A new sex scandal has dominated the media and rocked the nation. While most of us accept human frailty and the risk of infidelity it is especially shocking to discover it in David Petraeus, a man of legendary self-discipline and accomplishment. Many in the nation feel a sense of betrayal from the actions of a man who was a national hero. Others, living in an age where public misbehavior is documented relentlessly, find the media attention foolish when it involves personal, private behavior.
As a psychologist, the issue of primary interest to me is looking at the psychology of human behavior; why we act the way we do, why people continue to risk so much for sexual pleasure or love. Bill Clinton jeopardized his presidency, Mr. Petraeus has sacrificed a high level government position and an outstanding reputation.
INTELLECT VS EMOTION
When these situations arise we always ask why?!! How could such a smart person be so foolish, take such risks? Anthony Wiener was a congressman, David Petraeus head of the CIA, Elliot Spitzer was governor, Senator John Ensign a senator. These are all highly intelligent and accomplished individuals. How could they be so stupid? How could they take such risks? To date, no major female has been exposed in this way but I believe that is just a matter of time and primarily due to the fact that there are so many fewer women in positions of high public visibility.
The main explanation, as with much erratic human behavior, is that we are not the totally rational beings that we perceive ourselves to be. Our brains are highly complex organs, developed over millenia that govern a wide variety of functions. Intellect is only one part of brain function and is certainly not always the dominant mechanism as should be abundantly apparent. Many primitive animals function very effectively without any evident capacity to reason and analyze. We think of the behavior of insects, birds, reptiles as being governed primarily by instinct. A rattlesnake doesn’t wake up and think about what it wants to eat and plan it’s day accordingly. Seagulls don’t date a variety of other birds in an attempt to find the most compatible mate. The behavior of lower animals is primarily governed by instinct. Mammals, to a varying degree have an intellectual function in their brain and exercise some degree of decision making and planning. But we all still have instincts-hardwired drives that continue to govern our behavior. Emotion is much more closely tied to instinct than intellect and instincts seem to be designed to over-power our thought processes in states of high arousal. In situations of great danger we need to act quickly without a lot of intervening thought and analysis. Most of us notice that when we are very hungry it is hard to concentrate and our primary goal becomes obtaining something to eat. People who suffer from severe anxiety often engage in behavior that is counter-productive and makes their situation worse because they are unable to let their reason guide them to more effective choices.
SEX AS A TRUMP CARD
Sex is undoubtedly a hardwired, instinctual drive. Yes, it is necessary for procreation but, as humans have discovered, this very pleasurable experience can be very motivating when making children is far removed from the immediate goal. We vary on this dimension. Some people have very low sex drives, some quite high. Changes in our circumstances can arouse this primitive drive even when we think it is not something that matters that much to us. Many people end up in affairs who “didn’t see it coming.” Being in a comfortable setting with an attractive person may or may not cause arousal but when it does, that drive-as these very publicized events reveal-becomes enormously powerful leading people to behave in ways they did not expect. The emotion over-rules the intellect. Poets, novelists, songwriters explore this experience endlessly because it is so compelling. We are primarily intellectual beings who experience our own mind and thinking most of the time. When emotions or instincts overpower us it is baffling, surprising but often, especially in the case of sexual attraction, thrilling and wonderful. So what does a sex scandal in a high public situation show us? That even these most careful, disciplined and intelligent of humans “lose their mind” when the power of sexual attraction overcomes them. Culture, religion, ethics and morality try to overcome these risks but as the “downfall” of prominent political, religious and moral leaders shows us, that remains an ongoing dilemma of the human condition.