Presidents Behaving Badly


Steven Pinker

Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences



Why do so many famous men gamble their reputations, their careers, and their marriages on reckless sexual encounters?  It's hard to believe the "James Bond" theory, that men crave the esteem that society bestows on the dashing stud. Men try to conceal their liaisons, not advertise them, and when they fail, their reward is ridicule from Leno and Letterman, not the respect of a nation.


Perhaps the political process selects rapscallions who thrill at defying the conventions that govern the rest of us. Or perhaps, as Henry Kissinger said, power is an aphrodisiac.  But the simplest explanation may be that our leaders and celebrities show ordinary male appetites in extraordinary circumstances.


Most human drives have ancient Darwinian rationales.  Fear of heights kept our ancestors from plunging off cliffs; a taste for sweets kept their bodies fueled. Sexual desire is no different.  A prehistoric man who slept with fifty women could have sired fifty children, and would have been more likely to have had descendants, who inherited his tastes. A woman who slept with fifty men would have had no more descendants than a woman who slept with one. In the Darwinian game, men should seek quantity in sexual partners, women quality: a source of protection, resources, and good genes for her children.


Indeed, in all societies known to ethnography, it is the males who seduce, proposition, hire prostitutes, and accumulate spouses. In our society, most young men tell researchers they are seeking one-night stands; most women say they are not. Men say they would like eight sexual partners in the following two years; woman say they would like one.  The average man says he would probably sleep with a woman he had known for a week; the average woman says she would probably sleep with a man only if she had known him for a year. On several college campuses, researchers have hired attractive assistants to approach students of the opposite sex and proposition them out of the blue. What proportion say "yes"? Of the women, 0%; of the men, 75%. (Many of the rest ask for a raincheck.)


But if politicians and celebrities have standard-issue male libidos, why do they seem to have so much more trouble controlling them than the average Joe? One reason is that for the average Joe, the issue is moot:  he won't find eight women willing to sleep with him in the following two years, and he never has to worry about attractive women propositioning him out of the blue. Only in special circumstances are sexual partners freely available, and only then will male desire yield ridiculous numbers.  Imperial despots, who could get anything they wanted, kept harems of hundreds of women. Gay men, who don't have to compromise their desires with womens', sometimes find hundreds or thousands of partners.  So can a contemporary heteresexual men if he is sufficiently rich, handsome, and powerful.  Kissinger has been proven right about women.  A survey of thirty-seven countries found that women virtually everywhere say they want wealthy, high-status, and older partners; surveys of personal ads tell the same story. That is why homely rock stars and octogenarian oil barons can marry gorgeous supermodels, and it is why powerful male politicians may face temptations that most of their consituents do not.


There may be another reason that political leaders are different.  Incredible as it may sometimes seem, the male brain houses more than a sex drive. The human mind is a committee. The libido must contend with a mind's eye that simulates the consequences of different acts, an oddsmaker that reckons their likelihood, and a conscience that represents the interests of other people. Usually the libido gets shouted down before it can push the buttons of behavior, and if men commit adultery it is only in their hearts. But in some men, the internal debate may have a different winner.  Anyone who has what it takes to rise to the top of a cutthroat profession -- say, getting re-elected president -- is likely to be a risk-taker, a strategist, and a moral utilitarian who reasons that if no one finds out, no harm has been done. And such men, of course, also have the power to skew the odds in their favor.  But probabilities are probabilities, and luck can run out.


So are leaders and celebrities more concupiscent than the average man?  Perhaps fortunately for the average man, he will never be in a position to find out.