Spitzer’s Cheating Heart. Or Hormonal Brain. Or Misunderstood Situation.

apple.jpgWhat motivates adultery? It’s a question that dominated the news (while I was away on Spring Break) and probably quite a few dinner table conversations. “How could he?” “Why was he so foolish?” “Why did she have to stand with him in front of the cameras?” It struck me how neatly explanations for Elliot Spitzer’s bad conduct dovetailed with current attempts in the law reviews to model behavior generally.

1. Emotions

This is an oldie, but goodie. For Hank Williams, adultery set off a storm of negative emotion:

Your cheatin’ heart will pine someday/

And crave the love you threw away/

The time will come when you’ll be blue/

Yuur cheatin’ heart will tell on you.

But it isn’t all negative. I posted on Richard Dawkins’ really bad arguments for the evolutionary utility of adultery back in December (a post that provoked a comment that wins the prize for (either) most ironically funny, or most inane: “I think people tend to think of the amount of love (or passion) they can give as a pie: it’s finite, and the more you give, the less there is for everyone else. I think the pie paradoxically expands, the more you give, the more you can give, because giving love creates more.”)

2. Cognition and Neurochemistry

Hot in law, hotter in explaining Spitzer’s fall. As Shankar Vedantam helpfully explained, “an area of Spitzer’s brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex” caused him to pay “a prostitute $5,000, as opposed to $500 or $50.” Or perhaps it was the levels of his monoamine oxidase A, as Mary Carmichael, explained in this week’s Newsweek. “[Adulters] have lower levels of monoamine oxidase A, which regulates the brain’s levels of dopamine”; they see themselves as risk-seekers possibly because they are overcharged with testosterone. Indeed, the article makes you suspicious of any male politicians who don’t cheat:

“Alpha males are high on testosterone, the hormone that underlies almost all the typical traits of the politico-sexual animal: high levels of testosterone make for a high sex drive, a love of risks, aggressiveness and competitiveness.”

“Men . . .have more of a biological imperative to spread their genes far and wide–the kind of privilege that often comes with being an alpha male.”

“In our evolutionary history, men who had lots of resources and status and power were able to have more than one partner. Your body is basically saying if you have this power, you should use it . . .”

Huh. Did Truman and Carter have small medial orbitofrontal cortexes? Or maybe their medulla oblongatas made them insufficiently ornery?

3. The Situation

As Jon Hanson and Michael McCann argue here, moral sentiments about adultery are motivated by a dispositionalist outlook, while individuals’ behavior is often based on the situation:

American attitudes toward adultery are sort of like American attitudes toward unhealthy, highly-caloric food. We claim to not want that “junk,” and sometimes manage to avoid it; still, most of us find ourselves eating something we wish we hadn’t from time to time — perhaps most of the time. In America, we curse our cake and eat it too. And also in America, we blame the obesity epidemic on the bad choices and dispositions of the obese . . . [Rather than criticize politicians who cheat, Hanson and McCann argue] perhaps these instances might be used as teaching tools — examples to the Vitters [and Spitzers and Clintons and Gingriches] of the world that although the disposition may be strong, the situation is often stronger. If we could stop pretending that people’s behavior and their condition in life is a product solely of their character or preferences, then perhaps we could begin to have more meaningful debates about topics that really matter.

While situationalism doesn’t discount entirely the importance of personality, it does suggest that attributions of blame must be carefully considered:

[Hanson and McCann continue that critics of situationalism] seem nervous that if situation is taken too seriously we might lose our ability to hold the people who engage in bad activities responsible by no longer conceiving of them as “bad apples.” We might lose our ability to make easy normative distinctions between good apples and bad apples—the sort of distinctions that provide the legitimating, normative punch behind everything from the individualistic (dispositionistic) criminal justice system to ideologies and blame frames that justify vast inequalities. . . Sometimes bad apples need to be removed—in part because they are contaminating. But if a bad apple can harmfully effect the situation of good apples, then don’t we owe it to the “bad apple” to consider whether its condition itself reflects a contaminating environment? If we don’t like “bad apples” or their effects, shouldn’t we at least endeavor to examine the tree, it’s roots, the soil, the air quality, the parasites, the orchard, the toxins, and, in a word, the situation.

I don’t know. I am really fascinated by the emerging situationalist scholarship, but this strikes me as possibly a theory taken too far — or applied without much concrete evidence of how the situation promotes adultery. After all, to borrow another pop-psych fad of late, maybe Spitzer was just the sociopath (next door) in the governor’s mansion.

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3 Responses

  1. sharon says:

    I counter your Hank Williams with Tanya Tucker’s “Stand By Your Man”, which still continues to be the mantra for women, as they must behave in the “appropriate” way before the public, no matter how humiliating, when their “men” have cheated.

  2. Frank says:

    These lines of thought sometimes worry me; “to explain all is to forgive all”?

  3. Jonathan says:

    In Book 8 of his Confessions, St. Augustine noted this about his own concupiscence:

    I was bound not by an iron imposed by anyone else but by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will and so made a chain for me to hold me a prisoner. The consequence of a distorted will is passion. By servitude to passion, habit is formed, and habit to which there is no resistance becomes a compulsion. By these links, as it were, connected one to another (hence my term a chain), a harsh bondage held me under restraint.