The Real Lesson of the Petraeus Scandal

We delude ourselves about the way we use technology.

David Patraeus.

Researchers have found that people act in more extreme ways over email than they would in face-to-face situations. Did Gen. David Petraeus fall prey to the online disinhibition effect?

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

In his Essays, the great observer of human nature Michel de Montaigne described how Lycurgus, the lawgiver of ancient Sparta, decreed that married couples should engage in sexual pleasure only by stealth. The challenge of arranging their trysts while endeavoring to avoid discovery by others would, Lycurgus reasoned, introduce a level of excitement to marriages that might otherwise grow stale.

Today, married or not, we often employ digital communication to introduce both stealth and titillation to relationships, something Lycurgus likely would have understood. (In addition to secret lovemaking, he required the maidens of Sparta to parade naked during civic events, displaying themselves to the young men of the city in a kind of ancient version of sexting that he believed was a great “incitement” to marriage.) Through texts, emails, tweets, and Facebook postings, we spend a great deal of time and energy seeking and consuming emotional intimacy online. Email and other forms of digital communication make all romance—licit, illicit, new, or old—extraordinarily convenient, and browsing for emotional connections online is now a part of everyday life for millions of people, one that brings us daily pleasure as we connect to the people we love.

Sometimes, some of us go too far, as the recent scandals involving former CIA Director David Petraeus and Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen reveal. In both scandals, email was the handmaiden of sexual betrayal as well as the source of its exposure. Much has been written about how Petraeus and his mistress Paula Broadwell could have avoided detection by using more clandestine means for their virtual exchanges, such as encryption software. That they did not reveals how deeply embedded, mundane—and hence, unexamined—electronic communication has become in even the most private realms of our lives. Petraeus and Broadwell weren’t naive. They simply used email like we all do—constantly and, all too often, unthinkingly.

In many ways, email was the perfect medium for Petraeus and Broadwell. The general and his groupie—both apparently uber-fit, Type A personalities—created a digital version of the “dead-drop” message relay, which involved each of them saving drafts of emails for the other to read on a Gmail account set up for that purpose. The system must have provided a compelling combination of intrigue and ambient, asynchronous intimacy for the pair, while offering each of them a semblance of privacy and control over the situation.

Although the public is not yet privy to details of the Petraeus-Broadwell epistolary e-record (one fears cringe-worthy sexual euphemisms involving military jargon), it would be surprising if the communication rose above the level of overeager and awkward sexual reminiscences. Given its poverty of visual and aural cues (sexting pictures and emoticons notwithstanding) and its demands for immediacy, email can be a far more limiting medium for emotional expression than face-to-face or telephone conversations. It can also be ambiguous, which is why Gen. Allen can claim that his many flirtatious communiqués with the Tampa socialite also involved in the Petraeus scandal were merely innocuous, friendly email banter.

The unspoken rules that govern so much of our behavior in face-to-face interactions in social encounters (described by sociologist Erving Goffman in works such as Interaction Ritual) aren’t present in most mediated communication online. Although every email, text, or tweet is a microperformance of self, it is a performance staged, scripted, and directed by the actor himself, with an audience one can choose to ignore or delete at any time. The old rules of social interaction no longer apply. Despite a lack of physical cues, however, email and text messaging can generate a powerful feeling of intimacy between frequent users, as both Broadwell and Petraeus apparently were. Broadwell’s overly familiar way of talking about Petraeus during public appearances likely had as much to do with the hours she had spent in intimate email exchanges with him as it did with their physical relationship.

As many psychologists who study Internet use have demonstrated, email and other forms of mediated communication also encourage what is called the online disinhibition effect: Freed from the usual constraints of social convention, people act out in more extreme ways than they might in public. This is the force that leads people to post unhinged comments on their ex’s Facebook pages and compels elected officials to tweet pictures of their hairless torsos (and other parts of their anatomy) to people other than their wives. This disinhibition effect, combined with some old-fashioned jealousy, is also what appears to have emboldened Paula Broadwell to send anonymous and allegedly threatening emails to a woman she perceived as a rival for Petraeus’ affections, unwittingly setting into motion the investigation that would reveal her own affair.

And yet, the public shaming of those involved in the scandal and widespread schadenfreude of all of us watching it distracts from an uncomfortable reality: You don’t have to cheat on your wife or sext an acquaintance to be guilty of using email as a tool for deception. Recent research suggests that we are far more likely to lie in email than in face-to-face conversations. As professor Jeffrey T. Hancock of Cornell University has shown, the likelihood that a person will lie in a computer-mediated context such as email compared with face-to-face interaction was so much higher that he and his colleagues developed a new term, the “motivational enhancement effect,” to describe it, warning that it has “important implications for social, business and even criminal electronic communications.” Another aspect of Hancock’s research on computer-mediated communication seems especially apt in the case of Petraeus and Broadwell: his findings about how our online behavior influences our offline behavior. As New Scientist described Hancock’s research, “acting out a particular personality online reinforces the behavior, making it more likely to be followed in real life. This could start a cycle as our public and virtual selves feed into each other and we become gradually more indulgent, more indiscreet—or perhaps more egocentric.” Petraeus and Broadwell might not have been lying to each other in their private email exchanges, but by engaging so often and so intimately with each other online, they were reinforcing their mutual commitment to betraying their spouses offline.

Email is a highly effective technology of self-deception as well. What we know in theory (don’t send emails that you wouldn’t want to see read aloud on national television by your grandmother) doesn’t always prevent us from doing the opposite in practice.

Were any of our email accounts subject to scrutiny by the FBI, we might not be revealed as cheating cads, but most of us would, in ways large and small, be exposed as frequent and shameless purveyors of idle gossip, unnecessary fibs, outrageous flattery, pathetic excuses, and bandwidth-hogging cat videos. It’s all there in the emails and text messages that map the quotidian details of our lives. If, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, technologies are “extensions of man,” then the Petraeus story serves as a useful reminder of how our technologies (incredible as they are) nevertheless can encourage the extension of man’s less noble traits. History might end up judging Petraeus a meritocratic and military success but a moral manqué. As for the rest of us, let him without a sinful email sent (or drafts) folder cast the first stone.