Why Do People Commit Treason?


As I get ready to launch my debut novel, I’ve been obsessing about the story’s heart: the burden of inherited treachery. The characters in my book descend from figures in American history who did some pretty shameful things, which has me thinking about a bigger question: Why do people commit treason? Some light research and my own opinions yielded two reasons.

1. People commit treason because they are deeply unhappy.

To quote a recently declassified CIA study, "Defection...is the act of a person who feels compelled to do it out of dissatisfaction, disillusionment, depression, or defeat...a response to an acute overwhelming life crisis or to an accumulation of crises or disappointments.”[1]

These disappointments could literally be anything, from pretty boring to super grand. In my novel, seventeen-year-old Jasper is the modern descendant of Benedict Arnold, probably the most famous traitor in American history. While it’s hard to know what exactly pushed Arnold over the edge, we know that he felt like his battlefield heroics had been ignored (dissatisfaction), he could barely walk after almost losing a leg at those battles (depression), and a high profile Patriot named Joseph Reed had really embarrassed him in a long and public court martial trial (defeat).[2] Again, to quote that CIA report, “...individuals often feel forced to act.”[3]

But all that “unhappiness” really falls into the bigger category of “self-interest,” which is to say that:

2. People commit treason because they are basically all about themselves.

It’s not a surprise that people are all about themselves, or that that impulse leads them to do bad stuff. Just examine every dictator, ever. Self-interest motivates most, if not all, criminals, and while it’s very simplistic (people do bad stuff for very specific reasons or situations), selfishness is usually behind it.

But if self-interest motivates people to commit treason, why do some people give into that desire, and others don’t?

The answer seems to be a person’s preexisting psychology and circumstance.[4] For example: How well did your parents model certain traits, like loyalty or grace, and just how dire is your specific situation? That CIA has a formula should you want to figure out your own likelihood to commit treason: Individual Psychology (I) times Circumstance (C) equals Defection (D). It's not an exact science, the Agency says, but might be helpful to see if, given the circumstance, you’d turn on those you once held dear.[5]

We All Betray

Most of us will never be in a position of great power, fame, or potential vendetta holding like Arnold, but we still dabble in treachery—like when your friend tells you something, and you absolutely swear to never tell anybody else because that would be, like, so gossipy.

And then you do.

You betrayed a confidence for a few seconds of fame—of being in the spotlight when you spill that secret to other people that you definitely shouldn’t have. That betrayal isn’t the grand, political kind, but it comes from the same self-interest.

Maybe instead of asking why people commit treason, we should really be asking why are we so surprised that people commit treason, when life constantly puts us in circumstances that require us to sacrifice our self-interest for others. I think this is sort of what George Washington meant when he was trying to process Arnold’s betrayal: “Traitors are the growth of every country, and in a revolution of the present nature it is more to be wondered at that the catalogue is so small than that there have been found a few.”[6]

To Conclude

If it is true that a) We are all prone to varying degrees of situational unhappiness and b) Self-interest motivates most of our desires, then it would seem that none of us are immune to acts of treachery, great or small. The ‘treason gene’ doesn’t exist because the trait is already universal: our natural propensity to betray, added to the degree to which we believe the legitimacy of our own self-interest might determine whether or not we follow in the footsteps of traitors like Arnold.

But one truth doesn’t negate another: Traitors are the worst.

So don’t be one.


Matthew Landis is a middle school history teacher and young adult author. His debut novel, LEAGUE OF AMERICAN TRAITORS, will be published on August 8th, 2017 by Sky Pony Press. Read more about him and his books and how writing is like building a taco at www.matthew-landis.com


[1] Psychology of Treason, report no. 0006183135, FOIA Collection; Declassified Articles from Studies in Intelligence: The IC’s Journal for the Intelligence Professional, 2, https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/document/0006183135.

[2] Jim Murphy, The Real Benedict Arnold (New York: Clarion Books, 2007), 186. This passage gathers them loosely, but see the rest of Murphy’s book for specifics on Arnold’s treachery. For specifics into the role of Joseph Reed and his court martial, see Arnold-expert Nathaniel Philbrick’s piece "Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor Against the American Revolution," Smithsonian, May 2016, accessed July 7, 2017, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/benedict-arnold-turned-traitor-american-revolution-180958786/.

[3] Psychology of Treason, 2.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] As quoted Murphy, The Real, 215.


Matthew Landis