Bad Boys: Why they make us feel so good

By Erin Clements

Public Enemies, Michael Mann's much-anticipated summer blockbuster, romanticizes the storied exploits of notorious Depression-era gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp)-including his courtship with loyal paramour Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). Ask any member of the female persuasion and it's not hard to figure out what turned Frechette into Dillinger's gun moll: The brazen bank robber possessed qualities often considered attractive-a cocky swagger, a disregard for authority. And though none of our beaux has ever held up the local Chase, many women today still find men with an appetite for danger-or at the very least, a little old-fashioned bravado (remember when we secretly applauded the punk from elementary school who sassed back the teacher?)-rather alluring.

According to Dr. Theresa Rose, a psychologist who specializes in relationships, women are drawn to "bad boys" because-much like romance itself-they represent something fresh and different. "It strikes a chord with people when there's something new and exciting and dangerous," she says. "And while somebody on the outside looking in might say, 'Why is she with that guy? He's bad news,' it does typically meet a psychological need," one that she says often resonates with something in the subject's past.

Dr. Thomas Miller, a health-and-behavioral psychologist, agrees that the proclivity for "bad boys" often stems from childhood experiences. "I worked for 17 years in a family violence clinic, and I saw a lot of children who experienced verbal, emotional, and physical abuse from fathers, brothers, stepfathers, and neighbors." Daddy issues aside, Miller cites other developmental factors, including hormonal desires for one-stop sex that emerge in adolescence and a fear of failure (settling for Mr. Wrong may take considerably less effort than landing Mr. Right).

While the challenge of attaining a good guy can be daunting, the intimacy associated with a long-term relationship can be far scarier for some. "Girls who go for bad boys tend to avoid deep emotion," says Peter Jonason, a researcher at New Mexico State University. "They shy away from stable guys and are drawn to the more wild-card guys because it allows them to keep themselves at an emotional distance."

Jonason's primary focus, however, is on male mating tendencies. Last summer, he studied the effects of the "dark triad"-narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy-on 200 college students and discovered that men who possessed these traits were more predisposed to seeking casual sexual partners. So, what does that say about the women they lure? "We suspect the issue is that they advertise good genes," Jonason says. "These are dominant men with mucho testosterone, and women are drawn to that type of guy, especially for short-term mating."

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