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A scientific explanation for why we are drawn to narcissists & psychopaths

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
posted by Douglas Keene

Many people, women in particular, go through phases of being drawn to narcissistic men. Most of us learn and move on to less taxing, untrustworthy and unpleasant partners. Popularly, this is known as being attracted to “bad boys”. And now we know why it happens. And, quite predictably, it’s all about a social veneer or facade.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis looked at the relationship between what are called the “dark triad” traits of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism, and the individual ability to enhance physical appearance.

To do this, they asked male and female research participants to appear for the research project and they were then photographed as they typically presented themselves. Following the initial photograph, men and women participants both changed into gray sweatpants and a gray t-shirt. Women removed makeup (presumably, men with makeup were also asked to remove it), men shaved their beards (in return for extra credit for their psychology course!) and anyone with long hair was instructed to put their hair in a ponytail using a plain rubber band and not a scrunchy or ponytail elastic. They took off “accessories” including eyeglasses and jewelry. Then a second photo was taken. The photos (before and after) were rated for attractiveness by a group of strangers. (The first photo was a full body shot and the second was a full body shot that ended right above the eyes in an attempt to keep hairstyle from entering into perceptions of attractiveness.)

Then the fresh-scrubbed, clean-shaven and identically dressed research participants were asked to complete questionnaires that measured their tendencies toward dark triad personality traits. They were also asked to provide up to 10 email addresses of friends so the friends could also rate them on these same (unattractive) attributes. (This seems like an awful lot to go through for a few extra credit points on your psychology course!) The researchers combined the scores obtained by self-ratings and friend-ratings to obtain a “dark triad score”.

And here is what they found (although we bet you can guess):

The “dark triad score” was statistically positively correlated with the clothes and makeup ratings of attractiveness. That is, the more strangers judged you to be attractive in your own clothing and makeup–the higher your narcissistic, psychopathic and machiavellian tendencies. (Of the three dark triad traits, psychopathy was most strongly related to ratings of attractiveness when participants were in their own clothes and accessories.)

But! The “dark triad score” was unrelated to how attractive you were judged to be when stripped of makeup and accessories and forced to dress in low-key clothing like everyone else.

The researchers conclude that those participants higher in “dark triad scores” were better at enhancing their appearance through clothes and makeup. It is a veneer of attractiveness that doesn’t last once you see what’s really lurking under the surface. An alternative view would be that people with dark triad traits intuit that certain styles will enhance their attractiveness in certain directions, and they accentuate it. What is more interesting to me is that people can see it at a glance. But when people get past the veneer (maybe after the third date) the attractiveness is gone and what is left is the character traits, which might be less of a thrill.

We worked a family law case a few years ago that was a dispute between a very wealthy, attractive, but socially uncomfortable woman and her estranged, not wealthy but very socially comfortable and narcissistic spouse. The husband made a terrific initial impression and the wife made a very awkward and uncomfortable initial impression.

It wasn’t enough to simply work with her to prepare her for testimony. Information about her shyness and good parenting skills had to be carefully woven into the case narrative so that by the time jurors heard her testify, they were prepared to interpret her behavior as due to shyness rather than snobbishness or coldness. (It should also be noted that very attractive people who are shy are more likely to be viewed as snobby than less attractive shy people. We await the research on that, but we know it’s true.)

It’s an important lesson when you have a client who really is sympathetic but doesn’t present well. And this research tells us why so many of us are drawn to “bad boys” initially and then recoil as we see what is truly lurking beneath the surface. It’s also a good reminder to all of us to look beyond style for substance when we find ourselves unaccountably drawn to a new acquaintance.

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Thanks! Doug and Rita***

Holtzman, N., & Strube, M. (2012). People With Dark Personalities Tend to Create a Physically Attractive Veneer Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612461284


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