11/16/2012 08:01 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Why Leaders Cheat: 4 Reasons (And 1 Solution)

General Petraeus is the latest addition to a long list of adulterous leaders: John Edwards, Tim Mahoney, Paul Wolfowitz, Randall Tobias and of course Bill Clinton, to name but a few -- and think about the ones who managed to keep it secret...

What explains the relationship between power and infidelity? There are four main reasons:

  1. Leaders are generally overconfident. In fact, most people are, but this is especially true for powerful people, not least because of their past accomplishments. Overconfident people have an inappropriate sense of security, and this increases the probability of engaging in counterproductive and risky behaviors. For example, one of the reasons why most people decide not to pursue extramarital affairs is that they are afraid of being caught. The main reason why some people do pursue them is that they feel confident of not getting caught. This sense of invincibility makes infidelity extremely prominent among powerful people. Exceptional achievers who claim that extraordinary confidence is the secret of their success are more often its victims.
  2. Leaders are rarely selected on the basis of their integrity, which is ironic, given that integrity is the most important quality subordinates want in a leader. Although power may corrupt, a bigger problem with power is that it attracts corrupt people, and our inability to stop mischievous individuals from reaching leadership positions comes at a cost: They will sooner or later reveal the dark side of their character and derail.
  3. Power makes people more attractive. Indeed, you don't have to be an evolutionary psychologist to realize that powerful people are much more eligible than their less powerful counterparts. This is especially true in the case of men, not least because women's relationship choices are more driven by status than looks, whereas the opposite is true for those of men. The implication is that leaders have to resist bigger temptations than most people, and, as Oscar Wilde famously noted, one can resist anything except temptations.
  4. Powerful people perceive a bigger gap between themselves and others, including their romantic partners. This superiority complex increases the probability of acting disrespectfully toward their partners and legitimizes their cheating behaviors. When you feel that you are better than others, your sense of entitlement eclipses any feelings of guilt and regret. Humble leaders would be less likely to cheat.

In a recent psychological study, Dr. Joris Lammers and colleagues from the Tilburg University set out to test whether the relationship between power and infidelity held true in the general population. The authors tested 1,200 adults from their native Netherlands. Their sample included people who were employed in all sorts of occupations, from fairly unskilled and poorly paid jobs to powerful corporate positions, such as CEO of a global company. The authors found the expected relationship between power and infidelity: The more powerful people were, the more they intended to cheat on their partners, and this relationship was directly attributable to the higher levels of confidence reported by more powerful people. Thus being less powerful decreases not only your confidence but your willingness to cheat on your partner.

How do we fix the problem? By having fewer arrogant, selfish and deluded people in charge. And the quickest way to achieve that is to increase the proportion of female leaders. Indeed, women are generally less confident, more risk-averse, more dutiful and more caring than men, in particular powerful men. Can you think of any famous cases of female infidelity? Perhaps, but they are exceptions to the rule rather than the norm (and for each of them there will be 10 or 20 male cases). It is no coincidence that the IMF decided to replace Dominic Strauss-Kahn with Christine Lagarde. The CIA -- and any organization eager to minimize the likelihood of leadership scandals -- may wish to follow suit. If leaders are selected on the basis of their integrity, humility and empathy, there will automatically be more women in charge, and fewer cheats.