Why Men Cheat: A New Twist on an Old Question

Why are so many men acting badly? The easy answer is to just say that these men are high-testosterone-driven cheaters. But as a neuroscientist, I know the brain tells a different story.
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Faced with the recent surge of sex scandals, I have found myself holding back, not wanting to comment. They happen all the time, but somehow this season seems different, worse. The ex-governor of California had his family torn apart by an affair he had a decade ago; the IMF leader was arrested for an alleged assault on a hotel maid; Senator John Edwards was recently indicted on cover-up charges related to his affair; and now married congressman Anthony Weiner admits to tweeting his genitals!

Why are so many men acting badly? The easy answer is to just say that these men are high-testosterone-driven cheaters who choose to make bad decisions. They should be divorced, scorned and ridiculed. They should just say no and stop being so stupid, we think.

But as a neuroscientist who has scanned tens of thousands of patients' brains over the last 20 years, many of whom were sex addicts, I know the brain tells a different story. There is an area in the front part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. It is also known as the executive brain because it acts like a boss at work. It is involved in forethought, judgment, impulse control, organization and planning. When there are problems in this part of the brain, men in particular are excitement-seeking and prone to exhibit poor judgment. And what is more exciting than illicit sex or tweeting your genitals?

I was on the "Dr. Phil" show last year for a feature we did on compulsive cheaters. I did a brain SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) scan on Jose, who had cheated on his wife eight times in the four years they were together. His brain showed very low activity in his prefrontal cortex. He also had a brain injury pattern from playing football and mixed martial art fighting. From seeing his own scan, Jose developed brain envy and wanted a better brain. He did not want to be divorced and have his daughter raised by someone else. He did everything I asked. Cheaters often experience the pain of rejection from their behavior and, with enough pain, can become motivated to change. Jose changed his habits, improved his nutrition, took some simple supplements to boost brain function and has not cheated on his wife for over a year. His follow-up brain scan also looked dramatically better. As we changed his brain, we also changed his life.

So what do we do with all these cheating men? Should we yell at them, belittle them, scold and scorn them? Or should we scan their brains? I think we should start by looking at their brains. How would we ever know if it was just bad behavior or a brain acting badly unless we looked? Psychiatrists, whom these people come to see for help, are the only medical professionals who rarely look at the organ they treat. Psychiatrists still make diagnoses today as they did in 1841, when Abraham Lincoln was depressed: by talking to people and looking for symptom clusters. Imagine if a cardiologist or an orthopedic doctor acted that way!

If the cheating man's brain is healthy, then he should just deal with the fallout of his poor judgment and learn to behave better. If, however, he has brain dysfunction (as is often the case), perhaps from a brain injury in the past (a barbell dropped on his head, for example), or other prefrontal cortex problems (such as ADHD), then getting a brain makeover with appropriate treatment is essential. Just making these men, who have real brain dysfunction, feel more guilt and shame will not help solve their problems.

Your brain controls everything you do and all the decisions you make. When the brain works correctly, you work correctly. When the brain is troubled, you are much more likely to make troubled decisions. Whenever human frailties are involved, think about the brain. In our experience, with a thoughtful approach, the brain can be better, which will ultimately be better for the whole family.