by Molly Tulipan
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Warren Harding and Nan Britton. JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Sexual scandal has permeated the White House since America can remember. Why do leading politicians risk their national reputations and their jobs for extramarital sex? The answer might just lie in their chemical makeup.
Monoamine oxidase A (MOA) is an enzyme that helps our bodies regulate important neurotransmitters like Dopamine. Involved in emotion, learning, and attention, this chemical messenger also has numerous links to risk-taking (Myers, 2006). Zuckerman (2000) discovered that people with sensation-seeking personalities often have excessive levels of Dopamine activity. This is where MOA comes in to play; people who take fewer risks have higher levels of MOA, because MOA regulates Dopamine. Most people have enough MOA to keep their risk-taking behavior under control. For instance, older people have more MOA than younger people and thereby exhibit less frequent risk-taking behavior. (Ever wondered why young adults are more likely to put themselves in sticky situations than their grandparents?) Females have more MOA than males and are less likely to put themselves in dangerous situations such as drinking and driving and excessive drug use. What happens when you don’t have sufficient MOA? Essentially, lower levels of MOA yield more dangerous behavior.
In 1971, psychologist Marvin Zuckerman linked levels of MOA to another behavior: sensation seeking, a term he coined. Zuckerman created a complex personality test called the Sensation-Seeking Scale. Sensation seekers are characterized by a tendency to put themselves in new, exhilarating situations even if they are dangerous. People that pass for sensation seekers as defined by Zuckerman are also easily bored, particularly by repetition in the workplace, “predictable” experiences with others, and conventional work assignments (Zuckerman, 1964, cited in The University of Delaware 1997). It comes as little surprise, then, that sensation seekers might crave the excitement and volatile environment of the White House, and similarly, that their thrill-seeking personalities might also lead them to reckless sexual behavior.
MOA is not the only explanation for sensation seeking. As is always the case with assessing personality traits, risk-taking personalities are a delicate combination of nature and nurture. However, it is interesting to consider that the same traits that lead someone to such a high position of power might also lead them down the risky path of adultery. Even more fascinating: are these traits linked to chemicals in our bodies that lie partly beyond our control?
University of Delaware Office of Public Relations (1997). Sensational study: Psychology prof’s work ranks among world’s best. Retrieved October 6, 2008, from http://www.udel.edu/PR/UpDate/97/19/27.html
Author Unknown. (1998, September 9). Sex and the White House. BBC News. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/events/clinton_under_fire/the_big_picture/167068.stm
Zuckerman, M. (2000, November) Are you a Risk Taker? Psychology Today. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from
Carmichael, M. (2008, 12 March). His Cheating Brain. Newsweek. Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.newsweek.com/id/121492/output/print
Myers, D. (2006). Psychology (8th Edition in Modules). New York: Worth Publishers.