A quick trawl through the tabloids is all it takes to understand the association between power, wealth and infidelity, however in 2011, Joris Lammers and his colleagues at Tilburg University and the University of Groningen set out to specifically test the relationship between power and infidelity. Using over a thousand working professionals, across the spectrum of power—from junior employees to senior CEOs, they were able to measure the actual power differences in existing organizational hierarchies and actual infidelity.
Their results showed that power is associated with increased self-reported infidelity and with increased intentions of engaging in infidelity. This relationship held even after controlling for gender, age, and education. Also, by measuring infidelity with an anonymous, Internet-based questionnaire, they decreased the effect of social desirability on responses, particularly among women (Whisman & Snyder, 2007).
They also measured three potential mediators in order to investigate the processes that might be underlying the power-infidelity link. Research has demonstrated that power leads to more confident behavior in mixed-sex interactions (Gonzaga et al., 2008; Wilkey, 2011) and in this study confidence was found to play a crucial role in the power-infidelity link.
The researchers also found that perceptions of risk are strongly related to infidelity, but differences in power do not explain differences in the perceived risk of engaging in infidelity.
Previous research has found that, overall, women are less likely than men to be unfaithful. This effect has been explained by the fact that for evolutionary reasons, women should be more oriented than men toward binding to one powerful partner in a stable relationship. Other researchers have proposed that gender difference in infidelity is at least partly due to differences in the socioeconomic position of men and women. According to this proposal, if women were to obtain independent sources of income and power, their dependence on their partners would decrease, and their likelihood of being unfaithful would increase (Buller, 2005; Eagly & Wood, 1999; Smuts, 1992; Wood & Eagly, 2007).
Lammers and his colleagues found that among women who had an independent source of income (as all their female respondents did, because they were working professionals), power had a positive relationship with infidelity, and this relationship was comparable to that found among men. They also suggest that if social desirability had affected the responses, it most likely would have suppressed responses more strongly for women than for men (Whisman & Snyder, 2007).
The researchers conclude that power clearly increases infidelity among women, as it does among men and this is not an isolated finding. Researchers studying the effect of (manipulated) power on participants’ attention to attractive individuals found that power makes people more attentive to attractive others and more likely to approach them (Brady et al., 2011; Gonzaga et al., 2008; Kunstman & Maner, 2011; Lerner, 2011; Wilkey, 2011). Power also makes people overestimate the degree to which other people are sexually interested in them (Kunstman & Maner, 2011; Lerner, 2011), and increase sexual approach behaviors (Wilkey, 2011) for women and for men. Together, these findings suggest that women in high-power positions are as likely to engage in infidelity as are men in high-power positions.
The finding that power is positively associated with infidelity among women seems incompatible with Baumeister and Vohs’s (2004) theory that women employ sex as a scarce resource to gain status and resources. If that is the case, more powerful women should be less—not more—inclined to infidelity; more powerful women would have less need to gain additional resources. It is important to bear in mind, however, that Baumeister and Vohs’s theory is based on the premise that women have fewer opportunities than men to gain resources and status. Although this premise was not true for Lammer’s sample, it is still generally true in the general population.
Given their findings, the researchers questioned why so few few high-powered women end up in infidelity-related scandals in the media. The simple explanation for the disproportionate representation of unfaithful high powered men could be explained by the fact that there are still fewer women than men in high-power positions. For example, in 2010, only 76 of the 435 (17%) members of the U.S. House of Representatives were female (U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk, 2010). If such gender differences in power diminish and women gain more power, many other gender differences should also be attenuated. Gender equality should increase both virtuous and less virtuous behavior among women. As this study shows, one such less virtuous behavior may be sexual infidelity.