There’s certainly been no shortage of news headlines proclaiming that we can now add former CIA director General David Petraeus to the list of powerful men who have been brought down by very well-publicized sex scandals. It’s particularly dismaying to see how many of these headlines are broadly asserting, as news outlet headlines often do in these situations, that there must be some sort of inextricable link between power, masculinity, and infidelity. These claims imply (or sometimes even explicitly state) that there’s something inherent about masculinity that leads powerful men to behave unethically, whereas powerful women would never fall victim to such an effect. Fact is, that kind of generalization is simply not fair at all - nor is it even really accurate.

What's Wrong With All The Men?

Based on the cultural lexicon, it certainly seems like men are the only ones messing up. However, blaming infidelity on Masculinity Gone Wild is incredibly short-sighted, for one glaring reason: Many of the societies in which these men are cheating also happen to be awful when it comes to gender equality, which makes it next to impossible to tease biological or evolutionary influences apart from cultural ones.

There have been many studies looking at the effects of power or status on risky, unethical, or selfish behavior, and these studies don’t show any moderated differences in the link between power and unethical behavior based on gender. Increases in power or status usually lead to action, risk-taking, cheating, and decreased prosociality across the board, whether you’re male or female. In fact, one recent study in Psychological Science specifically looked at infidelity as a dependent variable, and revealed that higher levels of power are linked to higher levels of reported & intended both men and women. Once you control for power, gender makes no difference in infidelity rates. The more power a man or woman possesses, the more likely he/she is to report cheating in the past or intending to cheat in the future.1

Herein lies the main flaw with many people’s "women + power = totally moral, men + power = inevitable infidelity" arguments: Men and women have basic biological differences that might influence behavioral patterns, but they have basic cultural differences as well. Evolutionary theorists have proposed plenty of biologically based explanations for higher rates of male infidelity, most of which revolve around the Darwinian logic of differential reproductive strategies (e.g. men are motivated to mate with as many women as possible to spread their seed, whereas women are motivated to bond with a single partner to increase the likelihood that he will invest his resources in their children).

The problem with this explanation, though it feels intuitively appealing, is that we don't live in a world where our behavior would be singularly determined by biology. In cultures where women don't have as many opportunities to obtain the same jobs or salaries as men, they have historically had to rely on husbands (or fathers) for economic survival – a situational complication that most men throughout history have simply not had to face.

When your marital partner is your financial lifeline, there's a lot more to lose if you get caught between the sheets with someone else; the risks don't really outweigh the benefits as well as they might for the partner making more money, who would hardly suffer as much economically if the marriage were to be dissolved. When people claim that "men are more likely to cheat than women," they should really just be claiming that "powerful people are more likely to cheat than less-powerful people.” It's impossible to disentangle gender and power when you live in a culture that conflates the two so profoundly.

This idea was supported by yet another Psychological Science paper published earlier this year on gender differences in mate preference throughout different cultures around the world. In countries like Iran, Japan, and Nigeria, where there is significant societal gender inequality (as measured by the Gender Gap Index, which measures a nation’s gender-based differences in access to important opportunities and resources2), you see the evolutionarily expected differences in mate preference, with men preferring more stereotypical qualities in women (e.g. attractiveness and chastity) and women preferring more stereotypical qualities in men (e.g. money and status).

In countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland, on the other hand, gender disparities are far less common – and the “evolutionary” gender differences in mate preferences (which, remember, are often proposed as the root of the reason why power and increased status/resources would lead men, but not women, to cheat) shrink down to a level where they almost disappear entirely. It’s not that people don’t value attractiveness, money, or status when looking for romantic partners. Rather, it’s that you don’t see sex differences emerging systematically in their choices.

In countries that come closer to approximating true gender equality, women are just as likely as men to prioritize physical attractiveness, and men are just as likely as women to want a partner who’s intelligent and/or wealthy. When we do observe gender differences in mate preferences, it’s not a function of biology – it’s a function of culture. If there were truly a biological, hormonal, or evolutionary reason why powerful men should be more likely to exhibit “reproductive strategies” that revolve around having sex with a ton of people and powerful women should not, you should see these types of gender-based mate preferences reliably emerging across cultures. Or, at the very least, you should not see them emerging only in the cultures that would also be predicted to create them.

What does Barack Obama have in common with asthma?

The conflation of power and masculinity is not the only way in which we may have been tricked into seeing a correlation that doesn’t truly exist. Some common mental shortcuts (or heuristics) that help us act efficiently in our everyday lives can also end up backfiring in somewhat predictable ways, leading us to draw erroneous conclusions about our social worlds that don’t accurately represent reality. For example, our perceptions of reality often fail to account for the fact that when powerful men aren’t messing up, no one really cares about their personal lives. After all, had you read anything in the news prior to this week about the well being of General Petraeus’s marriage?

This uneven media coverage creates a false sense of frequency, which contributes to an effect that Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman termed the availability heuristic in their classic Science paper on cognitive biases. A great example of the availability heuristic is the fact that people are typically far more worried about dying in a plane crash than a car accident. It’s not because the plane crashes happen more often; on the contrary, car accidents are much more common, and kill far more people than plane crashes per year. But because people see plane crashes more often in the news, it’s easier to recall salient examples of fatal plane crashes than fatal car accidents, which makes you overestimate how often they actually happen. This effect was empirically demonstrated in 1978, when a team of researchers asked participants to guess how many people died each year from various different causes.

As it turns out, people far overestimated the frequency of rare, newsworthy events that stood out and merited extensive news coverage, and underestimated the fatality of media-unfriendly causes. For example, homicide, despite being 23% less frequent than suicide, was reported in the news 9.6 times as often; sure enough, participants were far more likely to think that more people died per year from murder than from suicide. And, in one of the most drastic examples, participants typically assumed that people were more likely to die from tornadoes than from asthma, and rated asthma as only slightly more probable of a killer than botulism; in reality, asthma was 20 times more likely to kill someone than a tornado, and over 900 times more likely than botulism.

In much the same way that the news won’t report many asthma-related fatalities, newscasters also won't typically waste their airtime talking about all of the powerful men who aren't doing anything particularly scandalous. Most of the time (aside from election season, when every aspect of a politician’s personal life becomes news fodder, no matter how dull) we don’t really see headlines proclaiming, “Barack and Michelle: Still Happily Married.” It's simply not that interesting. This bias may make for more intriguing nightly news reports, but it also creates a world where we overestimate just how often power and scandal are correlated; we then fail to correct these perceptions by factoring in all of the times when a) powerful people do not engage in scandalous acts (no one cares about those acts), and b) powerless people do engage in scandalous acts (no one cares about those people).

So next time you see a pundit crying out about the sins and scandals of powerful men, just remember: This association is a stronger demonstration of misunderstanding than maleness.

1. Astute readers might note that the last author on this paper is the infamous Diederik Stapel. This paper was cleared by an investigatory committee, and the lead author Joris Lammers asserts that Stapel played no role in the data collection process. However, people can choose to do what they please with that knowledge. The literature on power being linked more broadly to risk-taking, unethical behavior, and approach/action tendencies is widely supported by numerous different papers emerging from numerous different labs, none of which include Stapel as an author.

2. For those interested in how gender equality was measured in this study, the GGI includes fourteen indicators grouped into four dimensions: economic, political, educational, and health. Examples of indicators from each dimension are wage equality, women in governmental positions, literacy rates, and life expectancy ratio, respectively. The GGI is currently regarded as the “most comprehensive measure of gender equality to date” (Zentner & Mitura, 2012).

Parts of this post were previously published under the title “Sex, Lies, and Power = Lies about Power and Sex” at PsySociety on July 22, 2011 in the wake of massive publicity about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s affair. The original post can be found here:


Zentner, M., & Mitura, K. (2012). Stepping out of the caveman's shadow: Nations' gender gap predicts degree of sex differentiation in mate preferences. Psychological Science

Lammers, J., Stoker, J.I., Jordan, J., Pollmann, M., & Stapel, D.A. (2011). Power Increases Infidelity Among Men and Women. Psychological Science PMID: 21771963

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases Science, 185 (4157), 1124-1131 DOI: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., Layman, M., & Combs, B. (1978). Judged frequency of lethal events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4 (6), 551-578 DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.4.6.551

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Piff, P., Stancato, D., Cote, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118373109

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110 (2), 265-284 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.110.2.265