In 2009, Peter Jonason and his colleagues published a study showing that college students scoring high on characteristics known as the "dark triad" (Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism and subclinical psychopathy) tended to report having a higher number of sexual partners as well as more of an interest in short-term mating than those scoring lower on the dark triad. The correlation was especially strong among males, leading the researchers to raise the possibility that the dark triad "facilitates an exploitative, short-term mating strategy in men."
The Independent wrote up the study under the provocative headline: "Why women really do love self-obsessed psychopaths." While this certainly is one possible interpretation of the findings, it's important to remember that correlation doesn't equal causation. There could be many factors contributing to the correlation, including the possibility that those who embrace the dark side are more proactive about short-term mating and lower their standards.
In a recent study conducted with 242 college students (108 men, 134 women), Jonason and his colleagues looked at this issue. In addition to completing a battery of personality tests, participants were presented with a number of criteria (social level, creativity, kindness, liveliness and physical attractiveness) and were required to choose their minimum accepted decile (10th percentile, 20th percentile, etc.) for each trait for both a long and short-term mate.
While both sexes had equally high overall standards for long-term mates, men had slightly lower standards than women for short-term mates. Most pertinent to their study, however, was men who were high on the dark triad had even lower standards than men who scored low on the dark triad.
The researchers also looked at correlations among specific components of the dark triad after controlling for the "big five" factors of personality: extraversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness to experience. Even after controlling for these "big five" personality traits, psychopathy was positively correlated with a preference for short-term mates and was negatively correlated with a preference for long-term mates who are kind. The researchers suggest that those scoring high in psychopathy may devalue kindness in a potential long-term mate in order to create a drama-rich environment to satisfy their high need for stimulation, risk-taking and impulsivity (also see "The Dark Triad and Impulsivity").
In terms of narcissism, in the context of short-term mates, even after controlling for the "big five," traits like creativity, kindness and liveliness were all devalued, whereas in the context of long-term mates, traits like liveliness and physical attractiveness were valued. Interestingly, there was a sex difference here, with the correlation between narcissism and a preference for high social standing in a long-term mate only reaching significance among the males in the sample. This provides an intriguing reversal of the usual finding that women, on average, care more about long-term mates having higher social standing than men do. It will be interested to see if this narcissism reversal replicates in further research. Finally, controlling for the big five, Machiavellianism was negatively related with a preference for short-term mates who are creative.
Taken together, the results of this study suggest that dark triad individuals create environments that allow them to facilitate their short-term mating goals by lowering their standards. This study highlights the important role personality plays in the creation and selection of environments. As the researchers note:
By not being particularly choosey, those who are characterized by high rates of the Dark Triad traits may ensure they have ample supply of short-term mates.
The researchers raise the alternative possibility that lowering standards may only be a "Plan B strategy" for dark triad individuals if high standards -- "Plan A" -- don't initially pan out due to their disagreeable personalities. Only future research will be able to tease apart these possibilities.
Either way, I think we now have a much more plausible hypothesis for how bad boys wrack up a high number of sexual partners than the one The Independent put forward. While there's no doubt that dark triad individuals can be extremely charming and attractive at first sight (although they often eventually lose their charm), women most likely are attracted to the superficial charm and confidence rather than the self-obsessed psychopathy. This trio of charm (narcissism), manipulativeness (Machiavellianism) and impulsivity (psychopathy), in combination with an interest in short-term mating, persistence and a willingness to lower standards, helps explains the short-term sexual prowess of those scoring high on the dark triad.
© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman