Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault on a maid in New York's Sofitel hotel must count among the most striking follies of the decade, a deed as incomprehensible as it is tragic. It resonates with the Aristotelian notion of character flaw that brings about precipitous fall from greatness.
According to news reports, Strauss-Kahn, 62 year-old chief of the International Monetary Fund, and a major contender for the presidency of France on behalf of the Socialist Party, is accused of attempted rape and a criminal sexual act against a Guinean immigrant, housekeeper at the Sofitel. If these allegations prove true, Strauss-Kahn's illustrious political career and luxurious lifestyle are all but over.
Facing a potential 25-year prison sentence if convicted, Strauss-Kahn is finished at the IMF. His lofty political ambitions must also come to nil, as his once spectacular, globe-hugging reputation lies in shambles.
The perplexing question on many people's minds is why? How is it that an individual with Strauss-Kahn's brilliant intelligence, capable of addressing the world's knottiest economic problems, is unable to put two and two together? How could he not realize that in this country, in this day and age, sexual assault counts among the gravest, most despicable violations one could commit?
Setting aside the moral depravity of the alleged deed, risking one's whole life for minutes of dubious pleasure borders on the insane. How can someone so supremely rational exhibit a moment of such intense irrationality ?
The explanations one hears often turn on the notion of hubris. Extreme haughtiness, pride or arrogance are thought to foment a breach with reality and an overestimation of one's own exceptionality. They may breed a sense of invulnerability, and an immunity from norms by which others must abide. Closely related to the hubris thesis is the cliché that "power corrupts," (and absolute power corrupts absolutely).
Though there probably is a kernel of truth to these explanations, the science of psychology suggests that there is more to the story. Human cognition is motivated, and our judgments and analyses are often distorted, by powerful wishes and desires. Even though one is aware at some level of the dire consequences of one's actions, when push comes to shove, that knowledge can be suppressed in the service of a currently overriding desire.
The Strauss-Kahn affair represents an extreme case of something mundane and commonplace. Every time a dieter succumbs to a "forbidden" gastronomic pleasure, a determined quitter reaches for a cigarette or a reformed alcoholic accedes to a drink, the same psychological mechanism is at work: A salient and intense desire partially pushes out of awareness incompatible objectives. The dieter represses her commitment to dieting, the smoker to quitting and the alcoholic to teetotalism.
And when national safety and security concerns loom large (as in the wake of 9/11) we may all support extreme measures, and temporarily put out of our minds their implications for other cherished values (like those of privacy, or individual rights). These ubiquitous processes have nothing to do with hubris or the corrupting influence of power. They have everything to do with mechanisms of motivated distortion that bend one's subjective realities to overwhelming desires.
When alternative considerations are banned out of consciousness, their constraints upon behavior are released. As a consequence, the individual often "throws caution to the wind" and indulges the temptation, come what may. Augmenting this process, the burning desire engenders rationalizations that license the desired action. It is here that a lifetime of hubris plays a role. It supplies the grist to the motivational mill by recalling others' sycophancy, and one's greater-than-life stature, thought to warrant exceptionality and entitlement.
Hence the "banality of evil" perspective on Strauss-Kahn's (alleged) irrationality. The processes that led him to do what he is accused of doing may operate pervasively on us all.
Of course, not all instances of succumbing to temptation were created equal. They significantly differ both in motivational magnitude and in their moral significance. To commit a grave criminal offense for a lustful impulse, the magnitude of the impulse must be vast; enough so as to unleash the formidable repressive forces negating the likely disastrous consequences of the deed.
One might wonder why, of all people, it is major league politicians (the likes of Clinton, Edwards, Ensign, Schwarzenegger, Spitzer and Strauss-Kahn, the list is long) that so often succumb to dubious sexual escapades. However, it has not been shown that politicians are unique, and that other men of similar psychological makeup aren't at risk of doing the same.
Such makeup is likely to depict personalities with overriding cravings for dominance and power, motives not uncommon among politicians. At any rate, the common shibboleth that they do it "just because they can" misses the point. As the ruins of so many once illustrious careers demonstrate, obviously they "can't!"
The author is a Distinguished University Professor in Psychology at the University of Maryland.