I frequently receive emails from men repeating a familiar complaint. Why do women always fall for jerks? Why do they always overlook nice guys, like me?
“Nice guys finish last” is a saying so deeply embedded in our culture that many of us accept it without question. But when it comes to dating at least, research shows it isn’t true. Studies of heterosexual women’s dating preferences show that kindness is an asset, not a liability.
In a fascinating study published in the journal Sex Roles, researchers had women play a dating game where they could chose between two men, “Todd” and “Michael.” The women saw the men’s pictures and read the answers that both men gave to various questions. Then they selected which one they preferred.
When conducting their evaluations, every woman in the study saw the same picture and answers depicting Michael, who was presented as a fairly plain man who gave inoffensive middle-of-the-road answers to the questions. But there six different versions of Todd. For half the women, Todd’s picture was very handsome; for the other half his looks were on a par with Michael’s. (Studies like these use surveys to find a rough consensus on which pictures people find attractive.) There were also three different Todd personalities revealed by the answers to the questions—“nice Todd,” “neutral Todd,” and “jerk Todd.”
By examining which versions of Todd the women preferred to Michael, they were able to answer the age-old dating question: what matters more, looks or personality?
Not surprisingly, handsome and nice Todd was the clear winner. All other things being equal, the study revealed that being good-looking provides a distinct advantage when dating. I know—shocker.
But being good-looking was not as important as being nice. When Todd had a nice or neutral personality, women preferred handsome Todd over Michael. When handsome Todd had a jerky personality women were not swayed by good looks; they opted for plain-looking Michael instead. “Being attractive made Todd a more desirable partner when he was nice or neutral, but it was still a huge disadvantage when he was a jerk,” the researchers wrote.
The study revealed some other interesting things about how women perceive niceness. The women also rated “nice Todd” as being more intelligent and more easygoing than Michael. Nice Todd was seen as just as exciting and funny as jerk Todd (though less than neutral Todd). “Generally, the nicer Todd was portrayed, the more desirable he was perceived,” the researchers wrote.
A later study published in Evolutionary Psychology reveals similar findings. In that study, researchers found that women considering men for long-term relationships valued altruism more than physical attractiveness. Women looked at pictures of men with varying degrees of attractiveness alongside scenarios that showed the men behaving altruistically or not. When given the choice between a less attractive man who was altruistic or a more attractive man who wasn’t altruistic, more women chose the nicer, less hot guy. “This suggests that if a man possesses only one of these traits, it is altruism that is more valuable, particularly for LT relationships,” say the authors, who note that the altruism effect didn’t work when women considered short-term relationships.
The upshot: If you’re a man seeking a long-term relationship with a woman, being conventionally good-looking always helps. However, it is less important than being kind. And the great news is, being nice doesn’t require winning any kind of genetic lottery. Kindness is a choice you can always make, a quality you can continue to cultivate and grow.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.