Tiger Woods And Culture Of Celebrity Cheating

Tiger Woods apologized for more than 13 minutes Friday for cheating on his wife.

Tiger Woods apologized for more than 13 minutes Friday for cheating on his wife. Joe Skipper/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Skipper/AP
Tiger Woods apologizes for cheating on his wife, Feb. 19, 2010

"I convinced myself that normal rules don't apply," golf superstar Tiger Woods said during his public mea culpa on Friday. "I felt that I was entitled." Psychologists suggest that's a sentiment shared by many famous and powerful men who stray. Joe Skipper/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Skipper/AP

Following the affairs of Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Mark Sanford and dozens of other prominent men who've been caught up in sex scandals over just the past two years, it's tempting to ask whether there's something about the famous and powerful that makes them more likely to cheat.

The answer is both yes and no.

"If you're famous, even if you look like a beluga whale in a suit, you're going to be far more attractive to people than you were in high school," said Keith Campbell, a University of Georgia psychologist.

Occasions of Sin

Powerful and famous men tend to be presented with more "occasions of sin" than, say, carpenters and teachers. Power may be the "ultimate aphrodisiac," as Henry Kissinger put it back in 1973, and people in entertainment and politics tend to be away from home a lot more often than most people.

But celebrities don't need any special circumstances to cheat. David Letterman's tactics were time-honored: those of the older boss hitting on the staff.

Attention Will Be Paid

Of course, it may only seem like celebrities stray more than average men. It's hard to get good data on adultery, which is all based on self-reporting in social science surveys. Researchers can't be sure that people are telling the truth about infidelity one way or another. The best estimates suggest that at least 15 percent of men will cheat sometime during their first marriage.

When men in the general population stray, and they get caught, only their wives' divorce lawyers will care. They're not going to dominate news coverage for days the way Woods and Sanford did.

Celebrities and politicians are "subject to more scrutiny, and they also have enemies who are eager to put this into public view," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

'Legends In Their Own Minds'

That's not to say there isn't something about people who succeed in high-profile professions that makes them liable to temptation. Pursuits like politics and sports require enormous self-confidence, as well as the ability to win the affection of strangers.

"People don't arrive at these positions if they're passive or let other people take credit," says Charles Goodstein, a psychiatrist at New York University.

Once they reach peaks of power and fame, their innate confidence often translates into a willingness to take risks. Powerful men become "legends in their own minds," as Goodstein says, imbued with the sense that they can get away with anything they want because of who they are.

"He [felt he] was entitled to seek out and obtain what he craved, instantly." That's something historian Robert Dallek wrote in his biography of John F. Kennedy, but Dallek could have just as easily been describing any man who feels that flings should count among the spoils of success.

"I convinced myself that normal rules don't apply," Woods said during his public mea culpa Friday. "I felt that I was entitled."

It's A Guy Thing?

Though there have been some high-profile examples of women in power getting caught cheating (see the case of Irish politician Iris Robinson, who was exposed last month for having funneled thousands of pounds to her teenaged lover), for the most part, it does generally seem to be powerful men who stray.

That gender bias tracks with trends in the general population: Married women commit adultery less frequently than men — perhaps as few as 5 percent, according to psychologist David Schmitt of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

But it also may reflect some differences in what men and women find sexy, suggests Gunnbjorg Lavoll, a psychologist at Northwestern University.

"Attractive women find power extremely attractive," Lavoll says. "Attractive men in general don't talk about powerful women as attractive."

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