Anthony Weiner's extramarital sexting, Arnold Schwarzenegger's love child, and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal has led to a lot of handwringing about the prevalence of philandering among politicians and to speculation about why politicians risk their families and their careers to cheat. Is it possible that politicians are more prone to infidelity than the rest of us?
Yes, actually. According to a forthcoming psychological study, politicians, executives, industrialists, generals—basically anyone with power—are indeed more likely to cheat than their underlings. The psychologists, led by Joris Lammers of Tilburg University, surveyed 1561 readers of a weekly magazine for professionals. Respondents were asked to rate their level of professional power and then to answer questions regarding their sexual history. According to the researchers' findings, a higher level of self-perceived power correlates strongly with increased incidence of infidelity and with the belief that one could get away with cheating if one wanted to.
But it's not necessarily the case that power, in itself, is what leads to cheating. Lammers' work suggests that confidence in one's ability to attract a partner—a trait often exhibited by the powerful—is the strongest corollary to infidelity. Lammers' research also seems to demonstrate that female powerbrokers are no less likely to fool around than their male counterparts, casting doubt on the idea that men are naturally more inclined to extramarital escapades.
In the population at large, infidelity has remained steady for the past two decades, with surveys finding that about 20 percent to 25 percent of respondents have cheated at one time or another. (Subjects define infidelity in different ways: For some, sexual intercourse is the standard, while for others, mere emotional involvement constitutes betrayal.) Among men and women over 60, however, infidelity is up: from 5 percent in 1991 to 15 percent in 2006 for women and from 20 percent to 28 percent for men over the same time period. For comparison, 15 percent of women and 20 percent of men under 35 report having cheated.
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Explainer thanks Divya Menon of Psychological Science, Joris Lammers of Tilburg University, and Erich Owens of Brown University.