Yet another celebrity has risked his family, public image, and livelihood for some big-lipped, blond-streaked, saline-injected specimen. But what makes the Tiger Woods saga so exceptional is the sheer recklessness of it. The allegations of church parking lot romps, the condom-less sex, the billion-dollar gravy train at stake. It begs a question that seems to be recurring about once a quarter: What makes men so revered, so powerful, so rich feel the need to engage in shenanigans and push them so close to the edge? Why makes (fill in the blank) Tiger/Spitzer/Edwards/Ensign/Clinton/men so careless, so dumb?
Ask a shrink, and you will get an answer. Ask 12 shrinks, and you will get 12 answers: It was about sex. It had nothing to do with sex. He was depressed. He’s entitled. He’s tragically insecure. He thinks the rules don’t apply to him. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He wanted to get caught. He doesn’t think he deserves his success. He’s Teflon man. And so on.
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They’re all plausible, but since none of us knows him personally, it’s hard to be sure. So we decided to go back to the source: Freud. We asked some leading psychologists to put Tiger Woods on the couch—a proxy, in some ways, for any powerful man—through the prism of the father of psychoanalysis himself. Three theories emerged:
THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (THE ID)
According to Freud, the id is the unconscious part of our psyche: Impulsive. Instinctual. Polymorphous perverse. When you’re a famous athlete who’s got girls shedding their knickers the minute they see you, well, why not indulge in a little after-school activity?
“If you put a guy on the road half the year and all these beautiful women throw themselves at him, and he’s got a lot of money—it’s hard not to become narcissistic,” says Stephen Josephson, a cognitive behavioral psychologist in New York City. “Narcissism includes a limited tolerance for limits—‘I should be able to do what I want to do’ and grandiosity—‘I can do whatever I want to do because I’m special.’ What goes hand in hand is, ‘I can get away with it.’”
Translation: Tiger thought he wasn’t going to get caught.
• Gerald Posner: Chaos at Tiger Inc.• The Daily Beast’s full Tiger coverageNoel Biderman, the CEO of Ashley Madison, a dating site for people “already in relationships” (read: married or cohabiting), 98 percent of the men on his site are there for sexual-related reasons. “They’re in sexless marriages, or they’re tired of vanilla sex, or they want a different ethnicity,” says Biderman, who says he has 5 million men and women on his site. “Do I believe that’s representative of why men have affairs? Absolutely. Tiger’s a great example. There are a lot of factors in place that obviously make him a great candidate—the high-profile nature of his career, how many people throw themselves at him, he’s taken risks that have paid off.”
Plus, he adds, adultery is hot. The best sex is, more often than not, illicit sex—Meryl and Clint in the Bridges of Madison County; Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca; Diane Lane and that French guy in Unfaithful. “Affairs really get people’s blood boiling,” he says. “Monogamous sex becomes monotonous.”
HE’S A NARCISIST (THE EGO)
There are two kinds of narcissists in the world: grandiose narcissists and insecure narcissists. The insecure one will use sex to boost his ego, because he’s not good at his job or he doesn’t feel great about his body and he’s trying to compensate. So he’s looking for someone to artificially boost his ego.
“When you’re a high-profile individual in public life, you’re almost thinking, ‘Can I do something that no one knows about and walk the line of not getting caught?’”
Tiger falls into the former camp, says Michael Batshaw, a New York psychotherapist and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged. “I disagree that he feels insecure,” he says. “If people tell you you’re amazing, you start to believe it. Just look at the statement he gave. To me, that’s one of the biggest clues to his narcissism. He spent two paragraphs talking about not being perfect and then he talked about the media and his right to privacy. Essentially, what he’s saying is the media, who are complete strangers, should have the same kind of certitude, empathy, and compassion for my wife and children that I didn’t have.”
HE’S A LITTLE BOY SEARCHING FOR VALIDATION (SUPEREGO)
“Different men cheat for different reasons, but if it’s a more regressed type of guy, it’s that he’s a little boy, underdeveloped, doesn’t want to take on the responsibility of a full relationship. So when the woman sets limits or holds him responsible, he gravitates toward a new playmate he can just play and have fun with,” says Bethany Marshall, a marriage and family therapist in Beverly Hills. “Because when the primary love object disappoints them or they have interpersonal problems, they cannot work it out with that person, they cannot problem-solve so they find a love substitute.”
Doug Hirschorn, author of Eight Ways to Great and a mental coach who uses sports psychology to improve high-powered Wall Street titans, says he believes Tiger is an adrenaline junkie. “If you look through what Tiger did, how he went about it—text messaging, putting very little effort to try and protect—it was almost, how far can I go before I get caught?’ That feeling causes a psychological rush. He’s not stupid. He thrives on adrenaline. He’d probably say that emotionally he got the some charge from hitting that impossible shot and from and texting at 3 a.m. And when you’re a high-profile individual in public life, you’re almost thinking, ‘can I do something that no one knows about and walk the line of not getting caught? I don’t want to get caught because I know how damaging it will be to my career, but how close can I go without damaging my career?’ ”
The one thing all the shrinks agreed on: No matter how much you place people on pedestals, forcing them to be on top of their game at all times, the cliché still holds: They’re human beings, too, with the same insecurities and flaws we all have.
“When they do things that other people do, it’s because they’re trying to almost normalize themselves,” says Hirschorn. “It’s not that they think they’re above the law. It’s more about trying to make themselves feel normal, regular. The bottom line, I find with my clients—the more successful they are, the more insecure they are.”
“That’s what drives them to be the best.”
Abby Ellin regularly writes the Vows column for The New York Times, and previously wrote the Preludes column for that newspaper about young people and money. She is the author of Teenage Waistland, but her greatest claim to fame is naming “Karamel Sutra” ice cream for Ben and Jerry's.