Science of Bad Boys …

So, recently I came across this article at Salon that claims to have scientifically settled the question of whether women go for nice guys or bad boys. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the science is … dubious, to say the least.

Anyway, the article is aimed at being a response to another study:

The research it refers to is a study published earlier this year, which suggested that some men smoke and drink because this makes them more attractive short-term partners.

They take a quick stab a criticizing it:

Leaving aside the obvious point that the article is conflating “bad” with drinking and smoking (as Girl on the Net writes, “badness” is really a lot more than just smoking 20 a day or drinking like there’s no tomorrow) …

There are two issues here, issues that will carry on throughout the article. First, what we have to compare is the “bad boyness” of men who smoke and drink versus those who don’t. The latter are definitely seen as being less bad, and not in a good way. They’re seen as being uptight and rigid, and not a lot of fun, which might be what drives the “bad boy” vs “nice guy” dichotomy in the first place (if it exists). Second, this is about image, not reality. In order to have success, especially in short-term relationships, the image you present is more important than how you actually are. Even for some longer-term relationships, presenting the right image off the top gets your foot in the door, and it’s only from there that you can present the real you to build a full and proper relationship. So if that image is more “bad” than the alternative, and that image does lead them to have more success than the alternative image, we have some evidence that something about the image attracts women more than the alternative.

So what science does the article muster to oppose this idea? Well, they list a number of studies that purport to show this. Let me just quote all of them so that we can see them as one solid block:

One way to investigate the issue is to present women with hypothetical men with different personality types and see which ones they prefer. In one such study, participants had to help a fictional character named Susan choose a date from three male contestants, based on their answers to her questions. In one version, the man was nice – he was in touch with his feelings, caring and kind. In another, he was a self-described “real man” who was insensitive and unkind. The third contestant simply gave neutral answers.

So which contestant did participants think Susan should date and who did they prefer to date themselves? Contrary to the stereotype that nice guys finish last, it was actually the nice contestant that was chosen most frequently for both Susan and for participants themselves.

In another study, participants who read dating ads in which people described themselves as altruistic (“I volunteer at the food bank”) were rated as more attractive short-term dates and long-term partners than those who didn’t mention such qualities. Other studies have similarly shown that women prefer men who are sensitive, confident and easy-going, and that very few (if any) women want to date a man who is aggressive or demanding. The picture that emerges is clear: when women rate hypothetical partners, they clearly prefer “nice” men.

The problem right here is that these studies don’t really get what the theory of bad boy preference really says. Colloquially, it says that while women may say that they prefer nice guys to bad boys, when they actually choose who to date it’s always the bad boys that they choose. In more formal terms, this means that when women consciously assess who they’d rather date, they choose the nice guy, but subconsciously they prefer — and/or end up with — the “bad boys”. One of the things that is commonly encountered in dating that might reflect this is the idea of chemistry: women might say that they prefer nice guys, and may even accept initial dates with them, but may discover that there’s no “spark” there, which might be an indication of incompatibility … or it might be an indication of a lack of underlying attraction.

So then note that all of the studies above pretty much ask women to select based on their conscious perceptions. Even if we ignore that in formal situations people often respond in a more considered manner than they would otherwise, all of the studies here ask them to consciously assess if the person is attractive or not. They also leave the actual presented image out of the picture entirely, by asking them to judge them based on their words and not on their presented image. So these studies can’t refute the theory because all they do is confirm the first part of it: when women are asked what they want, they say they want nice guys and don’t want those who are aggressive and demanding. What they actually choose when given the choice, however, doesn’t have to be that … and the theory asserts that it isn’t.

The key seems to be the idea that women want confident men, but don’t want men that are aggressive and demanding. This presumes that men who are aggressive and demanding aren’t seen as being more confident than the alternative. If they are, then those behaviours will trigger “confident” rather than “aggressive”, and by the time the women realize that they are really more aggressive than confident they may already have an emotional attachment to them, and so find it hard to end it. If true, what this means is that women, if they want better partners, need to suppress their “natural” assessments of what makes a man confident, and instead look for real indicators of that.

Regardless, these studies don’t demonstrate that women really prefer nice guys to bad boys if given a choice. They only demonstrate that, when they engage their conscious minds, women choose nice guys … but dating and love are things that generally are not decided by conscious reasoning. The studies need to show that subconsciously women still choose nice guys over bad boys, which is what the anecdotal evidence is arguing is not the case. So, no, science hasn’t at all settled this yet … at least not in favour of the idea that women prefer nice guys.

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