Power and infidelity

2 08 2011

courtesy flickr user JAS_photo, used under Creative Commons license

There have been several recent examples of powerful people engaging in infidelity. Consider some recent political examples: Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenneger, John Edwards. There are examples from business, but they are less well known. I often hear people ask, “why would such a powerful and successful person do those things?”

Well, it seems that the answer is in the question. Power is directly associated with infidelity. A recent study to be published in Psychological Science helps answer the question of what the relationship is between power and infidelity, and how that relationship might be explained by confidence, risk, and emotional distance.

Power, measured as position within an organizational hierarchy, had a direct effect on both future intentions toward infidelity and past infidelity behaviors. But in both cases, that relationship was fully explained by the person’s confidence in their ability to attract a romantic partner. In the case of intentions, the effect of power was also explained by the distance the person feels from their current relationship partner, but the relationship was weak compared to confidence.

Another question I also hear is “what is it about these powerful men?” Well, there is no statistical difference between men and women in the analysis. As the authors wrote: “Among women who had an independent source of income (as all our female respondents did, because they were working professionals), power had a positive relationship with infidelity, and this relationship was comparable to that found among men.” It appears that we hear about men more because men are simply a much larger proportion of people in powerful positions. As that changes, expect to see more women in such situations.

A common assumption in people’s impressions of these kinds of infidelities is that the person is dispositionally flawed – morally or just having bad judgment. This is an instance of the fundamental attribution error, whereby we attribute people’s behavior more to their personality than the situation.  But an interesting implication of this finding is that it is not the person (or gender), but the ways in which the situation—specifically power—has an effect on the person’s confidence that they would be attractive to a romantic partner, which in turn has an effect on infidelity.

An interesting extension to the present research would be to manipulate power to see if it would have a similar effect. That is, place randomly selected individuals either in a powerful position in a group or less powerful position and see if that might affect future intentions to engage in infidelity. I suspect this is something that develops over time, and may not be manipulated in the short term involved in laboratory studies, but it might.

Research Article:
Joris Lammers, Janka I. Stoker, Jennifer Jordan, Monique Pollmann, and Diederik A. Stapel
Power Increases Infidelity Among Men and Women
Psychological Science July 2011 , first published on July 19, 2011
doi: 10.1177/0956797611416252