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Why bad guys and girls are so sexy – the science

Have you ever been attracted to a guy or girl you knew was bad news? The latest science shows why people with dodgy personalities can be so damn sexy.

‘Exams? Forget it! Come out with me and I’ll show you a good time!’

‘If you look at her again, I swear I’ll kill myself – you know I love you more than anything!’

‘We could just steal that car, jump in and drive away together. You and me, forever!’

Can you imagine yourself falling for any of this kind of stuff? Well, it seems a lot of us do. Wild, extreme, risky people can be very attractive as lovers. More weirdly, it seems that moody, neurotic types are also pretty hot.

Extreme personalities

About 10 per cent of people lie at the extreme end of the personality scale. Certain traits – like being very impulsive or over-anxious – can seriously interfere with day-to-day life. When things get really extreme, it means the person has a personality disorder. That can make things like holding down a steady job, doing well at school, and getting along with family pretty difficult.

But when it comes to attracting a partner, it seems like personality disorders don’t necessarily do you any harm. Past research has already shown that there might be some truth to the idea that we’re attracted to guys and girls with personality traits that are actually bad for us.

So are people with extreme personalities really more attractive? A team of Spanish researchers wanted to find out. They enrolled 959 extreme men and women in their study – all people who were already looking for help because they had a personality disorder.

Rule-breakers and risk-takers

First the researchers quizzed them about what kind personality disorder they had. Then they asked about their love lives. Did they have a lot of flings? How many long-term partners had they been with? Did they have kids?

It turns out that having a personality that’s pretty off the rails can make you attractive as a lover. It’s the risk-takers and rule-breakers we find sexy. Men and women who are impulsive. They might be bad news, but they do a lot better at attracting a partner than the average person.

So why would impulsive behaviour be sexy? Well, one explanation is that a part of our personality that’s bad in one way can be great in another, researcher Fernando Gutiérrez told Scientific American. So although impulsive people can be selfish and rebellious and uncaring, they can also have traits that are actually really cool, like being independent and brave.

But it’s not just impulsive types who do well in romance. The study also found that men with very obsessive personalities – think overachievers and perfectionists with impossibly high standards – also have more long-term partners and are more likely to have kids. Now this does make some sense. The study found that these guys also earn more money. And that can be pretty attractive in a potential mate and father!

Moody is hot?

Now we come to another difficult bunch of people – neurotic women. Moody and anxious types. Surely they are the kind of people guys would rather steer clear of? Well, nope. Yet again, it seems like an extreme personality works as a love-magnet. Women who are neurotic tend to have no trouble attracting a mate. They have more long-term partners, and are more likely to be mothers.

So why? Why on earth would men prefer moody, anxious women for long-term partners? What’s the clever evolutionary explanation? Uh… sorry, there isn’t one. At least not yet. The researchers have no idea! Like so much research, this study raises more questions than it answers. We know extreme personalities are attractive, but more research is needed to find out why.

Source: Seven dimensions of personality pathology are under sexual selection in modern Spain, Evolution and Human Behavior (2015), Vall, G., et al.

This article was originally published on 6 February 2016.

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