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Blame It on the Primal Brain of Homo Politicus

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

If politicians have long been held to a higher moral standard, why do so many flawed and fallible men seem driven to take it on as a career? One reason is because they've got the ideal personality for it. Psychologists believe that certain types of personalities are more likely to engage in infidelity -- and that those traits uncannily overlap with traits common to politicians.

"Extroverted, prone to be socially dominant, those are traits associated with infidelity and with good politicians," says David Schmitt, a professor of psychology at Bradley University. "The ability to compartmentalize -- not necessarily to viciously lie, but to hold back some truths in one context and then tell those truths in a different context, that's almost the definition of a politician."

Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Bob Livingston, Newt Gingrich -- chatty extroverts all. Until, of course, they're caught. After the downfall of these men, the public never got so much as a wave hello from the naughty rascal who caused all the trouble, even though everyone knew the naughty rascal was in there somewhere. Nary a peep about the rich, perhaps rococo set of yearnings, desires and weaknesses that led to failure in the first place.

We're left in the dark. How does the sheriff in Spitzer tolerate his dark side? Does Sheriff Guy have contempt for Dark Side Guy? Or vice versa? Does it even make sense to talk about two Spitzers? And if it does, how often do they talk?

Often, and in a state of great turmoil, say sex therapists. The evolutionary psychologists emphasize the inevitability of the Spitzer scandal, but that doesn't mean it's fun. Ask shrinks who deal with cheaters on a regular basis and they'll tell you: These people are unhappy.

"They're worried, they're anxious, a lot are depressed," says Katherine Rachlin, a sex therapist in Manhattan who's treated her share of wayward spouses. "I hear them say all the time, 'I can't get caught because it would be too disastrous.' " Rachlin isn't convinced that Spitzer is one of the tortured. He might have felt entitled to an extramarital dalliance now and then, she suggests, and perhaps figured that as long as he didn't get caught he wasn't hurting anyone.

But Greg Dillon, another psychiatrist in New York, doubts that Spitzer found his own conduct anything but appalling. He's too smart, Dillon says, and too acutely aware of his own hypocrisy to feel anything else: "It's always the ones loudest about morality who are bothered most by their moral failings."

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