Image: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver
Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images
Powerful men, such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, shown here with his now-estranged wife, Maria Shriver, are more likely to cheat not because they are men, but because they are powerful, a new study shows.
By contributor
updated 5/19/2011 8:27:31 AM ET 2011-05-19T12:27:31

Arnold Schwarzenegger has a love child (or, more accurately, a lust child) and the head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is now sitting in a Rikers Island cell charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid and has admitted to at least one past affair.

Both are more proof, as if we needed more proof, that men, especially powerful men, can’t keep their pants zipped.

That makes a convenient narrative, but what if it’s not gender that leads to scandalous behavior, but power itself? What if powerful women were more likely to engage in illicit sex than their less powerful counterparts, just as powerful men are?

That is exactly the conclusion of a new study from a team of Dutch university psychologists lead by Joris Lammers of Tilburg University about to be published in the journal Psychological Science.

They used a survey to poll 1,561 professional workers, male and female, asking questions to measure how powerful respondents perceived themselves to be, how confident, how likely to consider cheating and how often they actually did cheat. They found that of the 1,250 people who answered the "actually cheated" question, 26.3 percent had done the deed, and the more powerful the person — male or female — the more likely to have strayed.

“People in power generally are more confident, self-assured, assertive, and impulsive than people low in power,” the authors state. That confidence makes powerful people pretty sure of themselves. They think others are sexually interested, that they will be successful if they make a pass, and that they themselves are more attractive, which explains why an old fellow like Strauss-Kahn, who is no Brad Pitt, might think he’s irresistible to women , or why Donald Trump seems so convinced he’s Andrew Carnegie, Abraham Lincoln, and that guy from the Old Spice commercials rolled into one.

The reason we hear more about powerful males doing the nasty with the help, the authors say, isn’t that they are male, it’s that more men are in power positions.

“Gender did not moderate the effects we found. Among women who had an independent source of income (as all our female respondents did, since they were working professionals), power had a comparably positive relationship with infidelity as among men.”

While it seems we almost never hear about the powerful woman in a sex scandal, it does happen. A number of military men, for example, have accused female superiors of harassment and according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission 16.4 percent of sexual harassment complaints are filed by males.

There are brain mechanisms at work that the Lammers study doesn’t explain.

In most animal species, the powerful have increased levels of testosterone. In the brain, testosterone works as a neurochemical that elevates tolerance for risk taking, and increases sexual desire and focus. The more testosterone, the more power and the more power, the more testosterone. (Guys driving Porsches have more testosterone — because they are driving Porsches — than guys driving old station wagons.) Testosterone can have some of these same effects in female brains.

All that extra hormone floating around in the brain turns the more primitive desire circuits into a shouting Glenn Beck, while the frontal cortex becomes a quiet professor trying to rationally explain why assaulting a hotel maid is a bad idea if you want to be president of France.

Which is another way of saying that rich and powerful men and women may be smart, but they can act as stupidly as the rest of us.

Brian Alexander, author of "America Unzipped," is working on a new book about love, sex and the brain with Emory University neuroscientist Larry Young.

© 2013


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