The Mind of Petraeus: Why Cheaters Think They Won’t Get Caught

The doublethink behind understanding consequences and acting despite them

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Gen. David Petraeus testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committe on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 8, 2008.

As of last week, the long gray line got longer still. Actually, there are two long gray lines: the proud one made up of graduates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the far more ignoble one made up of famous, powerful, middle-aged men who bring their lives and careers to ruin when they get caught dallying with women other than their wives. Gen. David Petraeus, whose just-revealed affair forced him to step down as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is the rare man who belongs to both.

In all the political and media froth that has been churned up since the scandal broke, one question that has been raised is the same one that always comes up at this point in these all-too familiar scandals: What the hell was he thinking? As recently as 1987 P.G. H. (pre-Gary Hart), politicians and other masters of the universe could get away with such randy antics pretty easily. But ever since Hart, who was on a glide path toward the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, crashed and burned when he was caught having an affair, the game has changed. There’s no such thing as the discreet peccadillo anymore—not if a headline-hungry media has anything to say about it. And since the dawn of the Internet age, in which it’s impossible to hide your electronic footprints, the game has only gotten more dangerous. The fact that Petraeus, the nation’s former top spook, was tripped up by e-mail, is nothing short of jawdropping.

(More: Top 10 Political Sex Scandals)

By now we’re familiar with all of the psychological and evolutionary explanations for this kind of sublime recklessness. Powerful men are natural risk-takers, type-A strivers; they’re naturally acquisitive — of power, wealth, and yes, sex. They’re charismatic egotists, and they’re often away from home for long stretches of time. All of this can be equally true of powerful women, of course, and yet they’re far less inclined to cheat. We know the familiar evolutionary answers for that too: Men, with their lifetime supply of sperm, are hardwired to mate repeatedly and indiscriminately. Women, who make a far higher investment in breeding, are more selective. What’s more, it’s anthropologically true if politically incorrect that while men, as a rule, are irresistibly attracted to youth and beauty, women can be made equally dizzy by power and the access to resources it implies. (If you doubt that, try this: Picture Donald Trump‘s wives. Now picture Donald Trump. Any questions?)

The tougher riddle — the one that’s never so well-answered — is why these men are so heedless of consequences. They define themselves by their status; they have typically worked a lifetime to acquire it and will fight like wildmen to keep it. And they know with virtual drop-dead certainty that they will lose it all if they step out of line. And then they go right ahead and step. Maybe that doesn’t matter to an independently wealthy man like Trump or a political Houdini like Bill Clinton. But most of the rest of them — Edwards and Spitzer and Weiner and Ensign and  Sanford and the rest of the sorry queue — ought to be cautionary tales for anyone who comes later.

(More: Who’s Who in Petraeus Scandal)

The explanation for the fact that that lesson so often doesn’t get learned may lie in the narcissism that can sit at the heart of power.  Narcissism has been a badly overworked word of late — applied to all manner of selfish or preening behaviors that really don’t rise to the level of the true narcissistic personality disorder, which affects no more than 3% of the population. But that 3% is disproportionately represented among the ranks of the famous. What’s more, like all behavioral traits, narcissism can exist subclinically: you can have many of the dangerous traits of a narcissist without being a truly diagnosable case.

For both capital-N and lower-case narcissists, some of what may be going on is a sort of learned double-think. Of course powerful men are smart enough to be aware of consequences, but the charmed ride they’ve enjoyed for so long leads them to believe — viscerally if not rationally — that those rules somehow won’t apply to them. One of the reasons young, professional athletes so often get into trouble for DWI or domestic battery or weapons possession is that they truly have grown up outside of the rules — passing classes they never attend, graduating from fine colleges despite poor grades, receiving $10 million signing bonuses before throwing a pitch or taking a snap. For most famous men, the ride starts later but the lesson of invulnerability is just as powerfully learned.

“With leaders like this, there truly is no awareness of the likelihood that they’ll suffer any consequences,” says psychologist Amy Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark. “The idea is, ‘This doesn’t apply to me; somehow I’m not going to get caught.’ We’ve done studies about decision-making and impulsivity in narcissists and they really don’t think about the consequence.”

(MoreNarcissism and Religion: an Unethical Mix)

Psychologist Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia, who studies narcissists in relationships, has run similar experiments in which subjects play games of luck or skill and wager imaginary money on the results. A great deal about how aggressively they play seems to be linked to how high they score on questionnaires that measure narcissism. “On risk-taking and betting tests, narcissists tend to overpredict their performance,” Campbell says. “And they tend not to learn from the times they don’t win.”

A certain psychic drunkenness may also come into play. Narcissists are hooked on public adoration — from crowds, from interns, or, in Petraeus’s case, from hagiographic biographers. There’s a driving-while-impaired quality to their decision-making powers when they’re on this kind of high, and their judgment just flies out the window. “This need for getting adored creates a myopia,” says psychologist Aaron Pincus of Penn State University. “They’re not thinking in the long term. So if the intern makes her self available in the Oval Office right now, that’s all I’m thinking about.”

Adds Campbell: “It’s not that guys like Tiger Woods are aliens. They’re like anyone else, but they have stronger needs for ego enhancement and validation. Throw in overconfidence and a habit of walking on people and you get self destructive behavior. It bites you in the ass over time.”

(MorePetreaus Scandal: Why Sex Isn’t the Worst Part)

In some cases, once-bitten does not mean twice shy, but those cases are rare. Clinton was serially caught and serially wriggled free. But even he, to all appearances, at last fell into line after 1998, though the calming effects of age—to say nothing of his bouts with heart disease—may have played a role too. But other men get just a single strike. Petraeus, Edwards, Spitzer and the rest would surely like to turn back the clock, but barring a longshot bid at redemption (certainly impossible in Edwards’ case), the public is probably done with them.

There would, perhaps, be something good in all this if the tragedy of these men served as teachable moments for others — and the fact is they probably do. You can’t prove a negative, and we can never know of the career-wrecking affairs that didn’t take place because successful men looked at the narcissistically fallen and made a sharp turn in the other direction . But there are more than enough — as we repeatedly learn — who who plow straight ahead, and there probably always will be. David Petraeus, the latest in a very long line, is highly unlikely to be the last.

From the Magazine: Spyfall

40 comments
JianTam
JianTam

He's a very intelligent individual but its probably not his first affair. as the old saying goes. If you can do it once, you can do it again, and he did it so many times until he finally got caught.

lbaugham
lbaugham

some men are so used to getting their way, they think they can do anything they want and talk their way out of any mess

DarleneDove
DarleneDove

Plotting to murders others - bomb civiillians, fly drones, terrorize people and use DU weapons OK but a fling not OK - the majority of the world is sick and needs to heal before we all sink into this big pit of lies and violence.

VintMacCabe
VintMacCabe

While the point about powerful men and women taking chances which lead to affairs is well-taken, it isn't ONLY those people who have affairs.

schneider.jason.r
schneider.jason.r

Patreaus' "mind" and life choices aside, this article is utter nonsense and indicative of how Time has slowly rolled downhill for the last few decades. Unbelievable! But then again, Kluger has always been a second rate journalist.

shakedust
shakedust

Not sure I agree with the perspective here.  The Petraus-is-successful-therefore-he-is-a-narcissist line of thinking makes some pretty massive assumptions.  There are other personality types at the top, not the least of which are overachievers who are that way because they have to prove they're good enough.  I have wondered for a while if Petraus falls into that category.

ibtlius
ibtlius

Jill Kelly is taking the heat on Paula Broadwell's behalf on account of a carefully choreographed media operation.White female journalists (feminists) in our press are at a loss to explain how one of their 'highly-educated', 'high-flying career woman', 'mother', 'role model' would end up in this situation. But they know it is time for the usual 'media rescue operation'.Stratergy 1:-- Keep the heat on the general as much as it can be on how he is a cheat and a liar to his devoted wife, how he is pig or a dog or in general how men are such unfaithful low-life's and how they make women suffer. How this evil general through his 'charms', 'fooled' and 'forced' her against her will to make her his paramour and she had no 'choice' but to become one.This is for the first few days or a week until the 'hotness' of this news story naturally fades out of public memory.Stratergy 2:-- Since Paula Broadwell is 'white' and Jill Kelly (Middle-Eastern descent) isnt, turn the whole story on its heels and keep the attention focussed on blaming Jill Kelly for everything, eventhough Jill Kelley didnt commit adultery or wrote threatening emails nor had classified information on her computer.Stratergy 3:-- As much as possible keep the attention away from Paula Broadwell.

ibtlius
ibtlius

While the general has lost his job, his reputation and everything he had achieved over his entire lifetime, on the other hand, Saint Paula Broadwell is now all poised for a multi-million dollar book deal and a Hollywood movie deal in the pipeline. She might very well get the custody of her kids on account of her being the epitome of 'modern motherhood', assuming her husband files for divorce (if he has any self-respect left in him)

eetom
eetom

The Chinese has a proverb:  It is hard for a heroic warrior to go through a fort held by a beautiful woman.  But then, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Basnig
Basnig

While I understand why Petraeus is getting a lot of flak in this fiasco, I can't help but think why Broadwell seems to escape media assignations of culpability. For one, she is not a shrinking violet and wasn't it she who SHAMELESSLY pursued Gen Petraeus - flying in to Afghanistan, showing up UNINVITED in some events where she knew Gen Petraeus would be? In this age and time when we are pursuing equality between men and women, it behooves that both man and woman be held accountable for their actions. After all, an affair happens by mutual consent. In the same way that men are admonished, women should also be admonished to learn to respect their fellow women's territory.

akpat
akpat

Back in the good old days of the cold war the KGB (bad guys) used sex a lot as a honey trap and of course at that point you could be blackmailed.

Now we have a general and headof the CIA in a honey trap as well and so the old lessons come to the fore.

You cant keep secrets if you can be blackmailed.

pmoosa
pmoosa

I don't get why Americans are making such a big deal out of this. ' the public is probably done with them' ...... what does the public have to do with  military hires? If the guy is a good general, he's a good general ... generally (:He's already paid the price of humiliation and hundreds of people scrambling thru his personal stuff - he should just get back to the job now. Americans should get over it.

EBexpat
EBexpat

Maybe he was trying to live up to former chief spook Wild Bill Donovan... 

He should know that when the little head leads the big head, only trouble will rear its head.

krodolfo
krodolfo

"The tougher riddle — the one that’s never so well-answered — is why these men are so heedless of consequences." It's been said that the human erection is not caused by blood, but by descending brain matter, so the little head winds up telling the big head what to do.

ironyman2
ironyman2

Petraeus seemingly has no conscience. No, he thought he was too all-powerful to get caught. And if he did, he could get out of it. After all, the mighty old men and women of the Senate ITEL Committee apprently ignored what many military insiders have said: that he was having the affair with Broadwell when he was in Afghanistan. And she probably was not his first. If ITEL had asked him about it during his confirmation hearings, he would have needed to lie. Well, that's not fitting for their hero, the patriot. The decision most likely had already been made to confirm him for the CIA post. Why aren't media digging into this?

Petraeus will be protected and eventually will run for the NY Senate. He's a native New Yorker. If they sit fit to elect him, let him screw them for awhile.

JimMorgan
JimMorgan

there's a saying in the Army about how senior officers get in trouble: bottles and zippers

jalangaya
jalangaya

Broadwell is ugly & mannish, like Moochie or Maddow. But no man alive could resist the bountiful charms of beautiful Jill Kelley, who is exotic, exquisite, exciting.

JWCNYCLB2
JWCNYCLB2

I find this article to be exceedingly trite - typical man bashing pontificating as something astute.  

The fact is, each of the named examples are individual human being with individual storylines. I'm not justifying infidelity, but I have been a family therapist for 20 years and know that no one can know what goes on between two people except those involved. We have no idea what when on between Patrueas and Broadwell (who he may have actually fallen in good old fashioned love with, who knows) or in his relationship with his wife - which could have been a long term toxic trap for both of them, who knows? I don't, no one does, but I have seen this dynamic over and over in my practice.  Ignore nuance in analyzing human behavior at your own peril.  I'll say it: not all men who cheat are power mad narcissists collecting sex, that's silly.

Again, it is never right to humiliate a mate, especially in public, nor is it ever right to lie.  But the human experience is almost unimaginably varied rarely subject to tired stereotypes as this article is trying to sell.  Life just isn't that black and white.  Let's get off the simply-answer bandwagon and leave all of these people in peace.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

Very interesting, thank you.  It makes a lot of sense and makes me think there should be a high school course that helps the well adjusted people avoid the broken people.  Ideally, it would also help the broken people self identify and seek help.  (not likely but it would be nice)

ironyman2
ironyman2

@schneider.jason.r  Just curious as to why you think this. Be specific. Based on my career as an executive in the corporate and government worlds, I find most of the information to be on target. Kluger mention's women's affairs as an afterthought, but as many women forgo motherhood and climb the corporate ladder, you see powerful, influential women having affairs and often with younger men.  Male writers often overlook this because the research isn't as extensive. Women tend to be more discreet than men and even less likely to admit their indiscretions.That is changing, too.

Basnig
Basnig

@ibtlius I get that impression from the media as well. And I also wonder if it has to do with losing sales on the book if Broadwell gets to be presented the way she really is in this fiasco: a perpetrator and instigator.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@ibtlius I don't agree with unfair tactics, but bottom line this is about Petraeus. He is the senior government official paid by taxpayer to secure our country.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@ibtlius Do you think Mrs. Petraeus will or should file for divorce?

ibtlius
ibtlius

@eetom Exactly.  I have no idea how he came to a conclusion that she is in any way shape or form 'attractive' as a 'woman'. She looks like an ugly hermaphrodite. But who knows, may be this is what happens when you reach old age and lose your critical faculties or may be the general had some hidden homosexual tendencies that this 'woman' helped to remind him and bring it out.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@Basnig  Petraeus is the senior official, government yet, paid by taxpayers. Former 4-star general and commander of two wars. And now, former CIA Director. Why wouldn't he get the attention, and why shouldn't he? He dishonored his job as well as his family. Probably wouldn't be quite so bad had he not crafted his image as a hero and honorable man.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@pmoosa What job does he go back to? His humiliated wife is the one in the family with a job.

TheSecretHutch
TheSecretHutch

@pmoosa It matters because he has to uphold the highest standards of one of our most vital agencies. Anyone who is asking "why should we care that Petraeus banged his biographer?" just doesn't get it. This isn't about sex, its about trust.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@jalangaya  Hmm, he's small. aging homely nad has had prostate cancer. He went for her because she is educated,  classy looking and hot. She is also highly intelligent. For all his faults as a commander and an adulterer, Petraeus is intellectual and would fall for another brainy person. She's probably not his first affair - no matter what he said - and he's not the type for a one nighgt with a bimbo.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@JWCNYCLB2  Let's not leave David Petraeus in peace. All his career he has courted the spotlight, especially media. He has been a shameless self promoter. Had it not been for his wife's family, he probably would not be where he is - or was, as the case may be. As a commander, he was brutal, having no qualms about startegies that blew the faces off Afghan village kids. His affairs pale in comparison. He is a man who has presented himself as a hero and a man of honor, although there are questions that persist as to whether if ever actually engaged in battle. He's a shell.

Does his long-loyal wife and family deserve this? No. But yesterday Petraeus was quoteed as saying he (the main person always) did not deserve his wife. She is probably waiting for him to say publicly, "I love my wife more than anything. I hope she can forgive me." The man is too self-centered to think of anyone else. I appreciate your thoughts, but save them for someone who really does not deserve negative media attention - not someone who has craved almost any media anytime anywhere. Let's see if he'll doing Dancing with the Stars.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@JWCNYCLB2 I think you make a valid point but I don't think the article is dismissing the nuance of the human experience.  It suggests some common traits among a subset of individuals.  As for the man bashing, I don't see it.  Powerful women narcissists probably exhibit bad behavior just as frequently but probably not in a sexual context.  Martha Stewart comes to mind and I'm sure the author could easily do a follow up listing many more. 

schneider.jason.r
schneider.jason.r

Are you serious? An executive in the corporate and government worlds and yet not able to form coherent thoughts and sentences? I can't believe I'm even replying to this, as if it is a significant conversation about a significant article. I think you've missed the boat completely -- in treating this as a serious article and a serious issue. Please....I'm done with this. And with Time. This is just vapid, vapid, vapid.

Basnig
Basnig

@ironyman2 And so is Broadwell paid by taxpayer money for her being an officer in the US Army Reserve. Also, who paid for her VIP accomodations in Afghanistan while she was chasing Petraeus for HER Thesis and HER book? Do you think she paid for accomodations on her own dime? I am betting it was taxpayers money too.

VintMacCabe
VintMacCabe

@ibtlius @eetom 

Zo, tell us Herr, or Mrs, Ibtlius, egg-zactly how long haff you hated your father (or mother) and what vuss it zat started your zelf-hatred vich you now project onto others?

(And zould vee azzume -- since you are making beauty judgements -- that you are, in fact, a blonde-haired, blued-eyed, Aryan specimen?)

Basnig
Basnig

@ironyman2 I think you missed my point. I am saying BOTH Petraeus and Broadwell need to be held accountable for their actions. Petraeus already lost his job as CIA Director. How about Broadwell? She is a Lt Colonel in the Army Reserve and therefore subject to the Uniform Military Code of Justice. Why are we not hearing about a court marshall and a dishonorable discharge? Broadwell also considered running for political office in the recent national election under the Republican party. She is a PhD candidate and a Harvard Research Associate for Govt Policy. Is she being spared culpability just because she is in a "less high falluting" position as Petraeus. Broadwell is only 40. Is her behavior going to be left unchecked? Who knows what powerful position she would go after 10-20 yrs from now, and because she got away with not only having an affair with Petraeus, but also cyber harassing another woman, taking classified documents who knows under what circumstances -- did she have a need to know on those documents even if she had a secret clearance -- was she abusing her clearance to get access to documents for her own agenda and objectives? - in my opinion, Broadwell has more muck in this business than Petraeus and all I am saying is she should be held accountable for this mess as much as Petraeus has been.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@schneider.jason.r  I just asked a question. Don't get so frustrated, frustrated, frustrated. What makes the writer a second-rate journalist? He makes statements and documents them with a variety of techniques. Your turn ...

Basnig
Basnig

@ironyman2 Well, I commend you for not believing in "boys will be boys". I do not subscribe to that crap either. And you know why? Because I believe that women can say NO. I don't understand what you mean by Broadwell being "unduly slammed". She is not a twenty-something naive intern. She is an accomplished, highly-educated, well-connected woman. And if my impression is correct, of a "privileged" background, with a strong will of her own. If anything, it is Jill Kelley that's being unduly slammed here. What right did Broadwell have in telling Kelley to "back off from her man?" It should be Mrs. Petraeus telling Broadwell to back off from her (Mrs. Petraues') man. I agree that Petraeus, even in his own admission, made a terrible mistake in judgement -- and no, he should not have allowed Broadwell to catch him. But that does not cleanse Broadwell of responsibility for her actions. I have 2 nieces aged 3 and 5. I want them to grow up knowing they can say NO to advances by men, and at the same time, I want them to also grow up knowing they are responsible for their actions, to be mindful of consequences and learn to respect boundaries. Broadwell should not be given free pass just because Petraeus happened to be in a more powerful position.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@Basnig @ironyman2  Sure. I read that Petraeus made his plane available to her, as well as arranging private accommodations for her. I take your point. But I don't think Broadwell should get unduly slammed. Petraeus is a man who has for years, long before his Iraq days, presented himself as this patriot-to-the-death, honorable-super being. The guy was doing her all over Afghanistan and either the Senate ITEL Committee just didn't ask so he wouldn't have to tell, or they did ask and he lied.And yes, she probably was "chasing" Petraeus, but he is the one who had more to lose professionally and personally. He should not have allowed her to catch him. And I don't want to hear that "boys will be boys" crap. That's insulting to many men who would not do what he (and others) do.

ironyman2
ironyman2

@Basnig @ironyman2  I agree with you, but David Petraeus has 20 years on this woman. He has met, dined and now we wonder what else with world leaders. (Hey, there's Mrs. Merkel and the BRIC presidents.)  We have no idea the kinds of promises Petraeus made to her. Her certainly wanted to play the role of her big Sugar Gen. I find it odd that the married mom would go where she did with the threatening emails to the Kelley woman unless she believed Petraeus genuinely cared for her. He is a man totally out for himself. He got his fill of her and broke it off, probably some time after the got the CIA job.