Was Herman Cain’s High-Risk Campaign Fueled by Testosterone?

As Cain weighs whether to quit the presidential race amid allegations of a 13-year affair, it seems testosterone put him in a position where exposure was all but guaranteed.

11.30.11 9:45 AM ET

Herman. Herman. Herman. What are the voters to make of all this?

First there was the parade of women alleging that, over the years, you have indeed been a very special kind of “job creator.” Now we’re being told by Hotlanta single mama Ginger White that you two enjoyed a “very inappropriate” friends-with-benefits relationship for the past 13 years. While not as unflattering as the image of you as boardroom predator, this development is troubling nonetheless.

To be sure, some of these gals may be making stuff up. Maybe even all of them. But all those odd-hour calls and texts from you to Ginger look pretty squirrelly. Frankly, Herm, it’s getting harder and harder to see you as the hapless victim of self-promoting opportunists and/or estrogen-crazed fantasists.

Your staff tells us you’re hunkered down in your batcave “reassessing” the situation, trying to determine whether this latest news will be the straw to down that proverbial camel. Not to be the bearer of ill tidings, Herman, but you are close to the last person in America still wondering this.

So while there clearly remains a certain rubbernecking interest in your forthcoming campaign strategy, many of us also are plagued by a more backward-looking question: why on earth did you do it?

Not the cheating part. That one’s not hard to grasp. There are a million and one reasons people cheat, especially successful men with a glut of arrogance and testosterone swirling ‘round in their shorts.

“An interesting thing happens to humans when they gain social status,” explains Paul Zak, director of the center for neuroeconomic studies at Claremont Graduate University. “Their testosterone level rises and the brain says, ‘I’m an alpha male; I deserve to have extra rights.’”

Pump guys full of testosterone in the laboratory, says Zak, and test subjects become more selfish and more entitled. “Part of all this is the unfortunate byproduct of evolution that says, if you’re a winner you ought to act like a winner and attract more mates, because obviously you have fabulous genes or you wouldn’t be so successful.”

Not that this excuses anything, stresses Zak. Even the alpha-est male’s hormonal urges can be reined in by the prefrontal cortex, also known as the executive-function area of the brain because it handles planning, decision making, and cost-benefit analyses of the sort Herman should have conducted more extensively. That Cain did such a poor job with such analysis “does suggest you may not want this guy as president,” says Zak. “He was listening to his little head instead of his big head.”

OK. So the Herminator, who clearly counts himself as a master-of-the-universe type, couldn’t keep his hormones to himself. Why then run for president? After (allegedly) misbehaving for years and (evidently) more or less getting away with it, why risk everything by voluntarily entering an arena where there are entire professions devoted to making sure that no skeleton stays closeted?

Therein lies the real mystery, the one you hear people everywhere puzzling over this week: have you been unconscious for the past 20 years, Herman? Did you fail to notice the way politicians’ private lives are now picked apart like soft-shell blues at a crab boil? Good God, man, does the name Bill Clinton mean nothing to you? How about John Edwards? Mark Sanford? John Ensign? Gary Hart? Eliot Spitzer?

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I know. I know. No man ever thinks he’s going to get busted for screwing around. The libido wants what it wants, and damn the torpedoes. As for trying to analyze the dangers rationally, good luck: here again our brains are hard-wired to betray us.

“When it comes to risk-taking there are a number of psychological factors that make the risk feel more or less scary,” explains David Ropeik, author of the book How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. “One  of them is the benefit compared to the risk. The greater the benefit, the more we psychologically play down the risk.”

Fair enough. But once a man has taken those risks and gotten away with it for, say, 13 years, what would possess him to put himself in a position where exposure was all but guaranteed?

Here, says Ropeik, is where “the hubris of control” comes into play.

Another basic factor in risk assessment, explains Ropeik, is that “the more control we feel we have, the less at risk we feel.”

Unfortunately, people tend to fool themselves about the degree of control they really have. “You play games with your information base to get to the story you’ve pretty much already decided you want to hear,” says Ropeik—often on a subconscious level that you don’t even recognize.

For instance, in Cain’s case, says Ropeik, “the brain wants to hear a certain story, which is that people are coming and saying, ‘You can run for president.’” So despite having fairly obvious (alleged) reasons why this might not be a good idea, the candidate tells himself things like, “ ‘I have control over this information. I’ve paid these women under legal settlements not to talk.’”

The next thing you know, your sex life is all over The New York Times and Jon Stewart is making XXX-rated, stuffed-crust-pizza jokes about you.

“History is littered with the victims of people who thought they had more control over information than they in fact did,” says Ropeik, who is quick to add that such delusions stem from precisely the same emotion-driven rationalizations that lead the rest of us to take chances on everything from committing corporate fraud to driving while texting. We are all wired for the same sort of psychological miscalculations as poor Herman (allegedly) made.

“That’s why this story is so awesome,” says Ropeik. “There but for the grace of circumstances go you and I.”