The Petraeus Scandal’s Larger Phenomenon, Or Why The Powerful Brazenly Cheat

The scandal enveloping now-former CIA Director David Petraeus was shocking to many only in that Petraeus had been viewed by lawmakers and pundits alike as “a war hero” and “a paragon of personal discipline,” and the news of his extramarital dalliances struck some as a “lightning bolt” given the decorated military man’s squeaky clean image.

But in many ways, the Petraeus scandal is a tale we’ve not only heard before, but one we hear often — powerful figures, mostly men, seem to conduct themselves with a strange and unexpected level of injudiciousness when it comes to sex, risking all for what amounts to a few tumbles in the hay destined to be uncovered after an email leak or overly chatty friend exposes the affair.

The Petraeus scandal echoes so many other cautionary tales of high-ranking fellows fallen prey to the temptations of the flesh — Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley, John Edwards, John Ensign, and, of course, Bill Clinton spring to mind as notable recent examples of the tendency politicians have to risk all for so very little when the ensuing scandal comes to light.

In examining these controversies, dated gender-based stereotypes often come into play, explaining away the behavior as “boys will be boys” or other issuances of the notion that, if men have access to philandering, there is only one natural result.

But psychologists commenting on the Petraeus scandal have a slightly different and more gender-neutral explanation for the phenomenon, believing that the very qualities that push people to the top and award them with great power also are a built-in Achilles’ heel when it comes to playing with fire.

Frank Farley is a psychologist at Temple University, and he says that such risk-taking folk “tend to believe they control their destiny or fate.” Thus, Farley explains, what makes a great leader also makes one prone to take silly risks along with the type that pay off:

“The risk-taking personality has a bold quality. It’s at the heart of great leadership, and sometimes it overrides what many Americans would call common sense.”

Mira Kirshenbaum of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston has authored books on the subject of power and infidelity, and she says feeling entitled is also a major player for philandering politicians:

“Power and success give people a sense of invulnerability… A lot of guys like Petraeus have worked awfully hard, and yes, they have a lot to show for it, but day-to-day mostly what they face is more hard work. Where’s the big reward? An affair can seem like a long-deserved perk.”

Former CIA polygraph administer and consultant Dan Crum seems to concur, noting that, in the Petraeus scandal, such thinking is evident in his response to the revelations:

“When he said he showed poor judgment, it minimizes the affair and characterizes it more as a one time poor decision than an extended period of decisions to maintain and continue the affair… It’s almost like a ‘How dare you?’ response. It’s part of that almost arrogance — ‘Who are you to question me? I’m the one giving the orders here.’ “

Yet more experts commenting on the Petraeus scandal assert that military men and women overall have higher rates of infidelity than the general population, again pointing to perhaps what is a personality type geared to engage in risky behavior. Military personnel are twice as likely as civilians to seek out a “side girl.” Andrew London of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University explains:

“We argue there could be things that predate military service — like being a risk taker — that might lead someone into the military but also increase his likelihood of taking a risk while married and having an extramarital affair.”

Whatever the reasons behind the Petraeus scandal and those like it may be, what is inevitable is that this is but one in a series of many such controversies we have seen and will see in the American political landscape.

And distracting as they may be, perhaps it is also time to put aside puritanical moral outrage in assessing the impact of such behaviors. After all, infidelity is a stunningly common issue that affects many marriages through their course, and the net impact on the public is generally negligible if measurable at all.

Do you think the Petraeus scandal is worthy of all the media attention given it?

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