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Neanderthink: The Appeal of the Bad Boy

Bad boys will always be with us because they have good genes to spare.

Attraction can make enemies of the brain and the heart. Take Karen, a successful, good-looking 32-year-old woman who wondered why it always took her several months to find out that a guy she liked was a player (or worse). She would become powerfully attracted to certain men, and know instantly upon meeting them that there were sparks.

What she didn't realize, in spite of her friends' chorus of warnings, was that she was attracted to "bad boys." All she knew was that she was drawn to men with a certain swagger and stride. For all their boldness and bravado, she invariably later felt mistreated. "Am I doomed to just love bastards?" she asked me after one too many took command and then took his leave.

Conversely, nice-guy Adam, 40, a businessman, took classes on "picking up chicks," most of which emphasized acting strong and dominant. He tried hard to find the right degree of badness—usually to frustrating effect, because he came across as rude. "I was giving women the neg, which I guess backfired. Maybe women are crazy," he complained after trying out his techniques at several bars.

What's the appeal of the bad boy who gets the girl? Like the peacock's tail, excitement and cockiness can be costly for men, inviting opposition from other men. But such traits are also likely to win him social cachet by advertising that he has fitness to burn. So the answer may be that the scoundrel gets the girl—but not for long. His roguish behavior wins out: Either he moves on, hawking his testosterone-rich genetic wares on the romantic market, or she gets exasperated with his impulsiveness and pulls away.

James Dean, Elvis, 50 Cent—every decade offers an iconic bad boy who gets the girl. The rock stars, the dudes with the smoldering eyes at the bar, the strong, silent types. The template can morph, but the assessment is the same—the guy's got genes that make women weak in the knees, and the power and confidence that signal them.

In its pernicious version, bad becomes really bad, as in psychopathy. The psychopath takes advantage of people's implicit trust, and has evolved a strategy that opportunistically seeks out victims. Even when he's not physically dangerous, a compulsively fun-loving rogue, in love with his own social power, can waste a lot of time, notably a woman's reproductive time, with his unwillingness to commit to one damsel or settle down to raise a family. So, what's so good about being bad?

From a Darwinian point of view, females are the choosier sex, and males compete for their attention. The result of this competition is that men have evolved strategies such as seeking alpha status.

The more likely a relationship is to be fleeting, the more likely a woman is to seek a man with high quality genes. Evolutionary psychologists define "good genes" for men as high-testosterone-fueled masculinity, symmetry, height, and, believe it or not, parasite resistance. Men who are blessed with these qualities tend to be confident and dominant. And able to get away with roguish behavior.

It's not all a positive for them, since they are also more prone to taking risks and getting into fights and accidents. Still, they offer a primal appeal that would have been advantageous in the ancestral setting—fighting skills, passion, lust for the damsel.

"Women intuitively get attracted to brave acts of altruism more than to altruism per se," says Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan, principal author of a study on "dads and cads." "A distinction between long-term and short-term relationships is important for understanding women's partner choices." A love of boldness helps women find strong males as mates. Secretly they harbor the fantasy of turning their genetically gifted cads into loving dads who stick around long-term, long enough to help raise the kids. Think Warren Beatty and Keith Richards; fairy tales sometimes come true.

But wait; don't all women want a kind, understanding guy? Of course; it's just that nice isn't a high-caliber turn-on in the short term, unlike bravado. Says Kruger, "Women want their emotions activated." And audacity grabs attention, even if only in the service of marshaling good genes.

A clue to female psychology emerges in a study examining the cheesy best sellers that set millions of women on a Harlequin high. The male protagonists are invariably studs on steeds who morph into devoted dads by novel's end. That is, the women get the best of both worlds.

When women want it all—great genes, and a reliable breadwinner—the odds of finding satisfaction grow slim. It's human nature to want it all; what man doesn't want a gorgeous young woman who is equally devoted to having sex and washing his car? But it's a slightly elusive proposition, because in reality we have forced choices.

Trade-offs are the stuff of economics, evolution, and, of course, sex. We rarely get it all, or if we do, it won't be for long. That's not so bad, since romantic goals and appreciation evolve as we age. Women, for example, can cavort with cads at little cost when they're young, but may later need to tighten up their standards for what constitutes a good relationship when they feel the urge to raise a family.

Some men grow up and want a family, too. But some stay boys forever. And there are those women who, in their infatuation with cads, endlessly pursue a challenge, telling themselves, "I have to get that guy, he's the only one I want."

Such a scenario sets bad boys up with an open opportunity to take advantage of the best years of a woman's life. But, on some level, she's getting what she wants as well. Her behavior is likely to get her "sexy sons." That is, she may not get the guy for long. But she will pass the good genes into eternity. —Nando Pelusi

The Good, the Bad, and the Rest

Good guys are bewildered by the propensity of women to fall for the bad boys. And good women are indeed drawn to bad boys despite their emotional and sometimes physical unavailability. How, then, to make the mating game work with minimal pain?

  • For Good Guys: Take heart; most women will want a good guy with good prospects (a stable job and lifestyle) eventually. Don't try to "act bad," since you'll come across as rude, a rube, or worse. Instead, work on being independent and assertive, and allowing spontaneity into your repartee. Discover your connection with someone in visceral, not just cerebral, ways.
  • For Bad Boys: You don't need my advice—unless you want to have a great long-term relationship. Then you must learn to open up to the joys of committing—and they do exist.
  • For women: Know what you really want, and accept the trade-off between your hot date and your simmering mate. Neither is right or wrong for you as long as you know what you're getting into. If you feel endangered or irritated by a man's compulsive and impulsive behaviors, get out immediately.