Head Games

What Freud never knew

Why Do the Wrong Men Feel So Right?

Fertility-related hormones can make bad boys look like devoted dads.

How is it that a woman can take leave of her senses and fall for a bad boy when she should probably know better? It has been well-documented that ovulating women are inclined to be attracted to Mr. Right Now rather than Mr. Right. However, new research reveals that the hormonal changes associated with fertility induce women to believe that players might actually stick around.

In their article “Ovulation Leads Women to Perceive Sexy Cads as Good Dads,” to be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Durante et al. contend that women face a vexing choice between, generally speaking, two types of men. On the one hand, Mr. Good Dad is typically more commitment-oriented, warm, faithful, and reliable. Yet he is usually less handsome, less charismatic, and less dominant than his philandering counterparts. While Mr. Sexy Cad may be better-looking, he also tends to be flashy and exploititative of others. Even worse, such men also display a host of traits that lean toward Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and narcissism.

Naturally, women want the best of both worlds. Given the opposing nature of these qualities, many women will seek “sexy husbands.” These men are the ultimate: handsome, charismatic, faithful, and invested fathers. However, because these ideal mates usually exist in, you know, the movies, many women are forced to make a real-world decision between pursuing long-lasting relationships with men who show paternal instincts or affairs with sexy cads.

Throw in the variable of fertility-related hormones and things get curiouser. Thanks to science, it is now known that what happens to a woman when she is near ovulation has much in common with a bender. Under the sway of hormonal fluctuations, sound thinking and behavior becomes exceedingly challenging as women gear up to mate. Those attractive, charming, and incurably unreliable men become irresistible. Their deep voices, symmetrical and masculine faces, competitiveness, and social dominance have the power to make ovulating women swoon.

But why would a woman set herself up for heartbreak? In a series of studies, the researchers investigated whether ovulation can induce disorted thinking and lead women to believe that a sexy cad could be a devoted father and a potential long-term partner.

At both the high and low points of their fertility cycle, women were randomly assigned to view photographs and biographical profiles of either a “sexy man,” a handsome, adventurous, award-winning skier, or a “reliable man,” an average-looking dependable accountant who had earned several promotions. Participants were then asked to imagine meeting the man in each profile and how much he would contribute to parenting responsibilities, such as feeding, bathing, cooking, and household chores.

What did the researchers find? Indeed, ovulation led women to view bad boys as invested future fathers. This discovery provides some insight into why a woman might cave in to a womanizer's advances. Under the influence of a hormonal cocktail, she perceives that such a man is more reliable than he really is.

In a subsequent study, women at high- versus low-fertility windows interacted via a television with men (professional actors) who played the role of Mr. Sexy Cad or Mr. Good Dad. The cad character behaved in socially dominant, charismatic, and adventurous ways, while also exhibiting unreliability and instability. The reliable dad character behaved in a socially reserved fashion, devoid of charm or adventurousness. He was also explicit about his intention to have a committed relationship and a family. Immediately following the interactions, the women imagined what kind of father each man would make. But the researchers added a twist. They asked the women to estimate how paternally invested each man would be if she was his partner versus if another woman was his partner.

The results at once fascinate and disturb. Ovulating women still believed the smooth operators would be dependable dads. However, they held no such illusions for other women. Thus, this perceptual shift is not completely cracked: “Ovulating women do not believe that sexy cads will make better fathers in general; they will be better fathers only if she is the mother.” Has psychology finally answered the question of how a woman can delude herself into thinking she will be the one to rein in a toxic bachelor?

So what draws women to sexy cads despite their better judgment? As referenced earlier, these men often display greater facial symmetry, masculinity, and social dominance. Such characteristics are thought to be markers of male genetic fitness, which can be in turn passed down to their offspring. Thus, remaining blind to the high costs involved in mating with a man who is likely to desert his child may serve a larger evolutionary purpose: seizing upon his genetic benefits for the sake of future generations. Seeing cads as invested fathers might just give ovulating women the decisive “push” that is required to take the risk and mate with them.

So it happens time and again. A woman professes to wanting a long-term relationship with a nice guy but instead ends up heartbroken by a Lothario. But don't blame her. Blame evolution.


Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at:

drvinitamehta.com and on twitter and Pinterest!

More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults.  She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. 

Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.


Journal Reference:

Durante, K. M., Griskevicius, V., Simpson, J. A., Cantu, S M., & Li, N. P. (in press). Ovulation leads women to perceive sexy cads as good dads. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.


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