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First Impressions

Beware: On a First Date, Red Flags Can Look Red Hot

Upon first impression, dangerous character traits can be perceived as desirable.

Lucky Business/Shutterstock
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Many people pride themselves on being excellent judges of character. And when it comes to selecting friends or hiring help, they usually make excellent decisions. Yet these same people are often incapable of exercising the same judgment in their romantic lives as they do in their professional lives, and they may end up falling for inappropriate or even dangerous suitors.

How do intelligent people make such disastrous romantic choices?

The Dark Side of Dating

In a study aptly entitled “How Alluring Are Dark Personalities?” (2016), Jauk et al. studied the appeal of the three "Dark Triad" traits — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — in a speed dating scenario.[i] The team defined narcissism as including self-admiration and grandiosity; Machiavellianism as cynical thinking and detached affect and coldness; and psychopathy as callousness, manipulativeness, and antisocial behavior.

The researchers noted that the three Dark Triad traits are linked to successful short-term mating strategies. In their study, narcissism was linked to both short-term and long-term mate appeal, for men and women. This was due to a link between narcissism and appealing traits in men and women including as extraversion and physical beauty.

Regarding psychopathy, Jauk et al. found that for women, psychopathy was linked with short-term relationship mate appeal, although this may have also been due to the individuals' physical attractiveness. In addition, they found that women with psychopathic traits seemed more open to short-term relationships, which could result in their signaling sexual permissiveness, potentially leading more men to choose them for dates based on that factor.

Some personality traits are beyond dark; they are dangerous. Yet even an aggressive predisposition can masquerade as attractive assertiveness on a first date. Consider an example from my work prosecuting domestic violence crimes.

When What Growls Like a Wolf Is a Wolf

"Kyle" makes a strong impression on his first date with "Maria" at an expensive restaurant where he has reserved the best table.[ii] (All names have been changed.) A veteran business executive, he entertains her throughout dinner with stories of his brilliant deal-making ability and boardroom prowess.

Maria is not only impressed by his job, but also by his assertiveness. Not only does he order for both of them and select the wine, but he also he demands that the waiter send back Maria´s steak when it is cooked incorrectly. Maria perceives Kyle's taking charge of the situation as comforting; it demonstrates that he can take care of her needs.

What it also demonstrates, she will come to understand over time, is his need for power and control. If the relationship continues, not only will the perception of care turn into feelings of control, but his perceived protection will be recognized as possessiveness. In retrospect, she will wonder, were these negative traits there all along?

Within abusive relationships:

  • At first, possessive appears protective.
  • Controlling appears comforting.
  • Aggressive appears assertive.
  • Violent appears passionate.
  • Rude appears direct.
  • Condescending appears confident.

From the beginning of the evening, Kyle was focused on controlling his environment. Demonstrating a disregard for social etiquette, he monopolized the conversation, berated the servers, and even dictated Maria's order. While a man ordering for a woman in a restaurant is not terribly unusual, in most cases a man has some indication of his date’s preferences: Is she a vegetarian? A Vegan? Regarding wine, how did Kyle know Maria wasn’t a recovering alcoholic?

Get to Know Before Getting Involved

The fact that dark and dangerous traits can appear desirable upon first impression is one of many reasons to get to know a potential partner better before getting too involved. First dates are all about first impressions, yet they are also the time you should be at your most objective. So become informed before you risk becoming infatuated. Examine a date's behavior, temperament, and suitability early on, to ensure that seemingly desirable qualities are truly as good as they look.

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at

[i] Emanuel Jauk, Aljoscha C. Neubauer, Thomas Mairunteregger, Stephanie Pemp, Katharina P. Sieber, and John F. Rauthmann, “How Alluring Are Dark Personalities? The Dark Triad and Attractiveness in Speed Dating,” European Journal of Personality 30, no. 2 (2016): 125–138.

[ii] This example is an altered vignette from my book Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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