Blame It on the Primal Brain of Homo Politicus
Thursday, March 13, 2008
What was he thinking?
What exactly was running through the expensively educated, politically astute mind of Eliot Spitzer when he allegedly hired a prostitute for a tryst in a Washington hotel? In the days since the Emperors Club became the most notorious escort service on the planet, and in the hours since Spitzer resigned, the question has been asked a thousand different ways:
Is he nuts? If not nuts, some kind of sexaholic? If not a sexaholic, what?
If past sex scandals are any indicator, here's what we can safely predict: Spitzer won't say. There is plenty of ritual to the oopsy-daisy demise of a political career, but the richest psychological questions raised by public officials who philander are seldom broached in the candid interview on "Good Morning America" or in a confessional chapter in the inevitable autobiography. Most notably, in this case: How does the Crusading Governor coexist with Client 9?
For now we'll make do with some armchair psychiatry, courtesy of sex therapists and evolutionary psychologists. We'll learn, among other things, that the personality traits of cheaters and the personality traits of politicians have a whole lot in common.
Sex therapists, of course, need no introduction. Evolutionary psychologists are academics who study the brain in the context of human evolution -- which is to say, the brain as an organ shaped and formed in the millennia before a little thing called polite civilization was invented. The underlying assumption here is that modern man is a just a polished-up and presentable version of the brutes that we humanoids were for eons. The essential urges and motivations are the same as ever. Don't let the tie and jacket fool you.
Evolutionary psychologists seem like the perfect people to debrief in this situation because, unlike just about everyone else, they seem thoroughly unshocked.
"There's nothing mystifying about any of this," says Todd Shackelford, an evolutionary psychologist and professor at Florida Atlantic University.
Shackelford walks through the basics of the evolutionary psychology catechism: For millennia, the whole point of males' often-risky efforts to achieve power, resources and prestige was to translate status into sex with more women. You run the tribe, you get dibs. That's the way it worked in hunter-gatherer cultures, most of which, Shackelford says, were polygamous. Nearly all men, in every age, wanted sex with multiple partners, but only the leaders could (a) attract additional partners and (b) have the resources to provide for them.
"It's a relatively new development for men to be vilified for reaping what would have been ancestral rewards for power and prestige," Shackelford says.
This isn't to say that Shackelford thinks Spitzer deserves a free pass. Far from it. Spitzer knew the rules better than just about anyone, and he allegedly broke those rules. But you can't understand the accounts of Spitzer's behavior, Shackelford maintains, without understanding that the hard wiring of his brain was designed in an age when that behavior would be deemed perfectly normal.
The correlation between infidelity and high status apparently exists across cultures and over huge swaths of time. Today, of course, you don't need to lead a tribe to achieve prestige or accumulate wealth; athletes, entertainers, CEOs are all high-status figures, and nothing suggests these people cheat in smaller numbers than politicians. We just don't hear about it as much when they do. Politicians have been expected to lead impeccable lives in this country since the Colonial era. Back then, according to Thomas Foster, author of "Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America," voters assumed that God would judge politicians, and if their conduct was found lacking, He would punish the whole commonwealth.