Why do smart people do dumb things?

Spitzer Prostitution
New York Governor Eliot Spitzer arrives at his Fifth Avenue apartment on Monday in New York. Spitzer, the crusading politician who built his career on rooting out corruption, apologized Monday after he was accused of involvement in a prostitution ring. Louis Lanzano / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It's the simplest question in the world, but it was the one repeated over and over Monday after the staggering news broke about Gov. Eliot Spitzer: What in heaven's name was the man thinking?

Yet if the New York governor is proved to have been involved in a prostitution ring, it would hardly be the first time a powerful, brilliant person in public life has done something dizzyingly self-destructive.

Why do otherwise smart, successful people do such risky things? For psychologists and political analysts who found themselves dissecting the Spitzer story, it was a question of the chicken or the egg: In such situations, does the risky behavior precede the powerful job? Or does something about being in power cause the behavior?

‘We’re all human’
Many speculated that it was a combination of the two. "We're all human," said Leon Hoffman, a psychoanalyst in New York. "These urges are so, so common. Whether it's a prostitute or a mistress that one chooses, that's another question."

And yet, Hoffman said, there may be something about the aura of power surrounding a prominent politician that makes him feel potentially immune from consequences.

"There's the psychology of the exception," said Hoffman, former chairman of the American Psychoanalytic Association's public information committee. "People in power sometimes feel they can do things that us, mere mortals, are forbidden to do. There's a sense, as with adolescents, that 'I won't get caught.'"

Political analyst Steven Cohen was wary of trying to draw any conclusions about the corrupting influence of power.

"The problem is we don't know when this behavior started for this person," said Cohen, a professor of public administration at Columbia University. "Politicians are like the rest of us. The fact that they're flawed and do stupid things shouldn't surprise us."

Held to a higher standard?
The real question, Cohen said, is whether Spitzer should be held to a different ethical standard. And his answer is yes.

"This isn't Britney Spears we're talking about. This is the governor," Cohen said. "The bottom line is, he controls the National Guard and the state police. He could have people come to arrest you and me tomorrow. So his private behavior does become a public issue."

One psychologist who has studied and worked with politicians and their families thinks there is indeed something different about people who reach positions of such prominence.

"In order to be in such a high-profile position, you have to believe that what you are doing is innately right," said Renana Brooks, of Washington, D.C. "Anything that isn't right, you may blot out. You can't be tortured by guilt or indifference. It's just virtually impossible to function at this high a level without limiting the amount of introspection you can do."

Spitzer, who has not been charged and has not resigned, was caught on a federal wiretap arranging to meet with a prostitute, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still going on.

The governor, identified in court papers only as "Client 9," met with the woman the day before Valentine's Day, the official said. According to the complaint he paid $4,300 in cash for that and future trysts, and when discussing payments told an agent: "Yup, same as in the past, no question about it."

Echoes of earlier scandals
One longtime analyst of New York politics finds it hard to look at Spitzer's predicament without thinking of politicians such as President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey, who resigned after announcing he had an affair with a male staffer.

"These are really smart guys doing really stupid things — and doing really stupid things repeatedly," said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. But the allegations about Spitzer, he said, were the most shocking, if only because there was no public hint of such behavior from the governor, who campaigned as a model of moral rectitude.

"Nobody I've spoken to ... had any inkling of this," Muzzio said. He said he was torn between believing Spitzer's situation could be a case of a deep-seated compulsion or one of simple hubris.

"It could be both — they're not mutually exclusive," Muzzio said. "Now that would be a really fatal cocktail. In any case, there's an element of recklessness and risk-taking that is just breathtaking."

Compartmentalizing risk
Would Spitzer, who knows better than most anyone how law enforcement works, consider the consequences of getting caught? Analysts say people often don't consciously think about such risks, even highly intelligent people.

Chicago psychoanalyst Mark Smaller believes one can find useful parallels in the case of certain patients, from all walks of life, who exhibit a striking capacity to compartmentalize risky, unethical or even illegal behavior, a process known as the "splitting" of part of the personality.

"They can be otherwise completely law-abiding, sensible, reliable people," Smaller says. "Often the behavior in question is caused by intense anxiety, stress in the workplace or home, or feeling overwhelmed." And often, he says, the behavior can involve sex, drugs, or something like shoplifting.

"They compartmentalize to the extent that they don't feel any sense of shame or guilt," Smaller said. "Until," he adds, "they get caught."