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Nice Guys or Bad Boys: What Do Women Want?

Do women prefer "dads" or "cads" as partners?

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor

I have previously discussed the confusion around what women want and the dissatisfaction they face in modern dating. I have explained how this creates a double-bind, no-win situation for men as well. Ultimately, this leaves everyone feeling afraid and reluctant to date. The confusion leads to ideas such as "nice guys finish last," the friend zone, and difficulties with male/female friendships too.

Underlying this confusion are the mixed messages sent in modern society. Both men and women are uncertain about what women want. Is it the "nice guy" who treats a woman well, provides for her, and takes care of her needs? Or, is it the "bad boy" who is masculine, sexy, and makes a woman's heart race?

What Women Ideally Want

Women's mate preferences, along these lines, were explored by Buss and Shackelford (2008). The pair gave married individuals questionnaires that assessed both their own value as a mate and their preferences for a mate. Results indicated that women in the study desired men with traits in the following four dimensions:

  • Good Genes – Men who are more masculine, physically attractive, good looking, fit, and high in sex appeal.
  • Good Investment Ability – Men who have high potential income, are educated, and are older than the woman herself.
  • Good Parenting – Men who want a home and children, who are fond of children, who want to raise them well, and are emotionally stable and mature.
  • Good Partner – Men who want to be a loving partner.

Buss and Shackelford also found significant correlations between the women's own physical attractiveness and the levels that they expected of male partners on each of the traits. In other words, as the title of their article indicated, they found that "attractive women want it all." Less attractive women, in contrast, tended to reduce their expectations on all traits across the board, settling for a bit less in each area.

However, the authors hypothesized that depending on the circumstances, some women might employ a mixed-mating strategy. Rather than settling for less-than-ideal traits in one single man, these women would mate with more than one man, to mix-and-match the best traits overall. Usually, this would involve short-term sex (single parenting, cheating, cuckolding, etc.) to get good genes from a fit and masculine man while getting investment and parenting from another man with good resources. Such an arrangement would most likely occur when, 1) the woman was lower in mate value and could not secure a single man high in all traits, and 2) her situation allowed her to mix-and-match without penalty or obstacles.

Thus, women appear to want BOTH the nice guy and bad boy. Ideally, they want to get all of the above in one man. If they cannot find a single man to fit the bill, however, then they might settle for less all around, or mix-and-match between the two types.

Changing Wants Over Time

Additional research by Tifferet and Kruger (2010) suggests that what women want in a partner may change over time too. The researchers surveyed 1,365 women from 11 countries, ranging in age from 14 to 68, about their preferences in a male partner. Specifically, these women were asked to rate how likely they would be to have a long-term, short-term, and brief sexual relationship with depictions of a "hero dad" and "dark cad" type man.

Their results indicated that women generally preferred the "dad" type for a long-term partner and the "cad" for a short-term sexual affair. Compared to younger women, however, older women tended to prefer the "dad" type for all relationship lengths and saw themselves as more investment and long-term relationship focused themselves. Young women, in contrast, were more likely to consider brief sexual affairs, particularly with the cad.

The authors suggest that this effect might be due to changing fertility. Younger women may be more interested than older women in securing "good genes" from attractive men, even if that means a short-term sexual affair. Older women, in contrast, may change focus toward securing good provisioning and resources for herself and any existing children.

Putting it Together

No wonder everyone is confused about what women want! At the heart of it, women want it all—an attractive, masculine man, who also cares, has resources to share, and will take care of kids too. Due to differences in time, preferences for short- or long-term mating, the woman's own appeal, and/or the pool of available men, however, women usually end up compromising on those traits. Other women end up mixing-and-matching among more than one guy. Thus, what women "want" ends up looking like a confusing, moving and changing target—depending on the women you ask and their individual needs at that moment.

Fortunately, there is hope for clarity for both men and women...

For the women. You may not realize it at this moment, but you most likely want all of the above traits in a man. You will most likely prefer it all in a single man, if possible. However, if you are young and single right now, you might feel the pull of sexy cads more acutely for a short-term hook-up. If you are older and have kids, then those dependable dads may catch your eye more.

Nevertheless, if you have the motivation and ability, you might maximize your long-term happiness by first developing your own physical appearance (here), personality (here), and unique appeal as a partner (here). Then, carefully evaluate what you want in a man (here), pick a good boyfriend (here), and have a satisfying relationship (here). This will help you find one single man who has the best total package you can get.

Otherwise, bouncing between getting your heart broken by sexy cads and then trying to secure commitment from older and wary dads can be a difficult process. Unless, of course, you are fine with only having sexy flings or companionate relationships for the rest of your life. In that case, just pick a single type of man and enjoy!

For the men. Again, women want it all. That means the guy who ultimately has his pick is the guy who has it all. They desire a man who has developed his masculine good looks (here), warm personality (here), and unique resources and abilities (here). Of course, that is not attainable for all men. However, the next best thing is to be balanced. In other words, women looking to find it all in one guy would prefer a guy with a bit of each trait over those who are high in one and low in the others.

Given that, if you already have a successful career, you would be better off spending extra time in the gym. If you are already physically fit, then work on your personality and charm. The only exception to this rule is that, if you just want short-term sex, then simply max out your looks, masculinity, and sex appeal. Otherwise, the guy with a bit of balance seems to have the most satisfying long-term relationships.

In any case, just remember to figure out what you want in return (here), find a girlfriend that can meet those needs (here), and get what satisfies you too (here)!

© 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Buss, D. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2008). Attractive women want it all: Good genes, economic investment, parenting proclivities, and emotional commitment. Evolutionary Psychology, 6, 134-146.

Tifferet, S., & Kruger, D. J. (2010). The terminal investment hypothesis and age-related differences in female preference for dads vs. cads. Letters on Evolutionary Behavioral Science, 2, 27-30.

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