Why Do Smart People Send Nudes?

In so many ways, Jeff Bezos isn’t a relatable guy. As the CEO of Amazon, he’s the world’s richest man. He lords over much of the internet’s infrastructure. He turns the municipal governments of America’s largest cities into slavering lapdogs at the prospect of his company’s arrival. In at least one way, though, Bezos is exactly like a huge number of Americans in 2019: On at least a few occasions, he apparently has dashed off explicit texts and some predictably composed nudes to a romantic partner with little apparent regard for whether it could come back to bite him in the ass.

Bezos’s moment of reckoning came on Thursday, when the Amazon founder chose to publicize what he described as a blackmail and extortion attempt by American Media Inc. AMI, the publisher of the National Enquirer, had obtained intimate photos and messages that Bezos had previously sent to Lauren Sanchez, the woman now rumored to be his girlfriend. He announced last month that he and his wife, MacKenzie, would divorce after 25 years of marriage.

In a Medium post, Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, alleged that AMI wanted him to disavow publicly any knowledge of the publisher’s political dealings. In exchange, Bezos wrote, AMI would withhold publication of those private messages. In 2018, AMI admitted to federal authorities that it had paid off women on behalf of then–presidential candidate Donald Trump, and rumors abound of the company’s additional involvement with both the Trump campaign and the Saudi royal family.

For plenty of people, though, the details of high-level political backbiting aren’t the headline here, or at least not the only headline. Why was someone like Bezos, who has such an enormous and singular public profile and who’s known to be canny and relentless, lured in by the base, risky pleasures of taking dick pics?

But there are real differences in structural power between an ascendant-but-unproven political star and a hyper-wealthy business leader, and between sending salacious messages to a number of strangers online and to one romantic partner. If the blackmail allegations are true, it seems as if AMI’s math was a little off on exactly how scandalous a few racy photos are at this point in America’s smartphone saturation, and how much an already powerful person could be harmed by their revelation.

“Very powerful people feel protected, and that they’re so high up that nothing will happen to them,” says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who has researched both sexting and bullying. “[Bezos’s] life is so fantastic and unreachable, it feels like it’s outside of the atmosphere of normal life.” Indeed, researchers have found that people who feel as if they have irrevocable power are significantly more likely to make risky decisions.

Whose power is more irrevocable than the world’s richest man’s? It’s hard to imagine a situation in which consequences for Bezos’s sexts go beyond personal embarrassment, and since he published evidence of AMI’s alleged extortion attempts, he’s been the star of a news cycle far more positive than any for him or his company in recent memory. Bezos, who sits atop a technology empire, was probably well aware of a small risk of hacking or interception when he sent those messages, and he appears not to have cared. He’s a smart guy. In this case, it seems he read the room correctly.

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