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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Another Straw Man Argument About Sex and Power


From "The Chemistry of the Suppression of Desire: What is going on in the brain of a cheater?" by Brian Alexander and Larry Young in yesterday's Slate:

"As always happens when a powerful married man is revealed to have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, finding Freudian uses for cigars, or supporting his maid’s child, there’s been a lot of speculation about the psychology of honcho guys. What is it about the powerful?

"This noodling is off-base on several counts. First, it neglects the fact that roughly one-quarter of married people—approximately equal numbers of men and women—report having had an extramarital affair. They aren’t all powerful. It’s true that the successful may indeed be more likely to commit adultery, but not for the reasons usually cited, such as their supposed sense of entitlement."

And now the Petraeus affair spawns yet another straw man.  As already discussed ad nauseam in previous posts, too many people (especially in the Washington Post) have gone off on their usual rant of "it's just sex, why fire him?"  Again, this was much more than that.

And now these guys -- who have written a book on sex and science -- are telling us that the Petraeus situation is causing everyone to wonder what it is about powerful men that makes them have sex.  As far as I can tell, that's not what people are speculating and noodling about.  If you noodle about it for about 10 seconds, you'll quickly realize that there is no single explanation of why powerful men sometimes have sex outside of marriage.

In Petraeus's case, it wasn't about a sense of entitlement -- it was an attractive, fawning, star-struck, much-younger woman who was almost certainly throwing herself at him.  The natural inclination of all but the most happily married 60-year-old men would be to succumb to that temptation.  And for the Petraeuses of the world, that opportunity only comes around so often.  I'm sorry, although Petraeus is a great general, and he has risen to the rank of alpha male, he really does not have that alpha male look or bearing.  Women have not been throwing themselves at him.

Now Clinton was different.  He might well have had that sense of entitlement (if what Paula Jones and various Arkansas State Troopers said was true, then he almost certainly did), and he seemed to have a kind of compulsion to have sex with as many different women-not-his-wife as possible.

It's just plain silly to compare Clinton and Petraeus sexually, and as far as I can tell, nobody but these guys is doing it.

I don't have enough information about either Arnold or Mark Sanford to even try to speculate on why they strayed, so I'm not going to.

The rest of the article talks about how oxytocin (the "cuddle hormone") helps men stay faithful to their comfortable wives, long after the initial sexual attraction has subsided.

And then they get to their point, which is that there is a gene that seems to correlate with both ambition (and therefore success) and infidelity:

"A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers."

So it's not a sense of entitlement (as above, with Petraeus it never was), but it's a gene.  Science explains everything!

By the time they get to the conclusion, they don't have much to say:

"We’re not automatons. We are responsible for our actions. But our baked-in biases can make us susceptible to infidelity. Our brains can be a battlefield of competing interests, and sometimes desire wins. It may win more often in people like Petraeus whose bold, creative thinking we so admire can come with a bias toward behavior we don’t. That doesn’t make him special, it makes him human."

Here, they are meandering a bit, but I think they are kidding themselves into thinking that they've taught us some science here.  I think the "baked-in biases" they are talking about is the 7R+ gene described above that some of us have.  But if they think THAT's the reason that Petraeus strayed, they are barking up the wrong tree.  First, although he was certainly ambitious, the rest of the traits don't add up.  And second, as I've already explained, just about ANYONE in his circumstances would have succumbed.  The temptation was just too great.

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