Do women really go for 'bad boys'? Here's the science that settles the question

Do women really go for 'bad boys'? Here's the science that settles the question
Forget waiting by the phone for someone who never calls, science suggests niceness is hot. Credit: Olga Rosi/Shutterstock

"Nice guys finish last" is one of the most widely believed maxims of dating. Fleshed out, the idea goes something like this: heterosexual women might say they want nice characteristics in a partner, but in reality what they want is the challenge that comes with dating a "bad boy". This idea is so widespread that some people are even making money off the back of it, selling self-help books and teaching men how to pick up women by insulting them – a practice known as "negging".

Recently, an article published by Broadly claimed, "Everyone knows [bad boys] … are desirable. Thanks to a recent study, this is now scientifically verifiable."

The research it refers to is a study published earlier this year, which suggested that some men smoke and drink because this makes them more attractive short-term partners.

Leaving aside the obvious point that the article is conflating "bad" with drinking and smoking (as Girl on the Net writes, "badness" is really a lot more than just smoking 20 a day or drinking like there's no tomorrow), is it really true that women prefer bad boys (read: insensitive, macho jerks)? Let's take a look at some reliable .

One way to investigate the issue is to present women with hypothetical men with different personality types and see which ones they prefer. In one such study, participants had to help a fictional character named Susan choose a date from three male contestants, based on their answers to her questions. In one version, the man was nice – he was in touch with his feelings, caring and kind. In another, he was a self-described "real man" who was insensitive and unkind. The third contestant simply gave neutral answers.

So which contestant did participants think Susan should date and who did they prefer to date themselves? Contrary to the stereotype that nice guys finish last, it was actually the nice contestant that was chosen most frequently for both Susan and for participants themselves.

In another study, participants who read dating ads in which people described themselves as altruistic ("I volunteer at the food bank") were rated as more attractive short-term dates and long-term partners than those who didn't mention such qualities. Other studies have similarly shown that women prefer men who are sensitive, confident and easy-going, and that very few (if any) women want to date a man who is aggressive or demanding. The picture that emerges is clear: when women rate hypothetical partners, they clearly prefer "nice" men.

In fact, the power of niceness shouldn't be underestimated. Some studies have shown that having a nice personality can even affect impressions of a person's physical attractiveness. Characteristics such as warmth, kindness, and basic decency are valued by both women and men – having them makes us more desirable partners, but also makes us appear more physically attractive.

The attractive power of narcissists

Of course, sometimes we do find "bad" people attractive. Narcissists – people who show high levels of self-importance, superiority, entitlement, arrogance and a willingness to exploit others – are often perceived as very attractive in initial encounters. This may be because they put a lot of effort into their appearance and how they come across. Studies have shown that female narcissists tend to wear more make-up and show more cleavage than women who score lower on narcissism, whereas male narcissists spend more time building up their muscle mass.

In the very short term, narcissists can even seem more well-adjusted, entertaining and generally nicer. But over the long term, narcissists find it difficult to maintain a favourable impression and tend to be perceived as less adjusted, less warm, and more hostile and arrogant. Not surprisingly, the evidence shows that don't like long-term, committed relationships and don't do well in them anyway.

And there may be all sorts of other reasons why some people end up dating "bad people". They may be repeating patterns of behaviour they've become used to in past relationships or they may find the world of dating stressful and end up making bad decisions. Or they may simply have bought into myths of dating and behave accordingly. But, for the most part, the evidence suggests that both women and men prefer nice partners and are turned off by jerks.

The problem with the nice-guys-finish-last stereotype, aside from going against the grain of years of scientific evidence, is that it may compromise the possibility of forming meaningful relationships. Perpetuating this myth not only creates unhelpful expectations about how we should behave, but trying to live up to the myth can sometimes damage relationships.

In the end, the idea that women want to date bad boys really just reinforces the misogynist's idea of deceitful women and earnest "nice" men baffled by their lack of dating success. It allows some to blame and hate as a means of deflecting attention away from their own shortcomings. So, if you're looking to science for some advice, it's simple: be nice.

Explore further

Why do men prefer nice women?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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Citation: Do women really go for 'bad boys'? Here's the science that settles the question (2016, May 19) retrieved 15 October 2019 from
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User comments

May 19, 2016
Do they? Yes. Do most regret it? Yes.

This article completely overlooks the biological attraction that a woman feels from a well built muscular man in excellent health who can pass healthy genes on to her children. Physical prowess is linked to survival of the fittest and the species. Therefore your average jock who may exhibit aggressive tendencies and/or turn out to be her worst nightmare is still more enticing than a nice nerdy guy.

May 20, 2016
More "Women Good, Men Bad" sewage from Feminists.

May 20, 2016
Bad study. This is generally an emotional response distilled down to a study where the women were asked to give rational judgments. In short, they knew they were being studied, so would feel and expectation to give the "right" answer (nice guys). And what about the age group? That's certainly a factor.

A previous poster mentioned the biological attraction. I agree with this. Higher aggression levels means higher testosterone, which can also translate to "feeling safer" -- like the security of having a Rottweiler as a guard dog as opposed to a Beagle. It's emotional and primal and not at all malicious. Men have their primal proclivities, too -- such as the petite princess to be saved. It's just the way of the world. The evolution of human rationality just hasn't yet caught up to the emotional drives.

May 20, 2016
I think the more bored and dissatisfied with life a person is, the more likely they are to be attracted to someone who appears to offer the promise of an escape from all that i.e. a rebellious, risk-taking, overly-confident type. I doubt if most happy, well-adjusted women would be taken in by the mirage - they'd smell selfishness and poor character at 50 paces.

Jun 07, 2016
Watchdog -- very good point. What we think we want VS what we do is different. What we choose under sober observation is different than what we do when unobserved.

Also -- someone who does good extracirricular [sic] activities like volunteering doesn't = being Mr Nice Guy. It's a good quality for anyone, narcs or a-holes included. A bad litmus test on that concept.

Gals don't want a guy who is going to be a Yes man, going by grandma's advice. They're not going to want a guy to roll out the red carpet and pamper them -- or more importantly, get the feeling/vibe that they are.

They want a guy who's a Catch -- not a fish jumping out of the water, into their boat, asking to be filleted. That's Mr Nice Guy. They appreciate it, but to a great looking gal that's a dime a dozen and it becomes annoying. Whether guys putting on that as a front to try and sleep with them, or Mr Nice Guy wimps.

Hence, being a guy where she has to earn your interest, too.

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