Men with psychopathic traits are more desirable to women, Canadian researchers say
The results have startling implications about the evolution of psychopathy in humans.
Stephen Johnson is a St. Louis-based writer whose work has been published by outlets including PBS Digital Studios, HuffPost, MSN, U.S. News & World Report, Eleven Magazine and The Missourian.
- The researchers asked about 50 male university students to participate in a mock dating scenario.
- Men with more psychopathic traits were seen as significantly more desirable by women who watched videos of the encounters.
- Psychopathic traits may help men to mimic the qualities women are looking for, but it's a short-term strategy that comes at a cost.
Men with psychopathic traits seem to have an easier time attracting women, according to a new study that used an evolutionary psychology framework to examine the relationship between psychopathy and sexuality.
It might seem that psychopaths — individuals whom psychologists describe as parasitic, lacking goals, and incapable of feeling love or remorse — would be uniquely disadvantaged in creating good impressions on women. However, recent research indicates that men with psychopathic traits tend to have more sexual partners, are more likely to act on their sexual fantasies, are more open to short-term sexual affairs, and have sex at earlier ages.
"For instance, clinicians and psychologists working in prison settings have long known that inmates with more psychopathic features tenaciously try (i.e., are preoccupied with sex) and often succeed (i.e., must offer some attractive qualities, even if faked) at seducing prison staff, including clinical staff supposedly equipped with the tools to not be subverted by manipulation and charm that psychopathic men deploy," study author Kristopher Brazil told PsyPost.
The 'sexual exploitation hypothesis'
What it is about psychopathy that sometimes makes the personality disorder advantageous for attracting women? The study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology Science on September 2, suggests that some psychopathic traits help men mimic the qualities that women look for in a mate. This sexual exploitation hypothesis, as the researchers call it, could help explain why psychopathy evolved in humans.
"We wonder if in the landscape of individuals seeking a partner whether there are sexual and romantic 'sneakers' or 'mimics' who display not just a mask of sanity, but an appealing mask that deceptively displays attractive qualities desirable in the marketplace of relationships," the researchers wrote.
The researchers asked 46 male university students in Canada to participate in a video-recorded dating scenario with a female research assistant, who'd start the scenario by asking questions like "What do you like to do on a first date?" and "What do you think is most important in a relationship?"
These male participants also completed assessments that measured psychopathy, social intelligence, and sociosexuality. Then, the researchers asked 108 women to watch videos of the dating scenarios, and to score each man for general attractiveness, sexual attractiveness and confidence — measures that were averaged to determine a general desirability score.
The results showed that male participants who scored high in psychopathy were more likely to be seen as desirable by women, even when the researchers controlled for physical attractiveness. What's more, when women were asked to compare just two men of similar attractiveness, women tended to find the man with psychopathic traits more desirable. Men with psychopathic traits, it seems, are better able to "enact" desirable traits in these brief social encounters.
"Psychopathic men have a personality style that makes them appear attractive to women in dating encounters. This may be because they are extra confident or feel at ease or know exactly what to say to get the attention of women," Brazil told PsyPost.
Desirability ratings from women were most strongly associated with psychopathic lifestyle traits, including disinhibition, lack of responsibility and having a sensation-seeking orientation. The researchers weren't certain why this association emerged, but they suggested:
". . . one possibility is that they make men seem more interesting, exciting, and fun to engage with in conversations. Men exhibiting these traits may be effectively signaling that they are exciting partners and women may be responding with a preference for those traits in a short-term dating context."
From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to attract women long enough to have sex is advantageous, even if it's cold and immoral. The results raise questions over whether psychopathy really is a "disorder." The researchers remark:
"More research needs to be done on this, but whatever the reason, our research shows that psychopathic traits certainly don't seem 'disordered' like dominant clinical approaches assume. There is something in this personality style that may provide individual benefits (not that they don't also have costs), which makes us think it is not a disorder."
Psychopathy and the impossibility of intimacy
A key takeaway from the study is that psychopathic traits likely only help men on a short-term basis. Sure, some psychopaths will appear commitment-focused at the beginning of the relationship, often through a tactic called "love bombing," in which the psychopath showers his partner with flattery, sweet talk, and maintaining constant communication (think "Dirty John"). But eventually, after promises go unmet and the impossibility of intimacy becomes clear, the façade crumbles.
". . . by virtue of being psychopathic, one never really fits in long-term in a social group. Connections to others are tenuous and rarely will someone have your back when it really matters," Brazil told PsyPost, adding that psychopathic people tend not only to cheat on partners, but also get cheated on. "These costs should make it clear that the potential benefits of 'investing' in psychopathic traits as a young man will come with some negative consequences as well."
Though their research suggested "interesting" and "exciting" personalities were more attractive to women, the scientists, in the end, made it clear that their study does not justify or excuse psychopathic behavior.
"This research can be used to promote healthier relationships by prioritizing an understanding of the allure of psychopathy in forming relationships, and points to a need for elucidating the precursors and developmental pathway(s) that give rise to psychopathy in the first place."