Why powerful men risk their family and career

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revelation about his long-term  affair with his household employee that involved a child being born is the latest in a string of powerful men with career ending flaws.  Add to that the  shocking arrest this week of powerful Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly raping a hotel maid and we must ask, “What the heck is going on with these guys?”

I can’t count the number of heartfelt apologies that have been rendered to the press by wandering husbands, as their beautiful wives stood quietly by.  Think back to a few; Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, President Clinton, Tiger Woods, Jim Baker, Gary Hart, Gov. Mark Sanford, Cong. Gary Condit, Gov. Elliot Spitzer. Sen John Edwards, Newt Gingrich … the list goes on and on.  What is it about these men of power that they take such risks with their family and career? Are powerful people more likely to cheat than men who aren’t in the spotlight?

One study published in Psychological Science claims the likelihood of infidelity increases the more powerful someone is.  The study looked at 1,561 readers of a Dutch business magazine and found that the higher someone was in the hierarchy, the greater the chance that they had cheated on their partner or intended to do so in the future.  The authors believe it is linked to confidence- the more power both men and women had, the confident they were and the more likely they were to cheat.

When powerful men risk everything with careless behavior, it can’t be explained away by just saying they were confident.  If you add in arrogance and a sense of superiority, you might be on to something.  Perhaps powerful men believe they can do things that other mortals are forbidden to do.  After all, they are special. Their egos are fed constantly.  Most of them have hoards of hangers-on and “yes-men” around them and where ever they go they are treated with respect and awe.  Power and money go together and these are men that do not worry about things we mere-mortals do.  They go first class for everything and that also can mean taking what they want, when they want it.

The recklessness and risk-taking are beyond the imagination, yet they do it repeatedly, thinking they are above the law.  Breaking the rules may be an immediate thrill, but the long term consequences are felt by their wives, supporters and constituents.

I think John Edwards summed it up in his self-examining statement on ABC’s Nightline:

“This is what happened,” he told a stone-faced Bob Woodruff. “I grew up as a small town boy in North Carolina. And I came from nothing, worked very hard, dreamed that I’d be able to do something hopeful and helpful to other people with my life. I became a lawyer. Through a lot of work and success, I gained some acclaim as a lawyer. People were telling me, ‘Oh you’re such a great person, such a great lawyer, such a talent. You’re gonna go—there’s no telling what you’ll do.’ And this was when I was 30, 31 years old. Then I went from being a senator— young senator—to being considered for vice president, running for president, being a vice presidential candidate, becoming a national public figure. All of which fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe that, that you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”

Toni Brayer is an internal medicine physician who blogs at EverythingHealth.

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  • WokenUP

    John Edwards makes a self-examining statement? Looks like the doc got played by the world’s slickest narcissists.

  • JadedOne

    I’m sure the good doc is right, but why does she think it’s only limited to powerful men? It’s men in general. My first husband, a pastor of a small church and head of a local Christian businessmen’s group, cheated. My second husband, a white collar worker, cheated. And from friends who called to commiserate with me, I learned that many of them had experienced the same thing but had kept quiet about it. The only common denominator between the powerful men who cheat and the ordinary men who cheat is that all were male.

    • http://abnormalfacies.wordpress.com Jim

      You may have been wronged, but women cheat and/or intend to cheat as often as men, research shows. I’m not sure why we continue to ignore this (actually, it pops up from time to time when it’s a slow news day).

      Infidelity is a transgression perpetrated by both sexes.

  • http://Everythinghealth.net Toni Brayer

    Actually research shows married/partnered men cheat much more than women. Also they commit more sex crimes by an order of 10s. That is not the purpose of my post. The blatant risk taking by powerful men who risk ” losing it all” is what is in question. I suspect there are a number of personality traits at work here…narcissism, thrill seeking,inflated ego, entitlement and more.

    There aren’t enough women in power to do comparisons. I look forward to that day and then we shall see. I predict it will not be equal but data is king.

    • http://abnormalfacies.wordpress.com Jim

      Certainly not the point of your article Dr. Brayer, nor were sex crimes or intimate partner violence. I think the topic you wrote on is interesting as your articles always are – my comment was in response to the above reader’s.

      However, I can’t agree that men cheat “much more” than women. It’s difficult to get reliable data, and definitions vary by study, but I’ve seen M:F rates range from 20% v. 15% to 60% v. 40% at the widest. My argument here is that there is a terrible discrepancy between what’s believed and what occurs.

      The one statistic that has been consistent across studies & time is that infidelity rates have been on the rise.

      By the way, if I were about to enter a relationship and you told me there would be a 40% chance of infidelity, I don’t like that number any more than I do 60%. To me, this is similar to the argument of statistical vs. clinical significance.

  • Kay

    I have found out that medical doctors cheat more than men in other professions!

  • John Kaegi

    Could cheating simply be attributable to a personality flaw learned as children in unprincipled homes and that those in high places are more inspected and investigated? I seriously doubt if it has anything to do with a feeling of superiority or the power to get away with it.

  • Doug Capra

    With all these “studies” and “stats” quoted, would anyone like to actually provide us with a link to one of the “studies?”

  • buzzkillersmith

    There are proximate causes and then there are ultimate causes. Testosterone: good and bad.

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