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Carine Fabius Headshot

The Attraction to Bad Boys Explained

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"Foolish, foolish heart, you've been wrong before, don't be wrong anymore..."

Remember that Steve Perry song? I so related to it in my 20s. Um, actually, I meant my teens! Okay, I admit it. My foolish heart fell prey to the bad boy syndrome far too long, although I was lucky -- some women never escape it. You know what I'm talking about, right? That passionate surrender to the siren call of someone who really turns you on and makes you feel so good but who often treats you like crap. A wild card, doesn't value you, rarely shows up emotionally, the guy you're unsure of, afraid to let him know your true feelings because it may drive him away or give him too much power, blah, blah, blah. So boring, that scenario; and yet, like a drug, you find yourself unable to resist him and others like him, again and again.

Even after outgrowing the lure of the bad boy, the syndrome still perplexed me. Why was this self-defeating pattern so prevalent among women?* (A few years ago, I even started a book and interviewed a bunch of women on the subject.) The poor relationship choices of my youth must have left a searing mark, because I've never stopped trying to understand what folly had made me act so meanly toward my little ole self. Unsolved mysteries stay with me, and this one was no different.

However! I am happy to report that a recent piece in the New York Times called "I Heart Unpredictable Love" finally solved the puzzle for me. (Damn good paper, that NYT.)

In short, a psychiatric study, which monitored subjects' brains via MRI scans, found that when presented with rewards in an unpredictable pattern, people's pleasure centers lit up far more than when the pattern was predictable. The greater joy was in the surprise. To come back to our issue, most people seek a stable, loving, desirable and supportive partner, but the uncontested reality of infidelity among married partners and the enduring attraction to "bad boys" bears out the study's findings. Call it a conscious desire for "variety" or a subconscious jones for "unpredictability," there is now a possible reason why human beings have a hard time resisting pleasure that is erratic -- even when it goes against our self-interest or belief system. We're just wired that way.

What the hell?

Betrayed by our very own synapses! Is that fair? I'd like to have a talk with that supposedly intelligent life force, which designed us this way. What about all this blather about free will? On that front, the article's author, Professor Richard A. Friedman, takes the time to point out that we can't expect to fall back on these findings as an excuse for bad behavior because we're supposed to "use our conscious knowledge to override our unhealthy or undesirable impulses..."

So, bottom line, we're back to where we started. We already know what's good for us -- stay away from Mr. Hot Stuff, Married Lady! -- now we just have to do it. Ah, responsibility is a bitch.

See, the thing is that my life worked out pretty well. I'm happily married to a guy who is a bad boy in many ways but one big one: I can count on him showing up. So the question that sometimes gnaws at me is this: Despite my longstanding and grown-up mindset on the subject, could I be seduced again if faced with the right (or in this case, very wrong) rogue? I hope I never have to find out!

In the meantime, I am encouraged by another study I saw in the NYT a few days after reading the first article. Remember that two-faced character known as familiarity? Yes, it breeds contempt; but, the other side of it is that it also brings us comfort and "evolutionary benefits," including helping "spouses stick together through mood swings, piles of dirty clothes left on the floor and other annoying things that never seem to go away." I'm guessing that intelligent life force wanted to make sure we stayed awake.

*It certainly happens with men too. The study did not differentiate men from women; but in my terribly unscientific survey of the situation, it sure seems as if I hear about it a lot more often from women.

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