Colleague and psychologist Dr. Frank Farley has an interesting op-ed over at the LA Times the other day about some of the underlying psychological motivations that may explain why politicians stray from their marriages.
In the article, Dr. Farley refers to the “Type T Personality” — the T stands for Thrill. He makes the argument that we elect the politicians we do because we’re drawn to their bold ideas, their intensity, their charisma. But those same qualities that may make them a good politician (we don’t really know, because there hasn’t been a lot of research done in this area yet), also may put them at greater risk for engaging in unethical relationship behavior, such as cheating on their spouse.
Politicians, like Hollywood celebrities, are also constantly surrounded by people who do nothing but look up to them, sing their praises — “yes” people. He notes that the politician is immersed in a set of people who are “adoring followers, campaign workers, office staff — all focused on pleasing the politician.” It may give someone an unrealistic belief that they above normal morals and ethics, and so cheating is “okay” (perhaps explaining former President Clinton’s tryst with an intern).
Farley’s take on risk-takers who exhibit the Type T Personality:
Risk-takers want to live exciting, interesting, challenging lives. They tend to believe they control their fates. They are often attracted to variety, novelty, intensity and uncertainty. They are often creative, show independence of judgment and tend to have strong sexual drives and high energy.
In politics, we tend not to vote for wallflowers. We like charisma, boldness and new ideas emphatically stated. This is part of the reason Type T politicians so frequently win the day. But once in office, they may also display less desirable risk-taking behavior. It’s in their personalities.
Why might we expect risk-takers to be attracted to leadership roles in politics? Analyze the job. It’s unpredictable. A candidate can pour everything he or she has into a campaign and still lose. There is no tenure, no 9-to-5 schedule, and constant travel. A politician always has to be on, and be comfortable meeting a constant stream of new people and speaking extemporaneously in public. There is no proven playbook for success. A politician also lives a fishbowl life, with little privacy. Every day, there are decisions to be made that can make or break a career. Maintaining a normal home, family and marital life is nearly impossible. Who can not only accept but thrive in such circumstances? Risk-takers.
Dr. Farley makes a persuasive argument. But I’m not sure I entirely agree with it… I believe the job of many politicians during campaigning — which requires a virtual endless supply of energy — is very different than the job of a politician the rest of the time (which is usually a majority of his time, one hopes). A lot of a politician’s office job is reading or writing legislation, working to understand the issues and/or the legislation (one hopes!), as well as a lot of endless meetings with constituents, lobbyists, staffers, and colleagues. Days full of meetings and policy education aren’t exactly high on my list of a “risk-taker’s” favorite activities.
I have a much simpler explanation for politicians’ and celebrities’ cheating behavior — they feel entitled to it. They’re famous (or semi-famous) and often in the public spotlight (even if it’s just the local news broadcast). They become accustomed to a lifestyle where the rules don’t apply to them in the same way they apply to everyone else. They get specialized healthcare, special treatment whenever they go out on the town, and everyone they talk to is usually somewhat enamored of them.
Combined with a malleable set of morals — which I believe is endemic among politicians, not at first, but over time (especially the longer one is in politics) — and you have a simple equation that explains why some politicians cheat, take a bribe, or see nothing wrong with getting cozy when they retire with the same industries they helped regulate while in office.
Of course, we could ask for more from our politicians, and simply vote out any politician we find has such a lapse of morals or ethics.
Would there be any politicians left? Who knows, but it would be a fun experiment to try.
Read the full article: Politicians and sex scandals: What makes them stray?