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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