Why Narcissists Seem More Attractive


Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows

While most people don’t consider narcissism or psychopathy desirable qualities in their romantic partners, many are still drawn towards people with these traits, which have been immortalized in fiction as the mean girls, the dangerous boys, and arrogant jerks.

The scientists published their findings in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. The researchers were looking at the relationship between physical attractiveness and the tendency towards narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. The goal was to see whether these traits are associated with a greater ability to enhance one’s physical appearance.

111 college students, of which 64% were women, took part in the experiment. They were photographed when they first arrived and were then asked to put on some gray sweatpants and a t-shirt. The women were instructed to remove any makeup, and anyone with long hair was asked to pull it back into a ponytail. Then, they were photographed again. Both sets of photographs were shown to a group of strangers who rated them in terms of physical attractiveness. By comparing the attractiveness ratings of the dressed-down and dressed-up students, they were able to determine how much each student was able to make themselves more appealing by the use of flashy clothes, makeup and other accessories.

Next, the researchers assessed the students’ personalities and their tendencies towards narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. They were asked to rate themselves and to provide an email address for a few of their friends, who were asked to provide ratings as well. This allowed the scientists to calculate a final set of personality scores for each student.

The score was positively correlated with their dressed-up attractiveness, which is something that mirrors previous studies, but wasn’t related to ratings of physical attractiveness in the dressed-down photos. In other words, people with these dark personality traits aren’t seen as more attractive than others when they don’t have access to their own clothes and makeup, but they do seem better at making themselves physically appealing when they do.

These findings show that narcissists are more popular than others, which reinforces previous studies. The initial appeal of a narcissist or psychopath may be hard to resist. Physical attractiveness is also automatically associated with many positive traits, a phenomenon which is known as the halo effect. Creating a physically attractive veneer is a highly effective way of creating an advantageous first impression. When physical attractiveness is combined with confidence and humor, it is even more effective. People with exploitative personalities are more successful at this.

These advantages seem to decline over time, but may take as long as several weeks because people with these traits may be skilled at keeping their unsavory side hidden.

Reference: “People With Dark Personalities Tend to Create a Physically Attractive Veneer” by Nicholas S. Holtzman and Michael J Strube, 4 October 2012, Social Psychological & Personality Science.
DOI: 10.1177/1948550612461284

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