Why do some women go for the “bad boys”? The empirical support goes to…

And, we could ask equally, why do some men fall in love with them?  I’m think we’ve posted about this question, but I can’t find anything on the blog.  It is hard to believe, but we do not seem to have ever used “scoundrel,” “rascal,” or “rogue.”  (We joked about “scoundrelly.”) And “cad” brought up too many hits to check. perhaps because it is a part of so many words. 

So with a bit of hand waving, I’ll say there seem to me two types of explanation or answer to the opening question.  There’s the very common one that says “there’s something about the women and men who are taken in by these guys.”  And then we need to inquire into how bad that trait or set of traits is that sets the victims up.  Further, the predominance of the literature finding failings specifically in women is the main reason why the post doesn’t address men and “bad girls”. 

And then there is the much less common  (in self-help books) explanation  that locates the cause in the rascals themselves.  And this account has increasing empirical support.   There’s something about them that makes them very attractive to most people.  These scoundrels are narcissists and narcissists tend to be very attractive in the short-term.  

…  narcissists are more popular at first sight because of the cues they produce, which people at first acquaintance can use to “thin-slice” and form an impression of that person without any further information about that person.

[Recent researchers]  investigated four cues which they hypothesized based on prior research (Berscheid & Reis, 1998) would be related to the popularity of narcissists at first sight and why people often describe narcissists as having a “charismatic air”: attractiveness, competence, interpersonal warmth, and humor.

 Further, if you run experiments and have strangers introduce themselves, the narcissists tend to come out highest on the “would like to get to know him/her” entry. 

So that’s it.  The bad boys are narcissists and narcissists tend to be very attractive on first encounter.  They really, really don’t wear well, but at the beginning it’s like you have struck it lucky.  You’ve gotten the prize. 

Of course, the question arises why anyone stays with the narcissist.  My own bet here would be that there are many different reasons.   I started to look on various search engines for some idea of the range of answers, but the academic treatment of narcissism seems to have moved on.  And the forthcoming edition of DSM will eliminate the category, if not the problem.  It is also important to remember that staying with the narcissist may be the safer alternative if he is explosive and violent.


I found out about the research by following links from an interesting article in defense of introversion in the NY Times by Susan Cain.

14 thoughts on “Why do some women go for the “bad boys”? The empirical support goes to…

  1. Why do they stick</i?? Here's my conjecture, from conversation with quite a few women students who were stuck in these relationships. Some idea that they could tamer improve these guys–help them, support them, and make them kinder, gentler people. It’s the same impulse that leads some of them to hook up with guys who are losers.

  2. Men seem to prefer narcissistic women too.

    Maybe it’s because in their amorality, narcisstic people seem to promise us release from our own conscientiousness, seem to promise a life without guilt and that is attractive, isn’t it?

    After all, being concerned about others and being thoughtful is a drag. It’s depressing. The more I think about others, the more my face of woe, of sadness for the fate of humanity, dominates my appearance.

    If I were a carefree rogue, I would simply be more attractive.

  3. I was counseling a woman one time, trying to get her to leave a really nasty drunk boyfriend, and she told me, “I’d rather be beat than be alone.”

    I think that most of the explanations you will hear on this subject will be some variation on this.

  4. I see. So an account has “increasing empirical support” if it is published in some social psychology journal?

  5. Well, for one thing: the term ‘narcissist’ for good reasons is a controversial one, and for good reasons. Also, there are very good reasons to remove the term “Narcissistic personality” as a “personality disorder” from the DSM. One of those reasons is that the term is a vague one that does not help in diagnosing the psychological problems of patients. Another one is the fact that “Narcissism” for a long time was, and for many psychologists still is, said to be a typical disorder of homosexuals (especially homosexual men). This claim has no scientifically convincing foundation whatsoever and, moreover, is both discriminating and misleading.
    For another thing, I can only say that, from my personal experience, I go for rascals because it is incredible fun to make such self-opinionated men submit. It’s fun to chain them to their bed or kitchen stove, and to make them eat their food out of a bowl while they are kneeling at your feet.

  6. This is off topic, but: The article in NYT times you linked to was quite interesting, and may be worth its own thread? It’s about introversion, and the attitude that introversion is something to be medicated, whereas extroversion is closer to, or the measure of, health. (Whereas in fact introversion, just as extroversion, confers various advantages, just different ones.) Here’s why I think it might be interesting for your blog:

    One of the things that the article mentioned is that people in general associate various dimensions of extroversion with competence, and even smartness. Fast and bold talkers are often perceived to be more smart and competent, at least in first-impression evaluations of persons, than slower and shyer people. (Though the article does say that shyness is not just equivalent to introversion. Still, shyness does seem to be one of a cluster of introverted traits (?)) And then it struck me that girls are often encouraged towards more introverted behaviors and traits: the stereotype is that the girl is supposed to be the nice “sitter”, as the article uses the term, whereas boys are often encouraged towards more extroverted, “rover” type activities. Could this expectation/stereotype be part of why women have to fight harder to be perceived as competent and smart at the workplace? Especially if they also have internalized the expected introverted behaviors. And especially if (as the article mentions) so much emphasis at the workplace these days is on being perceived to be constantly busy, a quick thinker and talker, where these are associated both with extroversion and with competence. (These are of course also sometimes falsely associated with competence in philosophy, though philosophy as a profession might be more likely to contain introverts than most other professions.)

    On the other hand, being socially engaged is supposed to be one measure of extroversion, and I’ve often heard the stereotype that women are more socially engaged, including in the workplace. Is there any research on whether females are in fact more likely to introverted than men, or in general expected to be more introverted than men?

    I can also think of all sorts of double binds that women can get to: while introversion may have the price of being perceived as less competent, stepping outside of those introverted or retired behaviors, if they’re expected of women, can rub people the wrong way without them even realizing what is happening… You can be perceived to be too pushy rather than dynamic and assertive, etc.

  7. Anonymous #6, I agree; I’ll try to do something and also quote you.

    Anonymous #4, there are confirming experiments reported in the leading journal in social psychology, and that’s really good grounds for saying it has empirical support. Further, if you read carefully, you’ll see that the discussed research is drawing on earlier research, which suggests there’s a growing body of evidence. You seem doubtful about taking peer reviewed research in a major journal seriously; it is not an infallible guide, but it is the best we’ve got.

    Dominatrix, I am shocked that narcissism and gayness were considered linked. I did learn recently of the theory that paranoia is linked to repressed homosexual desires. I was looking up paranoia since a gay acquaintance, who is totally out, seems to me to be getting paranoid. I know all too many therapists who, once they hold such a theory, are incapable of giving it up. Goodness knows what they’d do with my acquaintance, but I’d bet they’d try to insist that his being out was a way of hiding from his homosexual desires. Ditto having gay sex.

  8. pragmatic realist, actually the post I link to reports finding that a major reason for not leaving a violent man is that that will make it much worse. And I do read often of the boyfriend, former husband, etc., who has hunted her down and killed her and, all too often, her children.

    I wonder if a woman who says she would rather be beaten than alone is describing the core problem, which might be that he’s exhausted any internal reserves she had, or maybe she has the sense that no one would hire her, perhaps she’s experienced abandonment before, etc.

  9. I am shocked that narcissism and gayness were considered linked.

    I believe the idea was that the person loved themselves so much that they wanted to have sexual relations with someone just like them. One wonders what this would predict for narcissistic twins. This theory sounds too dumb to be true, but it’s at least the account I’d heard.

  10. Matt, I see. There is still a problem, I think, since Dominatrix’s comment suggests that the view is that if one is narcissistic, then one is gay. The explanation you mentioned would imply that if one is gay, then one is narcissistic.

    Looking at her post, I see it says that some psychologists still believe this. And I’m still shocked. :(

    SW: I’m not sure narcissists are carefree, though they do try to look it. Why didn’t one’s mother recommend this route to finding a mate?

  11. You’re right. Narcissists are far from care-free. They are full of cares about themselves.

    They are in love with themselves, as children are, and others qua others don’t matter to them.

    Maybe narcissists are attractive for the same reasons that children are attractive.

    There is something terribly “innocent” about the self-centeredness of narcissistic people and that “innocence” is attractive. The “weight” of concern for others does not affect them, as it does not affect most children.

  12. narcissists are IMO only attractive to e.g. people with poor boundaries/healthy boundaries issues.
    an estimated 2-4% of western pop. is considered narcissist of which ca 98% are male.

    what I find confusing/misleading in the linked NYT article is the (continuing) mixing of shyness and introversion.

    my go-to trying to “explain” introversion is Jonathan Rauch/The Atlantic :

  13. It’s risky to try to explain a phenomenon without first being sure it exists or what its characteristics are; if you come up with a plausible-sounding explanation, it tends to reinforce your belief that the phenomenon exists, when it very well might not (or might be something totally different from what your explanation would suggest). The alleged phenomenon of women preferring “bad boys” is one that seems to me to cry out for such further examination, especially since it seems that the claim is most frequently made by whiny, entitled “nice guys” who complain about women ignoring them.

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