The latest news on the lewd messaging scandal involving Congressman Anthony Weiner (Democrat, NY) was that he called former President Bill Clinton (who officiated at Weiner’s wedding) to apologize for his behavior. No transcript of the conversation was released, but it must have been an interesting chat. Did the ex-pres say something like, “Dude, I totally get it! They were hot!”? Both of these men engaged in behavior that, when exposed, seemed incredibly risky and stupid.
Clinton might have had some insight, but the rest of us might wonder why and how a politician expected to be the next mayor of New York City and recently married to a stunning and intelligent woman, would send sleazy photos to young women he never met in person. A torrid affair with a supermodel neighbor would be no more acceptable, but might at least be more readily explained from a risk/reward standpoint. Some previous research I’ve discussed here at Neuromarketing explains, at least in part, how an apparently smart guy like Weiner could make such dumb decisions.
(As a preface to this commentary, I’ll add that I’m neither justifying Weiner’s actions nor suggesting that every guy engages in that kind of activity. The vast majority of adult men don’t engage in sexting with hot teens, and most politicians are circumspect enough to avoid such activity even if tempted.)
The first element of the explanation comes from evolutionary psychology and behavioral studies. When men are in a mating frame of mind (which can be triggered by a simple photo), they make worse decisions. In Bikinis, Babes, and Buying, I wrote about how viewing sexy pictures cause male subjects to make more impulsive decisions. And it doesn’t even take a skimpy bathing suit photo to significantly alter male behavior. Including a photo of an attractive (but normally clothed) woman in a direct mail loan offer boosted the response rate among male recipients as much as an interest rate reduction of four points. (See A Pretty Woman Beats a Good Loan Deal.)
What’s happening here is that the photo cues trigger a mating mind-frame, which has been shown to cause short-term thinking by men. In Attractive Women Make Men Impatient, we saw that men who viewed photos of attractive women placed a higher value on shorter term rewards. (Decisions by women, incidentally, are largely unaffected by photos of men.)
These fairly subtle photo effects pale in comparison to the change in thinking of a sexually aroused male. (And, it would appear from the photographic evidence, Rep. Weiner was aroused during some of these exchanges.) As discussed in my bikini babe article, a study by George Loewenstein and Dan Ariely showed that men who were sexually aroused made very different decisions than they did when not aroused. Specifically, more were willing to engage in behavior that was risky (e.g., having unprotected sex) or morally reprehensible (e.g., getting a partner drunk to make her pliable). MSNBC.com’s Brian Alexander discussed the research with Loewenstein:
…[Our brains] can be thought of as being of “two minds,” there is the affective system,( “Dude! Who cares what it costs! She’s hot!”) which answers to our basic drives, and the deliberative system (“That’s your IRA contribution!”)… Even in the heat of the moment, there is still that little voice that says “You know you are making a mistake” – the trouble is it gets drowned out by the volume of the affective system. [From Science proves that bikinis turn men into boobs.]
Quite simply, a horny guy is a stupid guy, and something as simple as a photo is sufficient to significantly alter behavior.
A Weiner by Any Other Name
Up to this point, we’ve been talking about factors that affect all males (though no doubt to different degrees). One intriguing thought is that Weiner’s interest in sharing his, umm, photography skills, is that his name caused him to be more interested than most in his eponymous anatomical part. We know that last names do seem to have effects on life choices. In The Last Name Effect: Why Zimmerman is Impatient, we saw that individuals whose names occurred near the end of the alphabet tended to be more impulsive in response to apparently urgent sales offers. The researchers attributed that behavior to spending years being at the end of the line when organized alphabetically, as schools often do.
The theory of implicit egotism suggests that people prefer things that are connected to themselves. One study showed that names can have subtle influences on a variety of life choices. For example, people named Dennis and Denise are disproportionately likely to become dentists. See What’s in a Name? Lots!). Beyond implicit egotism, simple repetition may explain some of this. I knew a dentist named Toothaker. Surely, as a child he was asked hundreds of times if he was going to be a dentist with a name like that. How many “wiener” jokes do you think Rep. Weiner heard in his life? Either way, it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to a higher than typical wiener focus for a guy named Weiner. He probably likes frankfurters, too.
In summary, these studies neither justify nor even fully explain Rep. Weiner’s actions. Perhaps, though, they make the fact that he could engage in the behavior he did slightly less incomprehensible.