The Petraeus Paradox: Why Do So Many Powerful Men Get Caught With Their Pants Down?

FILE - In this July 18, 2011 file photo, Gen. David Petraeus salutes during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanis
FILE - In this July 18, 2011 file photo, Gen. David Petraeus salutes during a changing of command ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan. America's best-known general, is retiring as arguably the most consequential Army leader of his generation. After a farewell ceremony Wednesday, Petraeus will open a new chapter as director of the CIA. In that job he will try to keep up the pressure on al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, while working closely with the military he knows well. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that David Petraeus got caught having an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. After all he's not the first powerful government official to fall from grace. There were governors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eliot Spitzer), senators (John Edwards and John Ensign), and presidents (Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy) to name only a few. But somehow I still believed that a military leader like David Petraeus would be more honorable.

I ask myself why a man who has made a commitment to his wife would violate his oath? But I also wonder why someone who has achieved so much would risk his marriage, his reputation, and his position for a brief encounter of a sexual kind. And I want to scream "how could you be so stupid that you got caught? I mean you were the director of the CIA. Don't they teach you how to keep secrets at CIA school?"

Is this just the way men are? Was comedian Robin Williams right when he told us, "God gave men both a penis and a brain, but unfortunately not enough blood supply to run both at the same time"? We can make jokes about men and sex, but in the real world men's infidelities are devastating. Wives and children suffer, men live with the shame of their betrayal, we all lose faith in our government and our own integrity feels less secure.

Fortunately, there are people who have looked deeply into these questions and have answers that can help us all. Rev. Michael Dowd, a former pastor and author of Thank God for Evolution, and Connie Barlow, an author of popular science books, embody the marriage of religion and science as husband and wife. They've developed a new program, Evolutionize Your Life. In one of the sections they describe what evolution can teach us about infidelity. Dowd describes his own infidelities and shows how an evolutionary understanding of our brain and how it functions can help us all prevent infidelities in our own lives.

They point out that judging ourselves and others for sexual transgressions does nothing to help us understand what drives us or how we can use evolutionary knowledge and the latest understanding of brain science to help us live in integrity. "We are losing our political leaders, and we will continue to lose them," says Dowd, "until we come to terms with our basic biology."

Most importantly our leaders, as well of the rest of us, must learn about the hormone testosterone. We need to know that when we achieve success and our status rises, so does our testosterone. This rise causes us to have a greater sex drive, to take more risks, and to be seen as more attractive. Dowd and Barlow share five of the most important things we now know that can help us understand our tendency to stray:

1. The average male has many times more testosterone than the average female.

That means that the sex drive and willingness to engage in risky activities is generally more compelling for men than for women. Though we must acknowledge that for every man like David Petraeus who violates his vows there is usually a woman like Paula Broadwell who also does the same.

2. Politicians are not average men. They are very high status men.

That means their testosterone is higher than most of us. It gives them an even higher sex drive than the average man, makes them more likely to take risks, and makes them more sexually desirable. Those of us who are sure we would stay true to our vows usually haven't experienced super-normal levels of testosterone or super-normal allurements of attractive people coming on to us.

3. Most women instinctively become more flirtatious around high status men.

The average woman who says she wouldn't be tempted to have an affair usually hasn't felt what it's like to interact with a high status man. Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy have high status and are pretty attractive looking guys. Think what it might be like to be hanging out with them, one-on-one, over a long period of time. Hey, even Henry Kissinger who most women wouldn't put high on their list of "guys I'd like to sleep with" recognized that power is an aphrodisiac.

4. Dalliance-free monogamy doesn't have a great track record in any cultural tradition.

Clearly it's not just American politicians who stray or just politicians in general. This is an issue for everyone, in all cultures. Men's and women's evolutionary-based desires haven't changed. What has changed is the media scrutiny that focuses the spotlight on everything our politicians do. Kennedy didn't have to worry about the press corps "outing him" or his email being hacked by the F.B.I.

5. When sexual drive butts up against culturally forged values and commitments, something is bound to give.

We may do our best to be true blue, but that isn't enough. We have to recognize the power of our evolutionary based instincts and give thanks for them, without letting them control our future. We can talk openly about our vulnerabilities and have an honest support system where we can tell the truth about our attractions before we go over the line and act on them.

To learn more, visit Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow at