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November 29, 2012

What's going on in the brain of a cheater?

America does love a good sex scandal, almost as much as the British do, and the Petraeus, um, affair has been an especially juicy one. It's been so complicated, in that reality-show kind of way, that we need charts depicting who's connected to whom.

As always happens when a powerful married man is revealed to have been hiking the Appalachian Trail, finding Freudian uses for cigars, or supporting his maid's child, there's been a lot of speculation about the psychology of honcho guys. What is it about the powerful?

This noodling is off-base on several counts. First, it neglects the fact that roughly one-quarter of married people — approximately equal numbers of men and women — report having had an extramarital affair. They aren't all powerful. It's true that the successful may indeed be more likely to commit adultery, but not for the reasons usually cited, such as their supposed sense of entitlement.

It also conflates social monogamy with sexual monogamy, assuming that these complicated sets of behaviors are one and the same. But Petraeus' experience shows this is not necessarily true. By all accounts, Petraeus highly values his relationship with his wife. Yet he was not sexually monogamous, and because he wasn't, he placed his social relationship with his wife, not to mention his job and reputation, at risk.

The difference between social and sexual monogamy is partly chemical, as was illustrated recently in a fascinating experiment. You may have missed it while being steeped in Jill Kelley news, but the Journal of Neuroscience released a study earlier this month about the effects of the neurochemical oxytocin on the behavior of monogamous males.

Oxytocin has gotten a lot of publicity over the past few years, not all of it entirely accurate. It's been called the "cuddle" hormone, a "love drug," even "the moral molecule." But it turns out that the effects of oxytocin depend on social context.

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