Cheaters run on overdrive

Sandra Bullock. Elizabeth Edwards. Elin Nordegren Woods.

That roll-call of cheated-on wives is prompting plenty of conversation in my household these days.

My now-grown daughters are trying to figure out how such powerful, high-profile men could consort so carelessly with a procession of B-list porn stars, wackos and strippers.

Weren’t their smart, beautiful wives enough?

Apparently the explanation is part character, part chemical.

At least that’s my take on the work of social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld, a Stanford business school professor who has spent 10 years studying what happens to people psychologically when they find themselves in positions of power.

Gruenfeld “found people in power acting very impulsively on their drives,” she said. And she wasn’t talking about golf but about how desires, needs and rewards become stronger driving forces for people whose brains are bathed in the chemical influences of power.

“They don’t take others’ perspectives into account. . . . They look at people as tools toward their own goals,” Gruenfeld said.

It’s not as simple as testosterone-charged Alpha males behaving badly just because they can.

“I don’t think it’s really about the men. It’s about the power,” Gruenfeld said.

Her research, which involved randomly assigning people to positions of power, suggests that acquiring power -- whether through money, career success, athletic prowess or social status -- can unleash changes in the brain that distort thinking and enhance “sensitivity to drives,” including sex.

Power is a “disinhibitor” that releases people from the sort of “normative pressures” that make the rest of us conform to social standards, Gruenfeld said.

“We all have temptations. But most of us self-regulate. We might say ‘That looks good, but I’m not going to reach over and take it.’ . . . But when people find themselves in a position of power, they get very singularly focused on their own goals and the acts that would satisfy them.”

They don’t perceive their irrational acts as unreasonable because power tends to tamp down aversion to risk and promote a sense of “illusory control.”

“That’s the primary psychological response to assuming power,” Gruenfeld said.

That’s probably what allowed Tiger Woods to believe his money-grubbing mistresses would delete his text messages and voice mails. And allowed Jesse James to think his tattooed chicks wouldn’t try to upstage his movie star wife. And allowed John Edwards to tell the press that his out-of-wedlock daughter was really his friend’s love child.

“When people get put in positions of power, they overestimate their control over things,” she said.

“These are not necessarily calculated choices,” she said. “A lot of the stuff is happening at the subconscious level. . . . They’re not even aware that they’re acting risky. They’re just thinking about getting what they want.”


No amount of scientific analysis can erase or excuse the trio’s in-your-face infidelity. Tiger Woods is still a cheater. John Edwards is still a cad. Jesse James is still a creep.

But Gruenfeld’s notion of “illusory control” does help explain their rank stupidity.

Her research doesn’t link power only to “an overdrive on the sexual thing” or confine it to a commentary on the male of the species.

Gruenfeld found no gender difference in her study. When women were put in positions of power, they were just as apt to objectify people, take unreasonable risks and act selfishly.

And power can also exert positive influence, she told me.

“Whatever goals are important to the person are likely going to go into overdrive” under the chemical influence of authority.

In other words, people whose power derives from a responsibility for others’ welfare tend to feel a heightened sense of care-taking, not a need to lie and cheat.

So there’s no need to warn my daughters away from power -- in their jobs, their lives, their partners.

Maybe the best advice I can give is the sort of old-fashioned thing my mother told me: You can judge a person by the company he keeps.

What a powerful man might need most is a clear-eyed friend -- a reality check, a moral compass. Someone who cares enough not to claim your love child to fool your wife but to ask “What are you thinking, buddy?”