"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Some women really do prefer mean guys, research suggests

July 26, 2014
Courtesy of the Society for 
Personality and Social Psychology 
and World Science staff

What your pals told you may be true, guys: at least early in a rela­t­ion­ship, be­ing too nice to a wom­an does­n’t help, and may even back­fire. So sug­gest the re­sults of new re­search.

But while that was found to be the over­all trend, re­sults may vary de­pend­ing on the wom­an.

The three-part study found that where­as men pre­fer more “re­spon­sive” wom­en, wom­en may or may not pre­fer more “re­spon­sive” men. Wom­en’s re­ac­tion to such men was, on av­er­age, mar­gin­ally neg­a­tive. Re­search­ers de­fined “re­spon­sive­ness” as be­ing sup­port­ive of an­oth­er per­son’s needs and goals.

It’s not clear why wom­en re­act this way; “it may not nec­es­sarily have to do with ‘be­ing nice’,” said said Gu­rit Birn­baum of the the In­ter­dis­ci­plinary Cen­ter Her­zliya in Is­ra­el, lead re­searcher in the work, pub­lished in the jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin

She added that wom­en may per­ceive a re­spon­sive strang­er as in­ap­pro­pri­ately nice, pos­sibly as some­one try­ing to win sex­u­al fa­vors, “or ea­ger to please, per­haps even as des­per­ate.” Or, she added, “wom­en may per­ceive a re­spon­sive man as vul­ner­a­ble and less dom­i­nant. Re­gard­less of the rea­sons, per­haps men should slow down if their goal is to in­still sex­u­al de­sire.”

On the oth­er hand, she said, some wom­en “may per­ceive a re­spon­sive strang­er as warm and car­ing and there­fore as a de­sir­a­ble long-term part­ner.” 

The stud­ies sought to find out to what ex­tent “re­spon­sive­ness” might help in land­ing a sec­ond date with some­one.

“Sex­ual de­sire thrives on ris­ing in­ti­ma­cy and be­ing re­spon­sive is one of the best ways to in­still this elu­sive sensa­t­ion over time,” said Birn­baum. But “our find­ings show that this does not nec­es­sarily hold true in an in­i­tial en­coun­ter, be­cause a re­spon­sive po­ten­tial part­ner may con­vey op­po­site mean­ings to dif­fer­ent peo­ple.”

In a first ex­pe­ri­ment, the re­search­ers ex­am­ined wheth­er re­spon­siveness is per­ceived as fem­i­nine or mas­cu­line, and wheth­er men or wom­en per­ceived a re­spon­sive per­son of the op­po­site sex as sex­u­ally de­sir­a­ble. Men who per­ceived fe­male part­ners as more re­spon­sive al­so rat­ed them as more fem­i­nine, and more at­trac­tive. Wom­en on av­er­age showed mar­gin­ally less at­trac­tion to men they per­ceived as re­spon­sive, though they did­n’t rate such men as less mas­cu­line.

Par­ti­ci­pants in a sec­ond ex­pe­ri­ment were asked to in­ter­act with a re­spon­sive or non-re­spon­sive person of the op­po­site sex, and view that person’s pho­to (the same pho­to was giv­en to each par­ti­ci­pant). They were then asked to in­ter­act on­line with this person, and dis­cuss a cur­rent prob­lem in their life. The re­spon­siveness of the vir­tu­al in­di­vid­ual was ma­ni­pu­lated, for ex­am­ple, “You must have gone through a very dif­fi­cult time” as a re­spon­sive re­ply, ver­sus “Does­n’t sound so bad to me” as a non-re­spon­sive re­ply.

Men who in­ter­acted with a re­spon­sive fe­male rat­ed her as more fem­i­nine and as more sex­u­ally at­trac­tive. 

Wom­en are more cau­tious than men when in­ter­pret­ing a strang­er’s ex­pres­sions of re­spon­siveness, Birn­baum said. And their per­cep­tions, seem­ingly un­af­fect­ed by per­ceived re­spon­siveness, may re­flect con­flict­ing trends among dif­fer­ent wom­en.

A third and last study tested wheth­er re­spon­siveness might ac­ti­vate “mo­tiva­t­ional mech­a­nisms” for men that fu­el pur­suit of ei­ther short-term or long-term sex­u­al rela­t­ion­ships. A fe­male part­ner’s ac­tu­al re­spon­siveness led men to per­ceive her as more fem­i­nine, and con­se­quently to feel more sex­u­ally aroused. That, in turn, was linked to both in­creased per­cep­tion of part­ner at­trac­tiveness and great­er de­sire for a long-term rela­t­ion­ship with her.

* * *

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What your pals told you may be true, guys: at least early in a relationship, being too nice to a woman doesn’t help, and may even backfire. So suggest the results of new research. But while was that found to be the overall trend, results may vary depending on the woman. The three-part study found that whereas men prefer more “responsive” women, women may or may not prefer more “responsive” men. And women’s reaction to such men is, on average, marginally negative. Researchers defined “responsiveness” as being supportive of another person’s needs and goals. It’s not clear why women react this way; “it may not necessarily have to do with ‘being nice’,” said said Gurit Birnbaum of the the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, lead researcher in the work, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. She added that women may perceive a responsive stranger as inappropriately nice, possibly as someone trying to win sexual favors, “or eager to please, perhaps even as desperate.” Or, she added, “women may perceive a responsive man as vulnerable and less dominant. Regardless of the reasons, perhaps men should slow down if their goal is to instill sexual desire.” On the other hand, she said, some “women may perceive a responsive stranger as warm and caring and therefore as a desirable long-term partner.” The studies sought to find out to what extent “responsiveness” might help in landing a second date with someone. “Sexual desire thrives on rising intimacy and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time,” said lead researcher Gurit Birnbaum of the the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. But “our findings show that this does not necessarily hold true in an initial encounter, because a responsive potential partner may convey opposite meanings to different people.” In a first experiment, the researchers examined whether responsiveness is perceived as feminine or masculine, and whether men or women perceived a responsive person of the opposite sex as sexually desirable. Men who perceived female partners as more responsive also rated them as more feminine, and more attractive. Women on average showed marginally less attraction to men they perceived as responsive, though they didn’t rate such men as less masculine. Participants in a second experiment were asked to interact with a responsive or non-responsive individual of the opposite sex, and view that individual’s photo (the same photo was given to each participant). They were then asked to interact online with this individual, and discuss a current problem in their life. The responsiveness of the virtual individual was manipulated, for example, “You must have gone through a very difficult time” as a responsive reply, versus “Doesn’t sound so bad to me” as a non-responsive reply. Men who interacted with a responsive female individual rated her as more feminine and as more sexually attractive. Women are more cautious than men when interpreting a stranger’s expressions of responsiveness, Birnbaum said. And their perceptions, seemingly unaffected by perceived responsiveness, may reflect conflicting trends among different women. A third and last study tested whether responsiveness might activate “motivational mechanisms” for men that fuel pursuit of either short-term or long-term sexual relationships. A female partner’s actual responsiveness led men to perceive her as more feminine, and consequently to feel more sexually aroused. That, in turn, was linked to both increased perception of partner attractiveness and greater desire for a long-term relationship with her.