Dissecting the Modern American Male

The Predictably Irrational Behavior of the Modern American Male, Part 2

I present to you, dear readers, the second part of a three part series based on the writings of Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight

Prof. Ariely’s work in decision making and behavioral economics focuses on how people predictably and repeatedly make the wrong decisions in many aspects of their lives.  He is the author of three highly recommended books on the subject, each one a best seller in its own right.

These three posts each address a specific topic in male-female relations, each through the lens of “predictable irrationality”.  Prof. Ariely graciously agreed to help with these posts, and his insights are incorporated throughout.

Part 1 (Why do men date “Bimbos”?) can be found here.

Part 2 – Why are women attracted to unavailable men?

Have you ever heard the expression “The good ones are all either taken or gay”?  Of course you have.  But have you also ever found yourself harboring some sort of attraction to these men, knowing full well that these men are not available?  You engage in a little harmless flirtation with the cute married guy from work.  You smile just a bit more to the guy at the gym who only talks about his girlfriend.

It’s almost as if your actions are involuntary, even though they are totally irrational.  You know the man is unavailable, yet you can’t help yourself.  But why?

Most obviously, just by the fact that he is in a committed relationship sends a clear signal to the world that he is relationship-ready, which is an immediate draw.  But there are other aspects at play in your subconscious that make unavailable men more attractive to single women.

First, there is a simple question of scarcity.  As an item (in this case an attractive male with relationship potential) becomes scarcer, it also becomes more in demand.  Imagine if there is one apple in your local grocery store.  That one single apple becomes a much coveted prize simply because it is the only one left.  Not just that, the quality of the apple could be questionable, but it seems even more attractive simply because there is no other option.

In this case, areas where the single man to single woman ratio is severely skewed (like Memphis, where there are only 4 single guys for every 5 single girls), probably have a higher incidence of women lusting after unavailable guys.

Secondly, unavailability allows women to flirt in a seemingly “safe” environment, without ulterior motives and the looming dread of mismatched sexual expectations.  Everybody loves flirting, and flirting with an unavailable guy at the office or at some networking event seems like harmless fun because you believe it won’t lead to anything tawdry or morally questionable.

In a paper called “Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity is Created Equal” (Psychological Science, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2007), Prof. Ariely, along with his academic collaborators, find another interesting reason why women are attracted to unavailable men.  The paper examines reciprocity, or lack thereof, in attractiveness through the medium of Speed Dating.

Speed Dating is an excellent source for behavior studies because it is a (generally) self-contained environment with lots of interesting data points.  Ariely and his co-authors crunch some numbers and arrive at an interesting talking point:

“These results suggest that romantic desire comes in two distinct ‘‘flavors’’ depending on whether it is exhibited uniquely toward a particular individual (with positive reciprocal effects) or toward individuals in general (with negative reciprocal effects).

…In fact, the need to feel special or unique could be a broad motivation that stretches across people’s social lives. The importance of this need is certainly pronounced in established intimate relationships and friendships (Finkenauer, Engels, Branje, & Meeus, 2004; Kelley et al., 2003); the present study permits the additional conjecture that the need to feel special plays a central role even within the first few moments of a romantic encounter.”  (I have added emphasis)

How is this relevant?

We all like to feel special; we respond to it on a subconscious level.  You feel special by small things like someone actually listening to you or showing interest in your wellbeing.  Even when someone asks you the simple question of “How are you?” instead of giving you some trite monologue about how hard it was for them to find parking at the Whole Foods in West Hollywood.

My theory is that unavailable men are much more likely to make you feel special than single men.  Single men don’t make you feel special, they make you feel like you are being hit on.  But because unavailable men are not hitting on you, they are the ones who are much more likely to show interest in your life.  Think about it: The married guy you flirt with is so nice and friendly and genuinely interested in what you have to say because he’s married and his interaction with you isn’t tainted with sexual undertones.

And here is the irony:  It is exactly this interaction that makes you more attracted to him on a subconscious level in the first place.

In summary, beyond the surface level reasons of signaling, scarcity, and “safety”, there is a deeper subconscious pull to unavailable men:  Unavailable men treat you the way you hope single men would treat you!


Tune in next time when we explore what happens when this seemingly harmless flirting slips into something more serious.

Married Men T Shirt image via Fooyoh