Why do they do it?

Whenever a smart person in a position of power does something as scandalously-“stupid” as former C.I.A. Director David Petraeus has done (carrying on the extra-marital affair which has cost him his position and severely tainted his reputation for integrity and intelligence), the question I get most from viewers and readers is, “Why?”  Why would someone smart enough to achieve a position of power then behave “stupidly” and scandalously enough to lose it?  Here’s why:

Some of it has to do with their motivations for seeking positions of power in the first place.  People who are motivated to pursue such positions because they’re attracted to power for its own sake are generally some of the people most susceptible to abusing power when they get it.  (Luckily for us, though, I still believe that the majority of people in positions of power in America have nobler motivations for seeking their positions.)

Mostly though, it comes down to character.  People don’t end up doing scandalous things unless they first see such things as behavioral options for them.  In other words, it’s completely fallacious when they and/or their defenders claim that some scandalous behavior was “out of character” – if the individual didn’t first consider the scandalous behavior an option that was available to him or her, then he or she would never have done it.

So what aspect of character explains why these people see scandalous behaviors as options?  In a word, narcissism.  Narcissism generally has one of two origins:  self-aggrandizement, often reinforced by excessive parental praise and indulgence in childhood, resulting in a sense of entitlement based on superiority, or self-pity, often reinforced by parental mistreatment or neglect in childhood, resulting in a sense of entitlement based on past suffering.

Grandiose narcissists believe they’re better than others and are therefore entitled to self-indulgences in life that they would deny others.  Self-pitying narcissists believe they’ve been treated unfairly in life and are therefore entitled to self-indulge in order to “even the score” when opportunities arise.  People in positions of power often rationalize self-indulgence based either on how much they’ve “contributed” or on how much they’ve “sacrificed” in life.

Initially, a little narcissism can actually be helpful in their pursuits of power positions, because it contributes to their confidence that they’re both capable and deserving of attaining such positions.  Once they’ve tasted some success, however, their narcissism can grow to become malignant if they 1) stop thinking self-critically (and if they’re highly intelligent, they’ll be able to rationalize almost anything) and 2) surround themselves with uncritical “yes” people.

Narcissism is not, however, a “mental illness” that impairs people’s capacities to exercise sound judgment and differentiate right from wrong.  It’s really more just a label that describes people who consciously choose not to differentiate right from wrong when their conclusions would likely conflict with their self-indulgent, self-entitled desires.  Thus, it may be an explanation but never an excuse for anyone’s seemingly-“stupid” scandalous behavior.

And before I go, on this Veterans’ Day 2012, a big THANK YOU to any and all veterans who read my blog!

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