The femme fatale is a stock character of classic film noir and hard-boiled detective stories — the seductive, fast-talking dame who lures a man into a trap of his own making. By the end of the tale, the man usually finds himself guilty of some hitherto undreamed-of crime, and wondering how he was ever convinced to stray from the path of moral rectitude.
This is all well and good as far as fiction goes, but does a femme fatale hold as much sway in the real world? Can a good guy be turned bad by a sexy dame?
This is a question that occurred to Wen-Bin Chiou, a psychologist at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan. To find out, Chiou brought 74 heterosexual men to the laboratory. The volunteers were first shown photographs of women, which they were asked to rate for sex appeal. Half of the volunteers, selected at random, saw women who had previously been rated as sexy; the other half saw women who had been rated low for sexiness.
Afterward, the men took part in what they were led to believe was an unrelated task. Once they had completed this task, they were each given an envelope containing a reward for participating. The men all expected to receive 120 Taiwanese dollars (about $4). However, an extra $50 coin had been slipped into their envelopes. Would the men return the excess cash?
Well, that depended on which photos the men had been shown: Of the men who had been shown the non-sexy photos, 78 percent returned the coin. But only 54 percent of the men who saw the sexy photos were as honest.
In a second study, Chiou showed another 90 men the same photos. Afterward, the men were given a series of mathematical puzzles to solve. For each puzzle they were able to solve in five minutes, the men were promised $20. After the five minutes had elapsed, the men were asked to count how many puzzles they had solved, and to take their payment from an envelope on their desk. And you guessed it: The men who had ogled the sexy women were more likely to collect more than their fair share. Of all the men who saw the sexy women, 60 percent took a bigger reward than they deserved; of the men who had been shown less sexy women, only 33 percent pilfered extra cash. Men in the low sex-appeal group took an average of $24 more than they should. Men in the high sex-appeal group took $62 more than their due.
Other studies by Chiou show that the effect of seeing sexy women on men’s dishonesty is mediated by self-control: Sexy women cause men to lose self-control, with the result that the men are less able to resist the urge to stuff unearned cash into their pockets. And other research shows that women are not susceptible to the effect: Showing straight women pictures of buff men does not diminish their willpower.
So it seems that Hollywood was right all along. (Did we ever doubt it?) A femme fatale really can make a man abandon his moral compass. But why?
Chiou thinks that the sexy images make men think about sex and the quickest way to get it. A man can’t instantly improve his physical appearance to attract a partner. But women are not just attracted to handsome men: Research has shown over and over again that they also value a man with resources. And acting dishonestly is the easiest way for a man to lay his hands on extra funds. Chiou says:
"Given that dishonesty can serve as a low-cost and convenient shortcut to acquire resources, power, status, and reputation, men with a heightened mating motive may engage in dishonest behaviors to display preferred characteristics to women in order to promote mate attraction."
Because women are less motivated than men to pursue short-term relationships, and because men are not especially attracted to women with surplus resources, we wouldn’t expect that encountering sexy men would make women more dishonest. This may be why the "homme fatale" is no Hollywood staple…
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Chiou, W.-B., Wu, W.-H., & Cheng, W. (in press). Sexy women can tempt men down the road of immorality: Exposure to sexy stimuli leads to increased dishonesty in men. Evolution and Human Behavior.