Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned after impeachment hearings investigating his alleged sex scandal began
Kara Alaimo: His fall from grace is unsurprising considering politicians are predisposed to have more affairs than others
Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Add Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to the list of politicians whose careers cratered after allegations of infidelity. His alleged affair raises the question: Do politicians cheat more than the rest of us?
Research suggests the answer is yes – and for five reasons.
1. Power increases confidence. A 2011 study found that having more power makes men and women feel more assured of their appeal to potential sexual partners. They are therefore more likely to intend to be unfaithful and to actually have affairs. The researchers explained that “the powerful see the world, themselves, and other people in a different manner, and they act in a different manner than do individuals who lack power.” They also noted that people with power may exude confidence by making direct eye contact and standing close to people in assertive postures – all of which would make them more attractive to others.
2. They can. Powerful men have more women who want to sleep with them and often work long hours and attend social events away from their families. Todd Shackelford, director of the evolutionary psychology lab at Oakland University in Michigan, says, “The best predictor of men’s infidelities is sheer opportunity, and men with power have remarkable opportunity.”
Female politicians, in contrast, have far fewer sex scandals, because they fear the consequences. Unlike their male colleagues, they do not think they will be forgiven.
3. Power leads to bad behavior. Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, has studied powerful people from senators to professional athletes, and finds that as people gain more power, they become more selfish. He calls the phenomenon the “power paradox.” In one study, he provided fresh-baked cookies for everyone on a team, plus one extra. Guess who took the second cookie? “It was nearly always the person who’d been named the leader,” he reports. “In addition, the leaders were more likely to eat with their mouths open, lips smacking, and crumbs falling onto their clothes.”
Research suggests that higher-class people are also more unethical. One study found that drivers in more expensive cars were less likely to yield to pedestrians.
4. Politicians are risk-takers. Studies find that people with power are more optimistic about their chances of success when taking risks and therefore take more of them. Temple University Professor Frank Farley, who is former president of the American Psychological Association, says risk-taking is “an essential quality for politicians.” He calls such people “Type T,” with “T” standing for thrill. He says this quality may also lead them to take other risks, like having extramarital affairs.
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5. They’re also narcissists. The people drawn to politics may also have needs for approval, which might be satisfied by affairs. And since they don’t think the normal rules apply to them anyway, they are more willing to pursue approval outside marriage. One study found that politicians had the highest rates of narcissism of four professions studied, which also included university faculty, librarians and clergy. The researchers argued that this makes sense, given that politics is a profession “involving frequent opportunities for attention and admiration from others, social prestige, and power.”
“Narcissism is an occupational hazard for political leaders,” says Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York. “You have to have an outsized ambition and an outsized ego to run for office.”
Of course, when caught, Bentley insisted he hadn’t had an affair, despite the public release of an explicit audio recording of him speaking to his former aide. He’s just the latest in a long line of politicians who have tried to deny wrongdoing when their misdeeds became public – perhaps for the very reasons they committed them in the first place.