What Women Really Love About Bad Boys

April 16, 2010


One of the most common themes in any discussion of relationships is the mystique of the Bad Boy. His ability to make women feel aroused is time-tested. To name just a few who have made women stupid:

  • James Dean
  • James Bond
  • Lenny Kravitz (dated Nicole Kidman)
  • Pete Doherty (long-time heroin addicted bf of Kate Moss)
  • Usher
  • Kevin Federline
  • Tony Soprano
  • Nelly
  • Hugh Grant playing the cad in Bridget Jones
  • Colin Farrell
  • Tucker Max
  • P. Diddy
  • Chuck Bass

Much has been written about the appeal of the Bad Boy. He exudes confidence, plays by his own rules, keeps women guessing. He has an element of mystery about him and an air of the forbidden. Women really don’t intend to bring these men home to meet their parents, and if they did, it’s pretty certain his manners would be rude. He doesn’t care about making a good impression. He’s selfish, and lacks empathy.

Peter Jonason of New Mexico university conducted a study of 200 male college students to determine why narcissists, risk-seekers and liars have not been made extinct due to their undesirable traits. Of course, what he found is that women want self-obsessed, lying psychopaths. Specifically, men with these traits had more sexual partners and a greater desire for short-term hookups.

So what’s up with thug love? Why do women find this collection of unappealing traits attractive? Traditional explanations focus on several popular theories:

  • Confident men are not needy, they don’t seek approval.
  • Bad boys are spontaneous, and live in the moment.
  • Bad boys are “hard to get” in terms of commitment, so women can’t resist the temptation to try and flip them.
  • Women perceive bad boys as emotionally damaged and want to be the key that opens them up to experiencing real intimacy.
  • Bad boys have social proof – they are so good at attracting women that they get new women all the time. Female intrasexual competition is in high gear.

There is truth in all of these statements, but they don’t answer the question WHY? What is it about liars, cheaters and egomaniacs?


Dopamine is the hormone that is called the pleasure chemical. It literally makes us high, in much the same way that cocaine and amphetamines do. We get a rush from it, and once we feel that, we want more. We keep doing the same things again and again, and we get addicted. It’s true for drugs, and it’s true for men too. What triggers dopamine? Risk. One researcher said that women can’t help but crave “an erotic edge of danger,” and it’s the word danger that holds the key to understanding sexual attraction. When women (and men) take risks, they feel a rush of adrenaline, which produces lust, and a rush of dopamine, which produces attraction. This would explain why even imprisoned convicts have women writing to them, and why no girl can resist a guy in a band or on a motorcycle. Even a difficult and brooding personality implies that a guy is headed for trouble, and this produces the rush that gets translated directly as a tingle to the vagina.

All humans respond positively to an increase in dopamine. In fact, a rush of it makes you feel like a rock star. Interestingly, researchers believe it causes anticipatory desire, or “wanting,” rather than consummatory pleasure, or “liking.” This makes a lot of sense. Most young women can relate to being hung up on someone they didn’t even particularly like.

In the risk taker’s brain, researchers report in the Journal of Neuroscience, there appear to be fewer dopamine-inhibiting receptors — meaning that daredevils’ brains are more saturated with the chemical, predisposing them to keep taking risks and chasing the next high: driving too fast, drinking too much, overspending or even taking drugs.

Some interesting facts about dopamine:

  1. Dopamine provides feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement. It is a reward. It’s released by food, sex, drugs and aggression.
  2. Reduced dopamine in the prefrontal cortex is associated with ADD and social anxiety.
  3. Very high dopamine is found is schizophrenics. It’s also found in the manic behavior associated with bipolar disorder, and creates hypersocial and hypersexual behavior. Often people with bipolar disorder are reluctant to take medication, because they don’t want to give up those highs, even though the lows of depression are so painful.
  4. Dopamine is thought to play an important role in creativity, because it increases general arousal and decreases latent inhibition. Imagine decreased inhibitions from alcohol, added to the natural disinhibiting effects of dopamine, and it’s no wonder women make poor choices for short-term gratification.
  5. People with antisocial personality disorders are thought to have dysfunctional dopamine reward systems, causing them to pursue the reward without regard for consequences, no matter how terrible.
  6. Both sexes are vulnerable to the effects of dopamine, which creates some unholy pairings. Men who embrace risk-seeking and novelty are rewarded by the dopamine cycle. They in turn, attract women who share the same propensity. This is especially true in adolescence.

From the article What Makes Teens Tick:

“The sex hormones are especially active in the brain’s emotional center — the limbic system. This creates a “tinderbox of emotions,” says Dr. Ronald Dahl, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh. Not only do feelings reach a flash point more easily, but adolescents tend to seek out situations where they can allow their emotions and passions to run wild. “Adolescents are actively looking for experiences to create intense feelings,” says Dahl. “It’s a very important hint that there is some particular hormone-brain relationship contributing to the appetite for thrills, strong sensations and excitement.”

From an article in the LA Times on Brains in Love:

“Alas, when it comes to choosing mates, smart neurons can make dumb choices. Sure, if the brain’s owner is in her 40s and has been around the block a few times, she might grab her bag and scram. If the guy has reached seasoned middle age, he might think twice about that cleavage-baring temptress. Wisdom — at least a little — does come with experience.

But if the objects of desire are in their 20s, all bets are off. A lot will depend on the influence of Mom and Dad’s marriage, the gossip and urgings of friends, and whether life experience has convinced these two brains that what they’re looking at is attractive. She just might sidle over to Mr. Wrong and bat her eyes. And he could well give in to temptation.”

Men are just as susceptible to women when it comes to feeling attraction during periods of risk or danger. Again, Brains in Love:

“Aron conducted a study in 1974 at the gorgeous but spine-chilling heights of the Capilano Canyon Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, British Columbia — a 5-foot wide, 450-foot, wobbly, swaying length of wooden slats and wire cable suspended 230 feet above rocks and shallow rapids.

His research team waited as unsuspecting men, between ages 18 and 35 and unaccompanied by women, crossed over. About halfway across the bridge, each man ran into an attractive young woman claiming to be doing research on beautiful places. She asked him a few questions and gave him her phone number in case he had follow-up questions.

The experiment was repeated upriver on a bridge that was wide and sturdy and only 10 feet above a small rivulet. The same attractive coed met the men, brandishing the same questionnaire.

The result? Men crossing the scary bridge rated the woman on the Capilano bridge more attractive. And about half the men who met her called her afterward. Only two of 16 men on the stable bridge called.”

That would explain the corollary of Bad Boy susceptibility: Why do men always seem to go for psycho b*tches? Guys say they hate drama, but they always go back for more. Dopamine!

It doesn’t matter where the risk originates. A couple may feel a mutual surge of attraction after riding a roller coaster together, or running out of a burning building together. You have an experience that gets your heart thumping, you look at the person you are with, and you define that feeling as attraction. Dr. Alex Benzer, author of The Tao of Dating, says that you can create opportunities to deliberately increase dopamine:

To evoke those feelings [of attraction], you want to engage in novel, exciting, physically and emotionally arousing activities, and pepper those activities with touch and direct eye-gazing. If you try to do those all at the same time, you may feel overwhelmed and look silly to boot. Better just to know that these are the things that you should be doing, and do them regularly until they are second nature.

I really don’t think it’s necessary to go bungee jumping or skydiving. Being unpredictable and spontaneous can trigger a dopamine rush. Do something new, impulsive, edgy, maybe even something forbidden. This is why people have sex in public! So do it in the stairwell. Go skinny dipping in the apartment pool late at night. Make a meal and eat it naked in bed.

As added insurance, there are also foods that increase dopamine levels:

  • almonds
  • avocados
  • bananas
  • dairy products
  • sesame seeds

Perhaps at some point we’ll be able to pop a dopamine pill that will have us hovering nicely between depressed and schizophrenic, and we’ll be free to choose partners based on traits other than the really bad and scary ones. In the meantime, it’s reassuring to know that experience teaches valuable lessons. As young women mature, most learn via heartbreak or humiliation that the traits of narcissism, risk-seeking and deceit are not conducive to good relationships. Young men with healthy psychological profiles can either wait it out, or work to introduce an erotic edge of danger all their own.