Politics & Policy

Yes, Chicks Dig Jerks

And evolutionary science gives us a good idea why.

During a recent discussion of the Rihanna–Chris Brown case on NPR’s Tell Me More, Arsalan Iftikhar pronounced himself “bumfuzzled” that the singer would continue to associate with a man who, in his evocative description, “didn’t only hit Rihanna, he made her look like Buster Douglas.” I like Mr. Iftikhar, but his clutching at his pearls seemed to me insincere. It is possible that he was in this case unwilling to confront certain ugly truths about human realities, and also possible that he simply never has encountered this particular ugly truth, expressed eloquently by the late Bill Hicks: “Chicks Dig Jerks.

Normally, the NPR demographic is receptive to the wit and wisdom of Bill Hicks (another ugly and seldom-spoken truth: Bill Hicks had neither wit nor wisdom). Not so much in this case. When I shared Hicks’s observation, the host, Michel Martin, said my remark found her “trying to contain violent impulses” of her own. When I attempted to explain to her that there is a significant body of scholarly work on the subject of the relative sexual success of men with certain personality characteristics — aggression, narcissism, manipulativeness: jerkiness, in a word — she dismissed the assertion as being “based on, I don’t know, some novels that you read.”

Unfortunately for me, I read a great deal more social-science literature than fiction these days, and, while I could not pick Rihanna or Chris Brown out of a police lineup, I know more about domestic violence than I have ever wanted to.

The most frequently cited (and probably the most controversial) research on the “Chicks Dig Jerks” thesis is the “Dark Triad” work of Professor Peter Jonason of the University of South Alabama. The Dark Triad is a combination of psychological traits — subclinical psychopathology, subclinical narcissism, and what Professor Jonason calls “Machiavellianism” — that are, he believes, in fact a unitary phenomenon associated with a higher level of sexual success, defined in the literature as a larger number of total lifetime sexual partners. The correlation of the Dark Triad with larger numbers of sexual partners holds true for both men and women, but the effect is much more pronounced in men. This is unsurprising, inasmuch as men’s relative preference for larger numbers of short-term sexual relationships and women’s relative preference for long-term relationships is, as Professor Jonason notes, “one of the most consistent and strongest sex differences in the field.”

So: Machiavellianism, subclinical psychopathology, subclinical narcissism: not exactly the stuff of a Jane Austen romance, but apparently the stuff of sexual success. Professor Jonason concludes: “Together with low amounts of empathy and agreeableness” (I warned you this was depressing stuff) “such traits may facilitate — especially for men — the pursuit of an exploitative short-term mating strategy.”

But you knew that already, if you are a homo even half sapiens and went to high school.

It’s a long leap from finding that conniving and selfish men have an easier time getting women into the sack to arguing that women such as Rihanna actively select men of the sort who are likely to abuse them (which may be morally a different thing from choosing to be abused, but it is operationally identical to so choosing). But here too the data paint a depressing picture. In a study of residents of a battered-women’s shelter, 75 percent of the abuse victims returned to the man who abused them. Victims of abuse are no more likely to end a relationship or a marriage than are women who are not suffering abuse. These traits are not limited to women who are poor and economically vulnerable.

One of the remarkable facts about domestic violence is that it is in many ways easier to draw up a statistical profile of typical domestic-abuse victims than it is to generalize about the men who commit domestic abuse: Age and other variables are more consistent for the victims than for the abusers. There are many possible explanations for this fact, one of which is that the feminists were (uncharacteristically) right about something: Domestic violence is intended to control women sexually, either by coercing them into sex or by preventing sexual infidelity. According to a paper published in the academic journal Violence and Victims, those who take an evolutionary view of the issue “hypothesize that one goal of male-perpetrated domestic violence is control over female sexuality, including the deterrence of infidelity. According to this hypothesis, domestic violence varies with women’s reproductive value or expected future reproduction, declining steeply as women age.” That hypothesis was tested against data taken from nearly 4,000 New York City domestic-abuse cases, and the view was largely borne out: Domestic violence is strongly correlated with women’s age, which is a proxy for fertility.

Fertility and violence interact in complicated ways: Men are more likely to be violent toward fertile women, and fertile women select men who are more likely to be violent. A study of women’s sexual preferences conducted at St. Andrew’s University (and since replicated) found that in most cases women preferred photos of men whose faces had been digitally altered to make them more feminine — but during ovulation, they reversed their preferences and chose photos of men whose faces had been digitally altered to make them more masculine: “A growing literature has shown that women in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle demonstrate stronger preferences for men with masculine traits than they do when in the non-fertile phases of the cycle,” the study says. It is well established that high levels of testosterone in men are associated with a number of personality traits: aggression, assertiveness, territoriality — and violence.

The academic literature consistently finds that women cite a handful of reasons for staying in abusive relationships, with love and sex leading the way, and economic necessity and fear of retaliation lagging behind. We ought to do victims of domestic violence the courtesy of treating them like adults and taking them at their word — at least we should if we want to understand the phenomenon rather than tell ourselves a just-so story that reinforces our preexisting worldviews and political preferences.

There is in evolutionary science something called the Trivers-Willard hypothesis, which holds that parents with abundant resources will invest more of them in their sons relative to their daughters, and that parents with fewer resources will invest relatively more heavily in their daughters. Consequently, there are localized variations in sex ratios. Evidence has supported this thesis in many different animals: Deer in good health have more male offspring, while deer in poor health have more female offspring. Dominant female macaques have more sons, while low-ranking macaques have more daughters. The effect holds true among homo sap., too: Rich families have more sons than daughters.

Women suffering domestic violence also have more sons than daughters, which has led some evolutionary psychologists to posit that they stay in abusive relationships because in the ancestral environment — which, as I noted on NPR, was not very much like the campus of Bryn Mawr College — there were advantages to doing so. The Journal of Evolutionary Psychology published a fascinating study of this subject by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics. (Mr. Kanazawa, it should be noted, is a controversial scholar.) “Aggression and violence,” he writes, “while they exact enormous physical tolls on the women in the context of spousal abuse, are at the same time important determinants of the outcomes of intrasexual competitions among men, especially in the ancestral environment, where most, if not all, dominance contests were at least partly physical. And women often seek out dominant men of high status as their ideal mates.” He goes on to point out that in studies of polygamous societies, men who have killed tend to have more wives, and that even in the 21st century, testosterone levels correlate with status in organizations such as the U.S. Army. (But not in the U.S. job force: High levels of testosterone correlate negatively with career success in the United States. Corporate America really is full of girly-men. But you knew that.)

All of which is to say that there is good evidence and good theory behind the belief that chicks dig jerks — mildly psychopathic men with lots of testosterone and little empathy. (Or, if you want to take the Richard Dawkins view, chicks’ genes dig jerks.) Those who do will have relatively more sons. And what will those sons be like? It is worth keeping in mind that those traits are heritable.

Liberals generally accept the biological explanation of human sexual behavior in exactly one case: that of homosexuality. But human desire is a stranger and sometimes darker thing than we imagine, and certainly a more complex one. Those who would try to understand it must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions and to entertain uncomfortable answers.

— Kevin D. Williamson will continue the discussion today with Michel Martin on Tell Me More.


The Latest