Good Guys Finish Last? Not So Fast…

In looking for a mate, 'cads' and 'dads' are competing in different races

Posted Jun 15, 2015

Pixabay, under CC0 Public Domain.
'Cad' or 'Dad'?
Source: Pixabay, under CC0 Public Domain.

When it comes to sex and relationship, men and women often confuse, confound, and complain about each other.

“Good guys finish last,” goes the familiar lament of many ‘good’ (kind, considerate) men, who believe women prefer ‘bad’ (selfish, aggressive) guys.

“All the good guys are taken,” goes the familiar lament of many (kind, considerate) women, tired of the disappointments they suffer repeatedly at the hands of these ‘bad’ guys.

So, which is it?

The answer depends, in part, on whether you listen to what people say or watch what they actually do. People’s conscious sense of themselves, their self-perception, tends to be positive, even self-congratulatory. Nobody thinks he’s the bad guy. However, research has shown that such self-perception (and the self-report that goes along with it) can be startlingly different from actual behavior, which is often expedient and unconsciously motivated.

For example, while the preference for physical attractiveness in a mate is consistently found to be greater for men, research has shown that this gap between men and women is much smaller in studies that measured actual behavior compared to those measuring self-report. In other words, women, in their behavior, value physical attractiveness in a mate more highly than they say (or realize). 

One reason for the gap between self-perception/report and action is that talking long term is easier than acting long term. Our brains are wired to privilege the short-term action. If I offer you $100 now or $120 next year, you’ll take the former, even though it’s less money (and even though you perceive yourself as a reasonable person). The fact that the lower amount is closer in time makes it that much more appealing.

Thus, while I may be out shopping for healthy foods with a goal of achieving long term health, the candy bar right there at the checkout counter is cheap and awfully tempting right now: More often than I’d like, I end up cheating on my good guy diet with the bad boy snack. Similarly, in my mind (and my self-report to researchers), I may be out looking for a long-term relationship with a kind, reliable, sensitive partner, but when a fast, hot bod materializes in front of me, it looks awfully tasty right now…

We all talk the dignified talk, but our walk is often the “walk of shame…”

Still, research into heterosexual mate preferences and strategies has documented several pervasive patterns in both males and females.

Studies have revealed, in this context, two basic types of men. The first group, known in the literature as ‘cads,’ prefers a short-term mating strategy marked by having multiple, less committed sexual partners. These men tend to be more physically attractive and socially dominant. They are also more likely to be manipulative, unfaithful, and narcissistic.

Other men, known as ‘dads,’ adopt a long-term mating strategy associated with having fewer, more committed relationship partners. These men tend to be less physically attractive, charismatic, and dominant, but more agreeable, warm, and faithful. 

These categories sometimes overlap, of course. Human beings, you may have noticed already, are messy and complex, and pure types are rare. Many men may in fact persistently exhibit a mixture of cad and dad traits. Moreover, human behavior is strongly influenced by situational conditions. Thus, some dads may turn into cads in certain situations, and vice versa. Finally, people change over time. A geeky dad may in his later years pick up game, gain confidence, improve his looks, and develop enough narcissistic self regard to turn into a cad. Conversely, a caddish youngster may become exhausted over time, lose his looks and testosterone, or experience a spiritual crisis in middle age and opt for the caring dad track.

Young women’s mate preferences have also been shown to vary quite predictably along at least two key parameters: the type of relationship that is sought (long term or short) and the time of the month (during ovulation or not).

Regarding type of relationship, research has shown that women tend to prefer cads over dads for short term relationships. Cads are good-looking, exciting, sexually vigorous, and game—perfect candidates for the hot, casual hookup.

For long-term relationships, however, women’s preferences tend to reverse, and qualities like warmth, stability and loyalty become more important in the calculus. 

Evidence has also been accumulating in the last few decades that while male sexual preferences are stable and consistent day to day, female sexual preferences vary, often unconsciously, depending on the phase of their menstrual cycle. Specifically, women in the fertile part of their cycle tend to shift their interests toward more caddish, testosterone-heavy men. 

From an evolutionary perspective, this shift makes sense as a strategy for poaching good genes from the studly ‘cad’ without losing the long-term security and support of the good provider ‘dad.’ Similar strategies have been documented in other primates as well.

Kristina M. Durante of The University of Texas at San Antonio and her colleagues recently found that this change in preference is enabled in part by a change in perception. Using both college-age and community-based samples in three separate studies, the authors showed that, “ovulating women perceive charismatic and physically attractive men, but not reliable and nice men, as more committed partners and more devoted future fathers.” 

In other words, hormonal changes work their magic by warping perception through changed brain processes.

These kinds of findings appear to lend credence to men’s common lamentation that women are capricious and unpredictable. However, it would be useful in this context to remember that: a) hormones are but one of many factors that shape our behavior and are usually not the central or decisive one; b) the interaction between men and women in the sexual and relationship marketplace is notably asymmetrical. In general, women invest more and risk more in such encounters.

Biologically, a woman must invest much more time, energy and risk in bringing a child into the world than a man. Physiologically, she is smaller and less muscular, thus at more risk of harm. Socially, her reputation is more vulnerable, thanks to the continuing double standard by which the number of partners/social status correlation is positive for males and negative for females in many cultures.

Given the asymmetry that undergirds their exchanges, it’s quite predictable that men and women would respond differently to similar situations in the mating game. It’s no surprise either that women’s responses will often be more cautious and nuanced.

And they are.

One pertinent example for our purpose is recent work by the Israeli researcher Gurit Birnbaum and her colleagues which suggested that women and men differ in how they evaluate a potential date’s responsiveness. Men perceived a ‘nice’ responsive and attentive woman as more feminine, hence more attractive and a better potential partner. Women, for their part, did not view the responsive man as more masculine or attractive.

The inherent asymmetry of the male-female encounter and the fact that responsiveness may not feature highly in women’s idea of what constitutes ‘manliness’ may help explain why women’s responses to male ‘niceness’ are (in this study and in real life) not straightforward.

Sure, some appreciate a nice guy for being both ‘nice’ and ‘a guy’; yet some may suspect that the ‘niceness’ is typical ‘guy dishonesty’—a strategy to lure them in, while others may see the ‘niceness’ as undermining the ‘guy’ part altogether, and thus an initial turnoff.

Much of course is yet to be learned about how men and women negotiate sex and relationships. For now, a good working answer as to whether good guys finish last, and whether all the good guys are really taken is, “It depends.” To the extent that finding love (and sex) is a race, it is not one event, but a series of different heats that may each require different strategies and skillsets to win. And as they say about races, “You can’t win ‘em all…”