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Why Do People Cheat? A Psychological Look at New York's Mayor

Spitzer Probably Lusted More for Thrills Than Flesh (Update1)

By Elizabeth Lopatto

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- Eliot Spitzer's fall was driven by the same personality trait that propelled his rise, psychologists say: thrill-seeking behavior.

``Politics is one of the most exciting careers imaginable,'' said Frank Farley, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, and former president of the American Psychological Association. ``There are few occupations where you can give speeches to large groups of people who stomp their feet and clap their hands for you. Most people don't want it.''

Spitzer, 48, said yesterday he will resign as Democratic governor of New York after he was identified as the client of a prostitution ring. The married father of three daughters, who previously served as state attorney general, didn't address the allegations.

The need to lead an exciting, challenging life provides the fuel to become a crusading attorney general, a jet fighter pilot, trader on Wall Street, or an emergency-room doctor. This kind of personality isn't the norm, Farley said. For most people, excitement and uncertainty doesn't drive them into careers. The same characteristic also can be manifested in extramarital affairs and dangerous behaviors, Farley said.

`Not Pathological'

``These folks aren't pathological,'' said Keith Johnsgard, a professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State University who has studied motivations of race-car drivers and other risk- takers. ``They're really bright and probably less neurotic than most people. They're not crazy, they're not stupid, you just don't want to be married to one.''

Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for the governor's press office, declined to comment.

The happiest marriages tend to be between people with great tolerances for boredom because these people aren't looking for new partners, said Marvin Zuckerman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Delaware. Zuckerman devised a scale researchers use to assess an individual's level of sensation-seeking and wrote the book, ``Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior'' (American Psychological Association, 309 pages, $43.76).

Sensation-seekers may crave new, exciting experiences because activities most people find pleasurable appear muted to them, Johnsgard said. He conducted a 10-year study of those drawn to adventure. The research showed that they find mundane joys less satisfying than other people because of a variation in receptors for dopamine, a brain chemical involved in giving people a sense of reward.

Higher in Men

Sensation-seeking behavior also tends to be higher in men than in women, Zuckerman said. Several studies link high levels of the male hormone testosterone to the personality trait, he said.

``Sensation-seeking is related to assertiveness and masculine traits,'' Zuckerman said. ``Aggression, assertiveness, and dominance and competitiveness. They love the challenge. They like the fight.''

This type of personality also is naturally attracted to sex with new partners as an extension of the drive to experience different things, Farley said. Spitzer had prosecuted prostitution rings and probably felt he knew about the business, Farley said.

If he had been seeing prostitutes for a while, he probably began to feel comfortable, Farley said.

`Not an Addiction'

``It's not an addiction; the most overworked word in psychology is addiction,'' Farley said. ``I think that he probably did it often and it worked, so he kept at it.''

While high sensation-seeking personalities may take more risks than those who aren't as drawn to pursuing new experiences, they often attempt to manage their risks, Zuckerman said. Spitzer may have been attempting to minimize the likelihood of being found by choosing prostitutes.

``I'm guessing at his thinking on this, but if he had sex for free and he wanted to have someone novel, it'd be single women, or wives of friends,'' Zuckerman said. ``That could get him in a lot of trouble socially. He thought prostitutes were less risky as it was just a transaction, overlooking its legality.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net

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