why they go about it in the clumsiest fashion possible.  And yup, we get the evolutionary explanation for men's extramarital cheating.

This is such fun.  It's not that the arguments have no merit but the merit they have is pretty tiny.  On the other hand, the omissions are glaring and tells us loads about the cultural expectations and myths. 

Take what is currently known (or asserted):  David Petraeus, a married man, had an affair with Paula Broadwell, a married woman.  It is argued that Paula Broadwell, a married woman, sent threatening messages to Jill Kelley, another married woman, to warn her off Petraeus.  Jill Kelley, a married woman,  may have exchanged "inappropriate" e-mails with John Allen, a married man.  None of these people are married to each other.

David Petraeus was the head of the CIA and has an impressive military resume.  John Allen is a general and currently the top US commander in Afghanistan.  In short, these are powerful men.

Thus, we get headlines like this:

Why Men Like Petraeus Risk It All to Cheat
And this:

Petraeus affair raises old question: Why do men cheat?

I understand the angle of these stories.  It's Petraeus and Allen who are famous and well-known and they are men.  But the facts of the case suggest that we should also ask why women cheat, given that all alleged participants in this mess had marital partners.  Broadwell, too,  seems to have "risked it all" to cheat:  her marriage, her career as a biographer and the risk of the kind of public attention she is now receiving.  Her position may not look as powerful to us but in terms of her own life the risks she took were huge.

As I mentioned, I get the angle of these stories.  But it takes two to tango, and in heterosexual extramarital affairs both partners can be married.  Thus, the questions those headlines ask about men cheating disguise the fact that we should ask similar questions about women cheating.

That's not quite how those stories go.  USAToday, for example, begins like this:

He's a retired Army general who designed and led the military surge in Iraq and was top commander in Afghanistan. He had been deployed much of his career until he was named CIA director last year. His abrupt resignation amid news of his extramarital affair with a married Army Reserve officer brings a new wrinkle into an old story of why yet another powerful man risks so much for a woman.
Yes, Petraeus joins the list of wayward sons: Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and Eliot Spitzer — just to name a few.
Petraeus is another, says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University who studies such behavior.
Risk takers "tend to believe they control their destiny or fate," Farley says. "The risk-taking personality has a bold quality. It's at the heart of great leadership, and sometimes it overrides what many Americans would call common sense."

A list of powerful men cheating, sure.   And we have no comparable list of powerful women cheating, though that is most likely because there aren't that many powerful women as there are men*.   What all this would look like in a world where the highest positions of power had equal numbers of men and women is anybody's guess.  Still, I suspect that we would get at least a few stories about powerful women throwing it all away for the sake of sex.  Or for the sake of sexual love.

The Scientific American piece  also explains the cheating of powerful men by them being risk-takers, though it does point out that Broadwell seems to share that characteristic, too.   But the short summary we are offered under the headline tells a different story:
The risk of destroying a career is nothing compared with the evolutionary drive to reproduce

This may be nitpicking, but what does "evolutionary drive" mean in this context?  A drive that evolved?  How did our ancestors reproduce if they didn't have that drive?  Never mind.  I think the idea is to plug into the story something that looks like science.

More from the piece:

With risks like that on the line, could an extramarital affair be worth it? As it turns out, men may become blind to risk when an attractive woman enters the picture. One 2008 study found that men who played blackjack after seeing beautiful female faces took more risks than men who played the game after seeing unattractive faces.
This was true if the men were highly motivated in seeking new sexual partners. The blackjack risks seemed calculated to impress potential mates, study researcher Michael Baker, now a professor at Eastern Carolina University, told LiveScience. [The Sex Quiz: Myths, Taboos & Bizarre Facts]
More germane to high-profile affairs, Baker said, the risk of losing one's career or reputation is nothing compared with the evolutionary drive to reproduce. In that sense, while embarking on an affair may seem dumb, it actually shows something called "mating intelligence."
"These individuals have these very high-status, high-power positions, and the whole idea behind why people might be motivated to get these positions is because it gives them better access to resources that could be used to increase their reproductive success and attract more mates," Baker said.

Did the Baker blackjack study include female subjects?  If we are to explain why men cheat, as opposed to why women cheat, say, then data on both sexes is necessary.  Something like showing 20-year-old female undergraduates who major in psychology pictures of cute male butts and then asking them to play blackjack.  Just my uninformed suggestion...

Finally, this quote is worth a few words from me:
"These individuals have these very high-status, high-power positions, and the whole idea behind why people might be motivated to get these positions is because it gives them better access to resources that could be used to increase their reproductive success and attract more mates," Baker said.
The whole idea?  That's a bit exaggerated.  I personally think that people are driven first by the desire to stay alive and to thrive within that state, and only secondarily by considerations such as sex.  To imply that sex is the only reason why someone (a man, really) would want to obtain power and influence seems cartoonish to me. 

But whatever.  I just wish to make the note that "the whole idea" Baker mentions is an idea, and not some clearly proven fact.  Perhaps the alternative idea that "sex is pretty powerful" would do equally well?

Why write this post?  The two articles I discuss are not wrong, as such, and they do contain some interesting theories to think about, including the hypothesis that powerful people get insulated from reality and thus may underestimate the risk of getting caught having an extramarital affair. 

What triggered my writing urges (they are strong!  they are a way to get more mating partners!) may have been that condensed form in both the links to the pieces and in the headline for one:  The movement from why-powerful-men-cheat to why-men-cheat.   That's not what the stories are about, of course, but the same switch is not  uncommon in discussions about this on the net:  Petraeus As Everyman.

Add to that the invisibility of at least one woman cheating in this story, too, and you get one of those easy Chinese fortune cookie answers to presumed gender differences in cheating (found on various comments threads): 

Powerful men cheat because they can (and because of that mating urge),  all men would do the same if they could, and women like Broadwell obviously only cheat because of Petraeus's power and resources.  (In one comments-thread she was called a military groupie.)

But much of that is constructed, in an odd way.  If we begin by looking at the cheating behavior of  heterosexual men on the very top of societal hierarchies, in a culture where there aren't that many women on equally high rungs of those ladders, we are going to find that the partners of those men come from further down in the hierarchy.   This, in itself,  does not prove that women cheat only because of the power and resources of a man.  It's an artifact, caused by starting from the top rungs of the hierarchies. 

Finally, the cultural rules and sometimes even the legal consequences of cheating have been very different for men and women in the past (and still are, in places such as Afghanistan).  Those norms and rules continue have residual effects in our minds.  I think that makes it difficult to regard statements about one's own willingness to cheat or not as only biologically motivated or independent of the culture.

*This is the place where I should mention Lisa Nowak.  She, too, recklessly threw away a career path as an astronaut for the sake of an affair.