I’m not one to get into political scandals, so I’ll leave that discussion to the experts. But what’s interesting about the recent developments in the Petraeus case is that it’s just one of many sagas of high-visibility people whose poor personal-life decisions are made public – and, of course, result in speedy and humiliating falls from grace. You have to wonder what’s going on in the minds of the highly-visible and highly-accomplished that makes them engage in the risky business of cheating, sexual email exchanges, sexting, and cyberstalking. We can’t get into their heads to find out, but here are some pretty good guesses.
The Insecurity Element
Very powerful or accomplished people may have a touch of insecurity in them. Actually, they may have a lot of underlying insecurity, says Dr. Reef Karim, who heads the Control Center in LA, and treats celebrities, political figures, and royalty for everything from addiction to dealing with reality of their achievements. The internal insecurity of the power players is common, since it can actually be a driving force to accomplish great things in the first place. “The ‘insecurity element’ in risque behavior is more common with women than it is with men,” says Karim. “It’s the woman who dresses way too sexy to the party, or the guy who acts like an idiot to get noticed. It’s all based in desiring attention and validation.” This theory is an interesting one and may play some role in the behavior of the bold and the beautiful, but it doesn’t explain it all.
Another explanation, which may be even more relevant, is the self-defeating tendencies that some high-power people may have. “A lot of the power figures fall into this category,” sa s Karim “When you’re on top, the only place you can go is down. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve treated who can’t handle the pressure. It’s almost like they have to tempt fate.” The issue is that once people achieve an initial big success, the game changes. It’s one thing to get to the top, but staying at the top brings on a whole other level of stress. “It’s a human quality to want to do well. .. but then when you do well, now what? Maintaining that level of high success is very trying on someone’s brain. For a lot of people playing at this level, you don’t see a nervous breakdown, you see self-destructive activities in other realms of life.”
The Gratification Element
And then there’s the pleasure factor. There’s something about sending nude pictures of yourself that just gives a person a little brain rush. In fact, a study earlier this year at Harvard found that people were so eager to reveal information about themselves that they often declined money in order to do so. In other words, there’s something innately rewarding about selfrevelations, and this was actually seen in the “reward centers” of the participants’ brains. Karim explains that some people’s brains have naturally low “dopamine tone” – dopamine being the brain chemical associated with our feelings of pleasure and reward. “These folks have either decreased levels of dopamine or fewer dopamine receptors. It’s like the person who tries cocaine and says, “doc, for the first time in my life I felt normal. Some people just get the rush from sending out risque pictures of themselves.”
Power Plays Tricks on the Mind
In the end, there’s no definitive explanation as to why presidents, generals, congressmen, or CEOs cheat and get caught. They may not do it any more than the general population, but their fall is harder and a lot more public. Karim suggests that in the end, their sometimes-outrageous (or at least mindless) behavior can be a combination of factors, and there may be a feeling of invincibility that accompanies high power. It doesn’t hurt that highpower people often have slightly sociopathic tendencies, and rise to the top not in spite of, but because of, these traits. “Theoretically, when you get power, you feel like not all the rules apply. Power can make you careless. But I also tend to think that having that mildly sociopathic side – I gotta watch my back, and be careful to dot my i’s and cross my t’s – is common among some of the power figures. These traits can be healthy in regards to running a big organization, but when it comes to personal life, it can be a destructive mess.” Today Reuters reported that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called for a review of the military’s current ethics training. That might not be a bad idea. Will people in other areas follow suit?