RSS
Do we really find selfish, narcissistic jerks more attractive?
Mean kids rule high school, and self-involved celebrities like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian get loads of attention. A new study might explain why
Kanye West may be the only man who could rival girlfriend Kim Kardashian's narcissism, and, for some reason, we can't look away.
Kanye West may be the only man who could rival girlfriend Kim Kardashian's narcissism, and, for some reason, we can't look away. Hubert Boesl/dpa/Corbis
T

he question: In high school, narcissistic jerks dominate the cool kids table, and some of us can't seem to shake our infatuation with KimYe's romance in spite of our better judgment. It's not exactly a secret that there's something entrancing about such self-involved twits. Psychologists even lump the telltale personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — of these kinds of people into an elastic term called the Dark Triad.

A new study confronts the question of whether we're really wired to find these types of borderline sociopaths more physically attractive than "normal" people based on the way they present themselves.

How it was tested: Washington University researchers Nicholas Holtzman and Michael Stribe enlisted 111 college students, more than 60 percent of whom were women. Volunteers were photographed upon setting foot in the lab, and then photographed again without all their personality signifiers. (They were asked to remove their makeup, tie their hair back, and to swap their normal clothes for plain gray sweatpants and a t-shirt.) 

The subjects were also given personality tests to assess their tendencies toward narcissism, Machiavellianism, or the employment of cunning and duplicity, and psychopathy. They were asked to provide email addresses of close friends so that a composite Dark Triad score could be put together for each person.

Next, a group of strangers were asked to rate photos of the subjects in terms of physical attractiveness. By comparing the ratings of both pictures, researchers hoped to get a better idea of how much each student was trying to express their personalities through aesthetics.

The outcome: When dressed-up, subjects with higher Dark Triad scores were rated as more physically attractive by the test group. But when they were forced to wear a t-shirt and sweatpants, they scored about the same as everyone else.

The reasoning: Previous research links negative personality traits, like narcissism, to "increased likeability," says Makini Brice at Medical Daily. "Whether we like it or not, people who are considered physically attractive are assumed to be, at least initially, kinder, smarter, and more confident." Narcissists with dark personality traits are flat-out better at making themselves look more appealing, says Julie Beck at Popular Science. Or, looking at it the other way, "mean people are just as ugly as the rest of us, they're just better at fooling everyone into thinking they're hot." 

The lesson: You know the cliché, "Nice guys finish last?" When it comes to sex appeal it's probably true — at least at first. But don't be dismayed. When it comes to long-term relationships, "more humble people may be cheered at the fact that people steer clear of those dark personality traits," says Brice. So don't be a jerk. At least if you can help it.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week