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Is Badness Attractive?

A discussion of the old saw that nice guys finish last.

Key points

  • It is often believed that women are attracted to "bad boys."
  • It is possible for moral and aesthetic values to pull in opposite directions.
  • Overall, evidence of an aesthetic appeal to moral depravity is slim.

There is a trope in popular culture: Women, it is said, like “bad boys.” “Bad girls,” too, are thought attractive, at least as short-term partners, but one rarely hears women say that they were overlooked as potential dates on account of being “nice.” By contrast, one hears men say that they were overlooked for just such reasons. Nice guys, this story goes, finish last.

It is the basis of these tropes that interests me here. Is there any evidence that badness is seen as attractive?

I should note first that it is certainly possible that the answer is "yes." Moral and aesthetic values can pull in opposite directions. Fiction writers know this well, which is why fiction is full of likable villains. But what we enjoy or approve of in fiction is often quite different from what we would like in real life. Thus, we may be rooting for a character who is about to commit a revenge murder, but that doesn’t mean we’d approve of real people taking the law into their own hands in this way. (Just why it is that our moral compasses point in different directions when we evaluate fictional characters in contrast with real people is a very interesting question that I leave for another occasion.) Is moral badness—the actual baseness and immorality of real people—perceived as attractive?

 Nikita Kravchuk/Pexels
Man in the dark, smoking.
Source: Nikita Kravchuk/Pexels

Those who wish to answer in the affirmative may point to such cases as those of notorious serial killers Richard Ramirez and Ted Bundy who famously had female fans, women who sent them letters and attended their court hearings. Both Ramirez and Bundy got married while in prison. Author Elizabeth Wollett describes several incidents of this sort in detail in her book The Love of a Bad Man. Such stories are certainly fascinating. But do they provide evidence of the aesthetic appeal of moral wickedness? Hardly. This is for several reasons.

First, Ramirez and Bundy may have been perceived as attractive despite rather than because of the crimes they committed. After all, not any and every criminal gets fan mail. The fact is that we simply don’t know how they would have fared in the dating game had they been better people who looked and sounded exactly the way Bundy and Ramirez did. It is quite possible that then, they would have been seen as even more desirable or as desirable by a greater number of women.

Second, the most nefarious reprobates sometimes behave well with a small number of people. (In all likelihood, Hitler was very kind to Eva Braun.) One of those whom the wicked treat well may be precisely their romantic interest. This is important because, as I argue elsewhere, we all have a tendency to privilege our own interactions with a person in drawing conclusions about that person’s character. If someone is good to us, we think he or she really is a good person no matter how they behave with others. That may be just what happened with the women who married Bundy and Ramirez.

Relatedly, it could be that many of the women attracted to Ramirez, Bundy, and their ilk believed those men to be innocent. That would be unsurprising as we have a general tendency to project desirable qualities onto a person we are attracted to and to reject evidence of negative ones. It’s not that badness is seen as beautiful, rather, beauty is seen as good.

This type of projection is easier to maintain in case our own experience with another is positive while the information about negative traits is based on second-hand reports. If there was nothing in what the women in question observed directly that would indicate the depths of baseness those men could sink to, the fantasy may not have been a difficult one to maintain.

Projection of positive traits can only continue for so long in the event we ourselves become the victims of another’s callousness and unscrupulousness. But note: it is not that people in general, or a significant portion of them, want to be with someone who is cruel or exploitative. Rather, we may end up with a person who has those traits, because it takes us a while to see a person we are otherwise attracted to for who he or she is.

In addition, some may have a desire to be the one to reform—morally—another, to act as the other’s moral savior, so to speak. I don’t know how common this impulse is, but it exists. Yet in such cases, it is not the badness itself that’s attractive but the opportunity it provides. It seems to give us a chance to prove to ourselves that our love has magical properties: that it can cleanse the very soul of another. Here too it is a better version of the other we fall in love with but we fall in love also with what we imagine to be our role in getting an angel out of the mud.

This is not to suggest that no one is ever attracted to criminality while being clear-eyed about it. The term “hybristophilia”—or what is popularly known as "Bonnie and Clyde syndrome"—has been coined to refer to precisely this type of attraction. But given how many millions of people there are, some can be expected to develop very unusual sexual desires. To conclude from the existence of hybristophilia that badness is attractive (or that badness in men is attractive to women) would be like concluding from the existence of necrophilia that dead bodies are. Such paraphilias exist, but they are so rare that you probably won’t ever encounter them in real life.

What, though, of less extreme kinds of badness? Perhaps outright criminality is not attractive but what of ordinary rudeness, meanness, or disloyalty? Could those be appealing, romantically or sexually?

There is one possibility I wish to bring up if only to get it out of the way. Badness may be correlated with other desirable qualities such as self-confidence and independence. This may make it look, at least in some cases, as though badness itself is attractive. But to conclude that would be like saying that because you are willing to endure a 10-hour flight to an exotic destination while you wouldn't spend an hour to go to a drab nearby town, you must really prefer grueling flights. The question is whether badness makes a person more attractive holding everything else constant. Would a person who had the same levels of independence, confidence, and so on but who was good rather than bad be perceived as less attractive?

Those who wish to claim that badness in itself is seen as attractive may point to the alleged success of a practice known as “negging” (from "negative feedback"): making snide remarks, typically by men to women, in an attempt to win the “negged" as a sexual partner. I know of no studies that suggest negging works, but some apparently claim, anecdotally, that they have either used the “technique” successfully or that they fell for it. Suppose those reports are true. What follows?

If negging works, the mechanism has little to do with the putative attractiveness of being rude or mean. Something quite different is likely going on: the “negger” appears insufficiently interested and may therefore be seen by the victim as more valuable. A compliment from a negger may be perceived as worth more than one by a person who showers others with compliments. In much the way we may not be interested in belonging to a club that would have us as members, we may insufficiently appreciate the company of those who value our own company. I would conjecture, however, that it is the kindness of the negger that’s in the end desired, not the impertinence.

I am quite certain also that negging is unlikely to work as a long-term strategy, anyhow. (I have yet to see a happy and successful relationship based on anything other than mutual love and respect.) I would expect the opposite to be true, in fact: the kindness and loyalty of the people we love likely makes them more physically attractive in our eyes than they otherwise would be. There is some evidence that good character traits make even strangers seem more attractive to us.

But perhaps, we can approach the question from the opposite side and ask whether moral goodness tends to be aesthetically displeasing. If it does, and if that happens often enough, that would certainly be indirect evidence of the attractiveness of badness.

I doubt that that’s the case either. One may, of course, be displeased by the moral virtues of one’s arch-nemesis, say, or by those of the Joneses' children when one’s own children show a mean streak—but these cases don't involve unlikability of goodness as goodness; all they show is that our positive response to virtue can, upon occasion, be overridden by more powerful motives.

It is true that sometimes, people have negative reactions toward extreme altruists—those who donate organs to strangers or otherwise help others at a very significant cost to themselves. But if extreme altruists are undesirable as romantic partners, I suspect that this is either because we think altruism toward strangers shows an insufficient commitment to one’s own family and friends—a negative judgment that’s in effect moral and not aesthetic—or because we feel that we ourselves are not good enough in comparison with the altruist, which is an indictment of our own characters, not of the other’s attractiveness.

I conclude that the evidence of the aesthetic appeal of moral depravity or even of garden-variety jerkiness is slim, indeed.

Speaking for myself, the good people I have met all seemed highly likable. The better they were, the more likable I found them. There is a sort of safety one experiences in the presence of a very good person—no fear the other would judge us unfairly, make a big fuss about a minor thing, or react badly in some other way. A good person tends to inspire us to want to be better without making us feel bad about the way we are now. As George Eliot says in Middlemarch:

The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.

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