Are women predisposed to find men with dark personalities attractive? Although conventional wisdom maintains that women should beware of men who say and do the right thing with too much ease, they often can't help but find them utterly appealing. Now, a study led by Gregory Louis Carter of the University of Durham provides new insights into this vexing phenomenon.
Research has revealed that more men than women possess the Dark Triad personality traits of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellism. The hallmarks of narcissism include dominance, a sense of entitlement, and a grandiose self-view. Studies overwhelmingly show that narcissism is greater in men, even across cultures. Moreover, it is believed that narcissism may advance short-term mating in men, as it involves “a willingness and ability to compete with one’s own sex, and to repel mates shortly after intercourse.” In line with these capabilities, the authors note, narcissists are adept at beginning new relationships, and identifying multiple mating opportunities. They are also less monogamous.
Psychopathy is comprised of callousness, a lack of empathy, and antisocial, erratic behavior. It also lends itself to success in short-term mating, through a moral deficit and interpersonal hostility. Psychopaths have also been found to exhibit superficial charm, deceit, and a sexually-exploitative interpersonal stance.
Machiavellianism is comprised of duplicity, insincerity and extraversion. The manipulative, coercive, and opportunistic ways of these individuals are also advantageous in short-term mating; studies do reveal that Machiavellians have been found to be more promiscuous.
Indeed, research has established that Dark Triad men demonstrate more sexual success by comparison to their peers. However, Carter and his colleagues point out that virtually all of these studies have used self-report data. In other words, the Dark Triad men participating in these studies have been describing themselves as having more sexual prowess. Given this one-sided view, the researchers wondered whether women would find Dark Triad men more attractive.
In order to investigate this question, Carter and his team presented 128 female undergraduates with the descriptions of two types of male characters: Dark Triads and controls. The high Dark Triad self- description encompassed traits from the "Dirty Dozen" measure, which includes: a desire for attention, admiration, favors, and prestige; the manipulation, exploitation, deceit and flattery of others; a lack of remorse, morality concerns and sensitivity, and cynicism. (The ‘Dirty Dozen’ is a condensed version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Mach-IV, and Psychopathy Scale-III). The control self-description purposefully matched the high Dark Triad description, but it dropped out the dark personality traits.
After being presented with one of these two characters, the participants answered questions along a six-point scale about the attractiveness of the individual's personality (they also rated the characters for the Big Five personality traits, which is beyond the scope of this post). In addition, factors known to influence attractiveness ratings, such as wealth and education level, were omitted in order to reduce the possibility of bias. The investigators then ran their analyses.
What did Carter and his colleagues find? Women found the Dark Triad personality more attractive than the control. This result is in keeping with previous studies in which Dark Triad men reported their increased level of sexual success.
What might explain this result? Carter and his colleagues offer two possible explanations. First, sexual selection might be at work. This would mean that women are responding to signals of “male quality” when it comes to reproduction. And with respect to short-term mating, women may be drawn to ‘bad boys’, who demonstrate confidence, stubbornness, and risk-taking tendencies. Second, sexual conflict may be at play. The investigators state that “Women may be responding to DT men’s ability to ‘sell themselves’; a useful tactic in a co-evolutionary ‘arms race’ in which men convince women to pursue the former’s preferred sexual strategy.” They note that like a “used-car dealer,” Dark Triad men may be effective charmers and manipulators, furthering their success at short-term mating. The authors are also careful to note that though women rated the DT character as comparatively more attractive, it does not necessarily mean that they would have sex with them.
Carter and his team report the limitations of the study, including that the participants were undergraduates, a population that tends to be oriented towards short-term relationships. In addition, the Dark Triad character embodied all of the descriptors of the “Dirty Dozen” measure, while the control character had none. In the real world, the investigators acknowledge that both Dark Triad traits and their derivatives run along a continuum, which was not captured in this study.
This study is part of a growing body of research unveiling women's dueling desires. On the one hand, they express wanting a relationship with a loving and committed partner for the long-term. Yet on the other hand, they demonstrate an attraction to men with darker personalities, typically for the short-term. It is important to recognize, however, that this dynamic has been shaped by the demands of evolution. For the women who fall for bad boys—and the men who love them—these insights may help untangle this paradox.
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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.