Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

Do Assholes Really Finish First?

What's the allure of the bad boy?

"Roy, if you could maybe put the other perspective of what a women really wants from a man..."

Roy Masters: "Listen, I'll give you a simple answer there. She wants a man not to need her. She wants a man to be so full of love that he doesn't need any from her. You know what happens then? A women will love a man who doesn't need love, so he gets it anyway."

See this guy? Many of us recognize him. He's the classic jerk: narcissistic, selfish, thrill-seeking, and chauvinistic. And he probably just stole your girlfriend. The most recent incarnation of this common archetype takes the form of Tucker Max: self proclaimed asshole. In his own words (taken from his website TuckerMax.com):

"My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. But, I do contribute to humanity in one very important way. I share my adventures with the world."

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Assholes Finish FirstNice guy, huh? Up until recently, his stories have stayed in print format, on his blog and in his collection of stories I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell. On September 25th the movie based on his first book was released. So far, the reviews aren't stunning: Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 24%. His book was a best-seller, so something was clearly lost in translation. But another book has just been released. And the title? Assholes Finish First (at least he's consistent). This is a bold empirical claim Tucker is making here. Is he right? Do assholes really finish first?

The allure of the bad boy has been a mystery to me for a while now, both personally and empirically. Personally, I had a friend in college who is just like Tucker Max. To be sure, he was fun to hang out with. But I was always shocked by how much he got away with, especially with women. And even more shockingly, beautiful women seemed to gravitate toward him. Like a magnet.

Empirically, evidence for the benefits of being bad keep popping up in my datasets and in my literature reviews. I first noticed it in 2006 while I was analyzing a dataset for a presentation I gave at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference that year. While I was doing all sorts of fancy mediation analyses to see how schizotypy, creativity, and mating success were linked, one striking direct path to mating success stood out to me: low agreeableness; the lower the agreeableness, the more sexual partners. Interestingly, this link held only for the men in my sample. When I looked into the literature, I saw others pretty much found the same thing. Daniel Nettle has reported a significant negative correlation between agreeableness and number of sexual partners in a sample of 545 people. And other researchers such as David Schmitt and David Buss have found across cultures a relation between low agreeableness and more infidelity, more sexual partners, and less loyalty to mates.

Bad BoyThings don't stop there. When you branch out and look at all the other traits comprised in the construct "asshole" (I am here and now operationalizing this word!), you see they also do a good job predicting number of sexual partners. Like conscientiousness. In the words of Nettle, "Less conscientious individuals favor immediate opportunities, with little regard for their future consequences. They are impulsive about pleasures and procrastinate about work. In mating, they are more promiscuous, more likely to be unfaithful, and more likely to have impulsive, unsafe sex under the influence of alcohohol or drugs." Tucker Max. Tucker Max. Tucker Max. 

Or take the so-called "dark triad" traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism (manipulativeness), and psychopathy (callousness, lying, thrill-seeking). Peter Jonason found in a sample of over 200 college students that those who who reported higher dark triad traits also reported having more sexual partners and more desire for short-term flings. In the terms of Psychology, the "asshole" consists of the following traits: High Extraversion, Low Neuroticism (perhaps), Low Conscientiousness, Low Agreeableness, High Openness to Experience, and a bit of a dip into the dark triad traits (those with an extreme dark triad profile aren't considered sexually attractive).

So it appears that Tucker Max's bold statement is in fact correct. That is, if you conceptualize winning as racking up a lot of different sexual partners. If your personal definition of winning is finding a high-quality long-term mate and making the relationship work, then research does show there are advantages to being conscientiousness and agreeable (along with other research, my own research bears this out in a large-sample dataset I am currently analyzing). Clearly, the answer to the question posed in this post depends on what you really want out of your life at each point in your life.

After my conference presentation in 2006, I filed my findings away and the paper based on the presentation is still unpublished. My interest in the topic had a resurgence recently though at the latest American Psychological Association Conference. After a talk, I found myself chatting with the great behavioral geneticist Thomas Bouchard and the great Psychology Today editor Matthew Hutson. Bouchard was expressing his utter confusion as to why women's preference for the bad boy still exists in our gene pool. He found this an utter mystery. Why in the world would women want a man whose genes scream "bad", he wondered. Why would a women's genes want to pass on such bad genes to her offspring?

This seemed like the biggest mystery of Bouchard's career (I'm not even going to speculate why Bouchard found this topic so fascinating). Matt responded that perhaps being a jerk is a fitness indicator: those who take-risks and and are bad despite the costs do so because they can afford to. And this is a signal of good genes. I think there is definitely something to this: bad boys tend to have lots of positive traits that come along for the ride of the badness such as good looks, confidence, creativity, humor, charisma, high energy, and good social skills-- all things women find attractive (my research with Glenn Geher and other researchers on Mating Intelligence does suggest that these traits by themselves along with some other skills of the asshole such as mind-reading, self-deception and other-deception can be predictive of number of sexual partners as well as college "hook-up" behaviors). And for the jerk, these traits can mask the shallowness that lies beneath (although the truth almost always eventually comes out).

Daniel Nettle has argued that it's all about mating strategy tradeoffs. Since being good and being bad both have their advantages (and disadvantages) in the mating game, this is enough to keep both traits and the preference for those traits in the gene pool. For example, high conscientiousness can increase trust, fidelity, and parental investment but also can decrease opportunistic matings. Jerks take advantage of every sexual opportunity in sight. Likewise, those high in the related trait agreeableness can increase cooperation, joint investment, sympathy, and fidelity but they too can decrease opportunistic matings and status-seeking. These strategies are fluid across the life-span: the long-time womanizer may decide to finally settle down, and the agreeable nice guy who has been burned one too many times may decide to become a pickup-artist.

Still, I keep going back to Bouchard's point. From a gene-eye perspective, why would female genes want to pass on "evil" genes? Many serial killers have attracted women, even when the women know they are serial killers. There is a lot of sex appeal to Dexter, for instance. But why? Why would the genes want to pass on a proclivity toward being a serial killer? Wouldn't this disadvantage outweigh the other positive traits that could potentially be passed on? We already knew that the mating game isn't logical at a conscious level, but even from an evolutionary, genes-eye perspective it doesn't seem logical!

There is no lack of speculation on the internet as to the allure of the bad boy. One of my favorite articles on the topic comes from the Advice Goddess Amy Alkon. In her article Nice Guys Are From Uranus?, she argues that the opposite of a bad boy is not a nice guy, but an overly-nice guy. According to Alkon "The difference is in the desperation. Nice guys call when they say they will. Overly-nice guys call every 20 minutes...Going out with an overly-nice guy is like being beaten to death with a Hallmark card." 

The women of James BondSo perhaps bad boys aren't so bad after all, they're just not needy. Come to think of it, Dexter doesn't kill innocent babies. He's killing "bad" people, which makes him out to be more of the charming, suave, daring, and confident hero with an edge (think James Bond) than a killer. (Although Charles Manson does stand out to me as someone who killed innocent people and was still attractive to the women in his cult). And some could argue that Tucker Max is just "flirting" with women in a jackass yet playful manner (professional pick-up artists call this "negging"-- seriously, look it up). Perhaps Max's manner of flirting signals confidence and shows he isn't intimidated by beautiful women (which would signal that he has been successful with beautiful women in the past). One could even go so far to say that the type of women who goes for Max's crude chat up lines deserve to be duped by him but I'm not convinced that's reason enough for any women to deserve being treated that way.

Alkon also notes that to get at the allure of the bad boy, you must "open your economics book to page one: 'Supply And Demand.' Bad boys are in demand because they make themselves scarce, thus driving up their value." So the mystery that enshrouds a bad boy can be attractive not only because it's exciting but also because it signals that they are an in demand commodity. 

Michelle at Girlfriends Planet has another perspective:

"But, what is the allure of the bad boy? Let’s start with the obvious. They’re hot, mysterious, spontaneous, and exciting. You never know what you’re going to get, in every facet of this relationship, so it makes it kind of intriguing. But, probably the most important element is that they’re non-committal. That’s right. They don’t really ever commit to you, therefore you’re always chasing after them. The challenge! As women, we’re kind of wired to think that we can change anyone, and bad boys are no exception."

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is real. There are lots of men like Tucker Max out there, and they are attracting lots of women (thought experiment: what would a female version of Tucker Max look like?). Now that the phenomenon is so well documented, both in most every nice guy's personal experiences and in multiple research studies, it's time to really figure out why. We (psychologists) have the tools to go beyond mere speculation. And this is clearly a question of much interest to many people (particularly men but I'm sure women are also fascinated as well). I'm thinking of experiments that isolate one variable at a time to determine just what it is about the bad boy that is attractive.

Perhaps at the end of the day the allure comes down to a few positive traits (e.g., confidence, honest display of sexual intentions with no beating around the bush, creativity, non-neediness, a fun and exciting persona) and mating skills (e.g., cross-sex mind reading). Perhaps all the extra negative traits aren't really necessary to attract women above and beyond the essentials. Maybe lots of men (and women) can learn something from the bad boys, even without going as far as the bad boys in their approach, keeping their dignity and character intact but still gaining the same benefits (and potentially even more benefits, such as relationship success) without, well, being an asshole and hurting other people.  

And I think individual differences play a role here. Alkon puts it well: "Bad boys appeal to three types of women: Thrill-seeker girls, girls who can't commit, and 'Near Zeros' -- girls who aren't operating on a full tank of self-esteem." I did notice that my friend in college kept attracting the same type of attractive women that Tucker Max does--mainly women who fit Alkon's category three. I suspect that being an asshole isn't the only route to short-term mating success--sincerity and kindness no doubt would work for different sorts of women--probably most women. Max's successes with ladies mostly in Alkon's category three may give young men (fraternity boys) the skewed and inaccurate perception that acting like Tucker Max is the only way to get laid and all women secretly want such a man, particularly in a short-term mate. 

I am open to suggestions. Anyone have any cunning research designs? Anyone have any insights to explain this phenomenon? I know I will appreciate it, and so will Thomas Bouchard.

For an illustration of the frustration of a "nice guy's" attempt at seduction, check out this short video written and directed by Justin Khoo and starring Griffin Oleynick as the nice guy and yours truly as the bad boy:

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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