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Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce: The Surprising Psychological Lessons We Can Learn From Them

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It's difficult to remember given all that's happened with Vicky Pryce and Chris Huhne, that this epic case began with an apparently innocuous speeding offence.

But Huhne's driving licence was already so over-burdened with points, more would have tipped him over the limit, with possible shattering consequences for his political career. Was this the first sign on the road map, of how this twisting journey would end?

We drive as we live. Fast and reckless can mean skidding and crashing.

Psychologist George Schreer from Manhattanville College in the USA conducted a study where inflated views of the self, or narcissism, predicted aggressive driving.

Entitled 'Narcissism and Aggression: Is Inflated Self Esteem Related to Aggressive Driving?' and published in the North American Journal of Psychology, the research found men scoring high on entitlement ("I insist upon getting the respect that is due to me") reported more aggressive driving, while women high on exhibitionism ("I like to be the center of attention") reported more belligerence, behind a steering wheel.

Under a veneer of high self-worth many narcissists hide underlying feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. These are being masked and compensated for, by the climb up the greasy pole of fame and success.

Narcissists tend to be inordinately sensitive to anything which could be interpreted as a challenge, or threat, to their fundamental need to feel superior. So they react with hostility. Aggression is linked to narcissism because of this daily struggle to maintain a grandiose, but fragile self-image.

Next in the Pryce-Huhne saga was an adulterous affair conducted by Chris Huhne, with someone he appears to have met while pursuing his career.

Masanori Kuroki, from Occidental College, Los Angeles, has just published a study finding the chances of being sexually unfaithful to a partner increases with the proportion of opposite-sex co-workers at your workplace. This effect appears to apply to men, but not for women.

The study entitled 'Opposite-sex co-workers and marital infidelity' and published in the journal Economics Letters, found that every increase in roughly one third of the fraction of female co-workers at your place of work, increases the chances of an extramarital affair by almost 5% for men.

Workplace contact with the opposite sex changes perceptions of alternatives, possibly creating dissatisfaction, more likely to end in divorce. Given how common adultery is (Kuroki found in the sample from the USA 24% of male respondents and 20% of female admitted they had committed infidelity), it makes sense to be more aware, if you want to preserve your relationship, of whom your partner is meeting at work. After all many of us spend more time at the office than (awake) at home.

The reaction to the infidelity in the Huhne-Pryce saga appears to have generated hostility - psychologists would predict that jealousy played a key role.

Brad Sagarin and colleagues from Northern Illinois University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, have confirmed by pooling data from a large number of different studies, that men and women both react with jealousy, but differ in response, depending on whether they are dealing with a partner's sexual, or emotional infidelity.

Jealousy in response to infidelity appears to be a key emotion according to the study entitled 'Sex differences in jealousy: a meta-analytic examination' and published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

Jealousy is such a powerful drive, it may even have evolved to keep our partners in check.

Men show more distress when imagining their partners having sex with another, whereas women reveal more upset over their partners forming an emotional attachment elsewhere.

Evolutionary psychology explains this gender difference by arguing we are driven by the need to maximally pass on our genes to future generations. Male and female strategy in mating behaviour will differ because women will invest a lot in their own children, seeking similar parental investment from a male partner. But male strategy, in our ancestral environment, which our brains evolved to cope with, might be to get many different women pregnant.

So, according to evolutionary psychology, it is particularly threatening to the survival of a man's DNA if his partner gets pregnant by someone else, whereas it is especially ominous to passing on a woman's genes, if her partner starts diverting his resources away from her and her children, towards another woman.

Psychology might be able to explain what happened in the headlines, in terms of the toxic mix of narcissism, infidelity and jealousy, but can it predict the future of a relationship from years back? Was this Shakespearian tragedy set in motion long before the speeding points accumulated to the tipping point?

In a study entitled 'You can't be happier than your wife. Happiness gaps and divorce', Cahit Guvena, Claudia Senikb and Holger Stichnoth found a happiness gap between spouses in any given year increases the chances that a separation will occur in the following year, or further into the future.

The study, published in the 'Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization' argues the crucial issue is not how happy overall a couple is - both could be much happier than the general population, but if one starts to be significantly happier or unhappier than the other, 'a happiness gap', then the relationship is in more serious trouble.

Even a happiness gap in the first year of marriage increases the risk of a future separation. The widening of the happiness gap is also associated with a higher risk of divorce, the authors who are based at Deakin University, Australia and the Paris School of Economics, found.

But the research, based on three large surveys from Britain, German and Australia discovered the effect of happiness gaps is asymmetric: couples are more likely to break-up when the woman is the less content partner. Relative deprivation appears to be the key - in other words finding yourself much less pleased than your partner - particularly if you are a woman.

Comparisons of happiness between spouses appears crucial, and partners are good at estimating how cheerful each other is. If you're both equally miserable you are, according to this research, not going to end the relationship. Also, if a woman is much happier than her male partner, she is not likely to initiate divorce.

But a woman finding she is much less happy than her husband, appears most lethal to the future of a marriage, according to these surveys. This could be because women shoulder more responsibility for making relationships work.

So, beware happiness gaps developing in your relationship, if you want to avoid breakdown or hostile reactions after separation.

Psychology contends our personality predicts our destiny much more than we might appreciate. We often believe we are, instead, the victim of circumstance.

But we don't have to be trapped by our characters, strong drives and emotions, as the actors in this tragedy appear to have been. Becoming more self-aware, uncomfortable though that might be, can help liberate us from the prison of personality.

Yet surrounding ourselves with those who only tell us what we want to hear, just reinforces our dark side. The famous, successful and rich are perhaps, paradoxically, most vulnerable to bad advice from confidants, because their intimates will more often have their own agenda.

So, one final psychological lesson following this tragic tale - when it comes to seeking counsel - never confide in a journalist.

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