In 2005, Scott Peterson was convicted of the murder of his wife Laci and her unborn child. During the first hour on death row, he received a marriage proposal, and within a day the warden’s office was inundated with over 30 phone calls from women asking for his mailing address as well as letters from women professing their love for him.
This is not an isolated incident, and there is even a clinical term for it: Hybristophilia. On sites such as PrisonPenPals.com, WriteaPrisioner.com, ConvinctMailbag.com, and Meet-an-Inmate.com, there are thousands of dating ads from “prisoners who are waiting to hear from you!” Kyon in New York writes “Send a picture of yourself so I may be able to see the beautiful rose in your friendship garden.” Joel in Wisconsin writes, “My favorite subject is revisionist history.” Eugene from Oregon– who is sentenced to jail for life– writes, “I have a very good sense of humor.” And there are plenty of women who respond.
What is the source of the attraction to dangerous people? There is no shortage of speculation, ranging from a drive to feel like a rebel, to a drive to become a celebrity or increase one’s popularity, to a drive for a more exciting and adventurous life, to self-esteem issues typically resulting from past abuse, to the drive to be a caretaker, to the drive to control and have power over a person which can result from dating a person who needs you more than you need them.
But what does the actual science say on this topic?
The Science of Everyday Psychopathy
Although psychopaths are often thought of as criminals and business leaders, psychopathy actually exists along a continuum and each of us lie somewhere on the various dimensions that constitute psychopathy. In other words, psychopathic people differ in degree as opposed to kind from those with low levels of these characteristics. The most widely used test of psychopathy in the general population– the Psychopathic Personality Inventory— measures two main clusters of traits.*
The first cluster, or factor, of psychopathy is Fearless Dominance, which is characterized by social and physical boldness, adventurousness, and immunity to stress. The second factor of psychopathy is Self-Centered Impulsivity, which is is characterized by a narcissistic, callous and impulsive lifestyle and a willingness to take advantage of others without experiencing guilt. Note that those who score high in psychopathy tend to score high on both factors. In fact, if you just score high in Fearless Dominance, that might be an indication of a healthy personality! It’s the combination of these traits in a single package that makes it psychopathy.
While there has been research measuring psychopathy in the general population, surprisingly, there has been very little systematic analysis of the attraction to psychopathic characteristics. The studies that have been conducted have suffered some major limitations, such as being comprised mostly of undergraduates, being focused mainly on females, or being specifically focused on psychopathic characteristics and ignoring the larger umbrella of personality disorders more generally.
In a new study, Ashley Watts and colleagues overcame some of these prior limitations to investigate whether people are especially attracted to psychopathic characteristics, and whether there are individual differences in such attraction. The researchers had both an undergraduate sample as well as a community sample of males and females report on their own personality and then had them construct their ideal mate for different types of relationships from a list of 70 characteristics drawn from well-validated criteria for psychopathy and diagnostic criteria for a wide range of personality disorders. What did they find?
Are People in General Attracted to Psychopathy?
In general, people did not find psychopathic characteristics particularly attractive for any form of relationship — whether it was a date, a short-term relationship, or a long-term relationship. Across the board, expressed preferences for psychopathic traits were low, exceeding on average no more than 4 on a 1 to 10 scale. With that said, some psychopathic characteristics were considered relatively more attractive than others. On average, people found traits relating to Self-Centered Impulsivity especially unappealing relative to traits relating to Fearless Dominance. I suspect these findings mirror those found among narcissists, in that perceptions of their self-centeredness is often overriden (at least at first) by perceptions of boldness and self-confidence.
Are There Gender Differences in a Preference for Psychopathy?
While popular accounts of attraction to psychopaths have focused on women, there was no evidence for a gender difference in attraction to psychopathic characteristics. Both males and females on average were about equally unimpressed with psychopathic characteristics in a potential romantic partner.
Who, in Particular, is Most Attracted to Psychopathic Traits?
The findings support a “like attracts like” hypothesis for psychopathic traits. For both female undergraduates and men and women in the larger community, those with higher levels of psychopathic characteristics were more attracted to those with psychopathic characteristics. Those with higher levels of traits associated with Self-Centered Impulsivity were particularly likely to find psychopathic traits attractive in a mate, and it was this particular factor of psychopathy that carried the unique variance in predicting romantic preferences.
Is Attraction to Psychopathy Limited to Psychopathy?
It wasn’t just psychopathy that predicted attraction to psychopathy. Many personality disorder features– such as histronic, narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, schizotypal, passive-aggressive, self-defeating, antisocial, paranoid, borderline, avoidant, dependent, and sadistic features– were correlated with a preference for psychopathic characteristics. Many standard personality traits, such as antagonism, low conscientiousness, disinhibition, and psychoticsm, also predicted a preference for psychopathic characteristics. These findings call into question sexual selection evolutionary theories of psychopathy, which argue that psychopathy may have evolved as a short-term mating strategy for men to attract women. For one, as already noted, psychopathic females and psychopathic males were about equally likely to report interest in potential mates with psychopathic features.** Also, the study found that those who are attracted to psychopaths are not only attracted to psychopathy, but that the attraction extends more generally across many dimensions of personality and personality traits.
Is there a Difference Between Undergraduates and Adults?
There were some important differences between the female undergraduates and community sample, which speak to the importance of age (and perhaps gender) in explaining these overall trends. For one, female undergraduates significantly preferred males with high as opposed to moderate or low levels of psychopathic traits for a date, and there was more of a preference for mates with callousness traits and a lack of remorse compared to those in the community sample. Preferences for the low psychopathy prototype increased, however, with the duration of the relationship, with a low psychopathy mate much more preferred for a long-term relationship. For the community sample, an average disinterest in mates with psychopathic traits was consistent across all different relationship types. Also, the ties between personality disorder features and a preference for personality disorders in romantic partners were more pronounced among the community members relative to the female undergraduates. The researchers opine on the implications of these findings:
“Given their young age, undergraduates tend to have fewer relationship experiences than do older adults, and thus probably have a more limited history of adverse experiences associated with dating people with pronounced psychopathic traits, such as experiencing infidelity… intimate partner violence… or emotional unavailability… Although females may express a preference for psychopathic males in principle, such enthusiasm may dwindle or even disappear following either a direct or vicarious negative romantic experience. Moreover, the undergraduate dating culture may possess unique characteristics (e..g, close-knit social networks, Greek life, increased prevalence of alcohol and drug use) that may not generalize to dating outside of college, and as such attraction to psychopathic males may decrease with time…”
Indeed, research shows that female’s attraction to Dark Triad traits tend to decrease with age, and for both men and women, psychopathic characteristics are a strong predictor of divorce.
What Are the Limitations of these Studies?
Of course, there are some limitations of these studies. It’s possible that stated mate preferences do not predict ultimate choices. However, while there is some evidence for a distinction between mating preferences and actual behavior in a speed dating context, recent research on a wider age range and over a longer period time suggests that stated preferences may in fact predict the characteristics of partners. Also, these findings are consistent with other studies showing that participants with maladaptive traits in general rate others with maladaptive traits more favorably, or at least are more willing to settle for these characteristics in potential romantic partners. Nevertheless, as the researchers point out, future research should examine real-world settings to better understand how psychopathic traits unfold in short-term and long-term relationships.
I’d also like to see further studies consider some of the other individual differences that have been proposed to explain the attraction to psychopaths, such as a caretaking personality, a drive for fame, or a history of abuse.
These results suggest that although most people are not attracted to psychopathic features (and the older one gets, the more one is wary of such characteristics), those with pronounced psychopathic features in particular and personality disorder features more generally are more likely than others to endorse a romantic preference for psychopathic mates. These findings shed important light on this phenomenon by showing that despite popular depictions of this being a female-only phenomenon, or this even being a psychopathy-only phenomenon, both males and females with higher levels of personality disorder features in general are more likely to find others with similar features intoxicatingly hot.
* These clusters dovetail with the Psychopathic Checklist that is used to identify psychopathy in clinical populations.
** Interestingly, the Watts et al. study found that regardless of personality, males on average endorsed higher levels of romantic preferences for personality disorder features than females did, perhaps speaking to a more general permissiveness of characteristics for short-term relationships among males.