The Science Behind Your Bad Boy PhaseOct 23, 2013
The Science Behind Your Bad Boy Phase
Years from now, when your teenaged or twentysomething daughter is off gallivanting with her tattooed, motorcycle-driving fella, or finds herself taken aback because her charming, seemingly well-mannered beau couldn’t commit, don’t despair. Take comfort in the fact that it’s science and not simply poor judgment that’s behind her romantic malaise.
The question of “Why do the good girls always want the bad boys?” has vexed the human race since long before the first episode of Britney and K-Fed’s Chaotic graced the small screen. According to a recent study, the answer to this age-old conundrum is actually quite Darwinian.
Although common sense tells us that men who say and do the right thing seemingly effortlessly usually turn out to be shady characters—to say the least—a lot of women can’t help but find them downright appealing. New research by Geogory Louis Carter of the University of Durham suggests this phenomenon is simply sexual selection and conflict at work.
Carter and his team presented 128 female undergraduates with descriptions of two types of male personas: “Dark Triads” and controls. “Dark Triad” personality traits—which, according to research, are more typical of men than women, include narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellism. To break it down even further, the trademarks of narcissism include “dominance, a sense of entitlement, and a grandiose self-view.” Psychopaths are callous, unempathetic, and prone to antisocial, erratic behavior. Machiavellianism, as its namesake would imply, refers to a combination of duplicitousness, insincerity, and extraversion. Research has established that men who demonstrate all three trait groupings are more promiscuous, and more “adept at beginning new relationships and identifying multiple mating opportunities,” than their (non-psychopathic) peers. Overall, they’re very successful at “short-term mating,” in part due to their “sexually-exploitative interpersonal stance.”
That said, you can guess how participants, when presented with questions about these two hypothetical characters and asked to rate the attractiveness of their personality, responded. Yep—the Dark Lords had it. As to why we just can’t get enough of jerks, Carter and his colleagues offer these two explanations: First off, sexual selection may be to blame. “This would mean that women are responding to signals of ‘male quality’ when it comes to reproduction. And with respect to short-term mating, women may be drawn to ‘bad boys,’ who demonstrate confidence, stubbornness, and risk-taking tendencies,” explains Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., a clinical psychologist and journalist, and former Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life. Secondly, the investigators proposed that “Women may be responding to DT men’s ability to ‘sell themselves’; a useful tactic in a co-evolutionary ‘arms race’ in which men convince women to pursue the former’s preferred sexual strategy. They note that like a ‘used-car dealer,’ Dark Triad men may be effective charmers and manipulators, furthering their success at short-term mating.”
Of course, it’s not as if, in the real world, every girl’s just walking around with an Alfie on her arm for however long he’ll have her. There are some provisos to this study. Women admitting they found the DT men more attractive didn't necessarily mean they would sleep with them or pursue a relationship with them. In addition, factors like personal income and education level were left out of the descriptions, and we all know those can make a world of difference. Plus, the group of women in question was all college-age, a demographic which, as Mehta puts it “tends to be oriented towards short-term relationships.” Finally, actual guys aren’t simply good or bad, angels or devils. The so-called “Dark Triad” traits and their components operate along a spectrum, which the study doesn’t account for.
Still, the study is one among an expanding body of research related to women’s “dueling desires.” No doubt the demands of evolution have shaped who we find attractive (along with everything else). In the meantime, though, it’s good to know there’s no need to kick ourselves when we go through a little primal phase every now and then.
Even ladies who could literally have any guy they wanted go through a (sometimes neverending) “bad boy phase.” Click through our slideshow above for our favorite celebrities who’ve had a glimpse of the Dark (Triad) side.
By Cordelia Tai
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