The science behind it all: Why women always fall for bad boys

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Women purport to prefer nice guys, but getting their hearts broken by bad boys – these stories are a dime a dozen. It’s likely you would have heard of a friend who fell for a James Dean-lookalike, or perhaps you have personally experienced it. What is it about bad boys that make them so irresistible?

Not everyone falls for this type, of course, but there are enough examples that it’s worth examining. Could there be a logical, even scientific explanation behind this phenomenon? As it turns out, there are actually a few.

The ‘Pathological = Sexy’ survey


A 2015 study from the Evolution & Human Behavior journal shows that pathological people have more lifetime partners. In a nutshell, people with neurotic, impulsive, obsessive-compulsive, and rule-breaking behaviours tend to date more and get into relationships more. Close to 1,000 men and women with a spectrum of pathological behaviours, from none to severe, were studied.

A couple of interesting observations to highlight: One, lead researcher Gutiérrez says that obsessive-compulsive males were more successful with the ladies. He attributed this to the group’s high income level, as men with obsessive-compulsive behaviours made nearly twice as much as less obsessive study participants. Another was that neurotic women were more successful than their less neurotic counterparts in securing themselves a man.

It would be premature to take these findings as gospel truth though. As this study was a combination of self-reporting studies and interviews, there is the possibility of participants over-reporting their numbers to appear more attractive. After all, dishonesty is a pathological behaviour too.

The ‘My hormones made me do it’ study


Kristina Durante, a researcher at the University of Texas at San Antonio, studied women’s reactions towards men during low and high fertility periods to see if there were any differences in their choices. Spoiler alert: Women who were ovulating wanted sexy bad boys.

This 2012 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, had women viewing online dating profiles, and interacting with male actors who played the stereotypical roles of either a sexy bad boy or a dependable nice guy.

In both cases, women near ovulation significantly preferred physically sexier cads over obviously more dependable males, and also believed that sexier males made better fathers and partners. Conclusion? Ovulating women have their judgment clouded by the primal instinct of sex appeal, or in modern terms, they have their “ovulation goggles” on.

The ‘Dark Triad’ allure


Do women like stereotypically dark, mysterious men because they are more good-looking? Or perhaps dark, mysterious men claim to have more conquests because they inflate their numbers?

To dispel these variables, Gregory Louis Carter from the University of Durham studied the preferences of 128 women for men through online questionnaires, and found that women are significantly more attracted to men with “Dark Triad” personalities, which are narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (the inclination to deceive and manipulate). This is regardless of physical appearance. Women actually prefer men with dark traits.

There are two ways of looking at this. Either women tend to be mesmerised by these personalities because it’s so unusual, or men with these personalities are good at persuasion – that is, manipulating women into liking them.

The ‘I need emotion to feel alive’ theory


This one isn’t exactly a study, but more of a hypothesis. Anyway, the theory goes that women tend to have more feminine energy, which responds to emotion. In comparison, men tend to have more masculine energy, which responds to logic and reason.

For women, this means that the more emotion someone makes them feel, be it positive or negative, excitement or pain, the more pull women feel towards that person. In other words, women feed on emotion to feel alive (so the theory goes). Unfortunately, even though the emotion can be negative, oftentimes, she would rather choose this over someone who doesn’t make her feel anything.

These are just some of the studies and theories that attempt to shed light on the elusive science of attraction. It’s useful to know that biology may influence us to make the choices that we would not rationally make. On the flip side, it does take away some of the romance of falling in love. Choose wisely! You have been warned.


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