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Power powers promiscuity, study finds

Published: Thursday, May 5 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

PROVO — With power comes confidence, and for both men and women, such confidence often results in marital infidelity, a new study finds.

The study, to be published in an upcoming Psychological Science, found that among 1,275 Dutch professionals, those with the higher-paying, higher-ranked positions were more likely to have thought about or actually engaged in extra-marital entanglements, thanks to boosted levels of confidence.

"Infidelity is an especially serious problem when it occurs among people who hold positions of power," writes Joris Lammers, a professor in the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and lead author. "After all, powerful people, such as politicians or industrialists, serve as important role models and set descriptive norms for the general population to follow."

The participants, 46 percent women and 54 percent men, ranged from top management (6 percent) to junior employees (58 percent) and were all subscribers of a professional magazine when they agreed to take the online 200-question survey.

In one question, the individuals were asked to indicate on a vertical line where they saw themselves in regards to their organization's power hierarchy. Later, they were asked about infidelity - both intentions and actual occurrences.

Setting aside the 25 people who didn't answer, 329 or 26.3 percent of people admitted being unfaithful to their spouse.

Researchers also measured the individuals' confidence in their ability to attract a romantic partner through responses to statements like, "I feel confident that I would be successful if I (wanted) to seduce someone," and "I feel confident about my charms."

The data showed that both men and women who saw themselves as more powerful within the company were more likely to be unfaithful, and when researchers added in the confidence factor, the propensity for promiscuity was even stronger.

"The powerful see the world, themselves, and other people in a different manner and they act in a different manner than do those who lack power," Lammers writes. "One important effect of power is that it leads people to behave more confidently toward potential partners."

What was most interesting to BYU social psychologist Robert Ridge, who was asked to comment on the study, was the type of confidence being displayed.

"They're not just saying, 'I'm more competent at what I do,' or 'I'm a better manager,'" Ridge said. "It's a different kind of confidence. It's saying, 'I could attract someone of the opposite sex because I'm a more powerful person.' It's like a sex-appeal confidence."

And while instances of confidence-fueled affairs by men may dominate the headlines, (think Tiger Woods, John Edwards or former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher) women are just as likely to engage in such behavior, Lammers said, though they don't occupy as many high-power positions as do men. He noted specifically the U.S. House of Representatives, where only 17 percent of legislators are women.

While the study is limited by a self-selected participant base, as well the inability to set up an experiment to actually test infidelity, it does offer insights into the driving force of power.

Lammers explained that power has a psychologically transformative effect and makes people focus more attention on those who are physically attractive. It also increases romantic approach behavior and makes people more optimistic about their perception of sexual interest shown by others.

Such behaviors and attitudes are often most pronounced when individuals work late and long hours with strangers in hotels or other anonymous locations. (Working at home is a great antidote to infidelity, Lammers points out.)

"(People must) realize that power has this corruptive effect and actively control for it," Lammers told the Deseret News. "That is, try to recognize a trap before it presents itself."

email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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