or every horrific, unattractive portrayal of a serial killer in Hollywood (think Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween), there is another type. The sexy psychopath. Think Christian Bale in American Psycho or Michael C. Hall in Dexter.
As it turns out, this Hollywood idea of the “attractive psychopath” may not be far off from reality. Many real-world psychopaths are perceived by others (especially women) to be sexy, charming, and alluring. Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez (aka The Night Stalker) are obvious examples—both met and married women during their incarceration. But these two serial killers aren’t alone. Imprisoned male psychopaths often receive love letters and marriage proposals from their female fans.
So is this just a case of women liking “bad boys” or is there a deeper psychological process going on here?
To get at the root of this issue, two Canadian researchers conducted a study examining if psychopath traits make men appear to be more attractive, desirable mates. To do so, they video-taped 46 male college students who answered questions about their dating preferences (e.g., “What do you like to do on a first date?” or “What qualities do you find important in a relationship?”). After the interview, each man completed a battery of tests designed to measure his personality (including psychopathic traits) and social intelligence.
In the next phase of the study, the researchers recruited 108 female college students to view the videos and rate each man in terms of his attractiveness and social intelligence. In the end, women tended to favor the psychopathic guys over the non-psychopathic guys (even after controlling for the men’s physical attractiveness). Men who scored higher in psychopathic traits were viewed by women as more socially intelligent and more sexually attractive.
Unfortunately, these researchers did not assess male perceptions of female psychopaths, which speaks to a larger issue regarding a lack of research on female psychopaths (see my article How to Spot a Female Psychopath for a more thorough discussion of this issue). So at this time, we don't know if female psychopaths are perceived to be sexy in the way that male psychopaths are (although Hollywood certainly has its examples, including Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Gone Girl).
What we do know from this study is that in the early phases of romantic dating, psychopathic men have a clear advantage. They come off as confident, charming, and attentive to women, which increases their desirability. Of course, this is all a farce since deep down, psychopaths have little interest in developing social bonds and are often more interested in a “hit it and quit it” approach to sex.
So how can a woman on the dating scene protect herself against this natural inclination? The answer seems to be time. As one of the study authors put it, “The old cliché of getting to know someone well may be one maxim to live by to protect oneself from getting into a relationship with a psychopathic individual.”
If you are immediately charmed by a man, go slow, be cautious, get to know him before you jump into a relationship with them. Because the very thing that you find attractive in the beginning may—occasionally—be the thing that puts you in danger in the long-run.