The Predictably Irrational Behaviour Of The Modern American Male – Part One

I present to you, dear readers, the first 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”?

Ask any single guy on the street to describe his ideal woman and you will invariably get the same answer:  Sophisticated, intelligent, beautiful, good sense of humor and so on.

Yet frequently these guys gravitate toward women who are physically attractive but lacking in other departments.   It is as if there is a tradeoff between beauty and brains and for many men, beauty trumps brains.  In other words, the second some hot dumb girl walks into the room, men forget that there are other ingredients besides beauty that are necessary to maintain a legitimate relationship.

It seems to makes no sense why a perfectly decent and sensible guy would want to date someone so vacuous, when subconsciously he probably knows that the “bimbo” isn’t going to maintain his interest in the long run.  To the single women out there, this seems like completely irrational behavior, yet it happens over and over (and over) again.

But why?

There are three factors that possibly explain this irrational behavior.

First, let’s look at these women that are socially defined as “bimbos”, meaning physically attractive but vacuous.  We can assume that these types of women are sending a signal of sexuality, or readiness for sex, to men.  These men, in turn, are not necessarily placing a high value on being vacuous; rather they are placing a high value on sexuality.  In other words, when guys receive an overtly sexual signal from a woman, they start thinking with their loins and not with their heads or hearts.

Secondly, let’s look at the guys.  For any male, having a hot piece of arm candy traipse around the quad with you sends a signal to other men about your virility.  Sometimes this is motivated by competition, sometimes by a need to prove manliness, sometimes to cover up insecurity.  Whatever the reason, guys place a premium on showing off their conquests.

Seems pretty obvious so far, right?

But there is a third, more subtle and significantly more interesting, factor.  In a fascinating paper called “If I’m Not Hot, Are You Hot or Not? Physical-Attractiveness Evaluations and Dating Preferences as a Function of One’s Own Attractiveness” (Psychological Science. Vol. 19, No. 7, 2008), Prof Ariely and his peers examine how a person’s perception of their own physical attractiveness affects their selection of romantic partners.  Furthermore, they ask the question:  When less attractive people accept less attractive mates, are they deluding themselves into thinking that their mates are hotter than they actually are?

I won’t get into a full review of the article, but the authors reach a very interesting conclusion:

“… People of different attractiveness levels do not wear different lenses when judging others’ attractiveness, but instead differ in the importance they place on various desirable attributes in their romantic partners…

…Analysis revealed that participants’ own attractiveness was significantly correlated with their standardized weights for physical attractiveness, but negatively correlated with their standardized weights for sense of humor. Overall, these results suggest that more attractive people and less attractive people consider different criteria in date selection: Less attractive people tend to place less weight on physical attractiveness and greater weight on non-attractiveness-related attributes such as sense of humor.” (I have added emphasis)

So how is this relevant?

The paper shows how hotter guys have a tendency to prefer hotter girls, but more interestingly, they are also more superficial and put a higher premium on looks than on other qualities.  In other words, guys who are more attractive have a higher tendency to date “bimbos” than average looking guys.

So just because a guy is average looking and doesn’t model for Abercrombie, doesn’t mean you should write him off.  In fact, average looking guys are more interested in other qualities, like intelligence, sense of humor, and a good heart, and therefore are probably more interested in finding a serious life partner than just finding some hot girl to flaunt to their boys.