Days after the media broke the scandal now known as the “Petraeus Affair” in 2012, professors at the University of Michigan projected pictures in their classrooms of General David Petraeus’ posing separately with his wife of 38 years and of his much younger lover, Paula Broadwell, and asked their students to rate statements like: “I don't blame General Petraeus for having an affair”, “General Petraeus was a victim of his circumstances”, and “It is unrealistic to expect powerful men to remain faithful.”
This academic curiosity, it appears, was motivated by media reports at the time that described Mrs. Broadwell as “toned” and “very attractive” and Mrs. Petraeus as “ordinary” and “frumpy”. In short, the question these professors hoped to answer was, are powerful men with less fuckable wives to be held to different moral standards when it comes to marital infidelity?
And who better to ask than a captive audience of early-twentysomething university students?
What first appeared as a questionable classroom exercise reemerged last week as an ethically dubious and scientifically unsound academic article that wants us to believe that there is an evolutionary argument to be made for sympathizing with powerful men who bang hot women.
The research itself is cruel to Holly Petraeus. There is no argument to be made otherwise; and for that reason alone it should never have been published.
But in addition to that, it demonstrates a disturbing trend in evolutionary psychology away from trying to simply describe how humans do behave towards making a case for how humans should behave and, in this article, making an evolutionary argument for how we set standards of behaviour for members of our society.
This perspective is not unfamiliar. For many decades, evolutionary psychologists went out of their way to argue that women are less sexual than men. They believed this because they observed women feigning disinterest in sex for a myriad of social and economic reasons, and concluded that there must be biological explanation for this behaviour. Once that evolutionary link had been established, it was easy to argue that women should be less sexual than men and, in fact, were abnormal if they behaved otherwise.
This Petraeus Affair paper ultimately represents a group of academics who got together and said to themselves, “Paula Broadwell is much hotter than Holly Petraeus. You can hardly blame the guy for screwing around!” and sought evidence to justify that belief.
For completeness, you should know that evidence is simply not here. Seeing General Petraeus posing with his 60-year-old wife and with his 40-year-old lover did nothing to change the experimental groups’ view of the morality of his actions, possibly because the students in the control group (who only had a picture of Petraeus in their lecture) had already seen the other pictures splattered all over the media. Male students in the experimental group were slightly more likely to sympathize with Petraeus’ decision to cheat, but even that result is not statistically significant.
The only statistically significant result in this paper is that men are less likely to condemn powerful men for infidelity behaviour than are women. And that we already knew.
Try as the scholars might to attribute this leniency on the part of men to some evolved trait, it is really nothing more than proof that very young men think that the reward for success is access to hot women. Period. That is not hardwiring; it is nothing more than a youthful combination of optimism and wishful thinking.
The authors conclude that future research is needed. They suggest that similar study could be conducted using the case of Kristen Stewart, who at age 20 cheated on her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. And while I have no idea who that is, or how that is similar to the Petraeus Affair, I feel confident that this topic warrants no further investigation.