Almost everyone has heard the phrase “nice guys finish last” before. But is there any truth to it? According to a new set of studies published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, being a "nice" guy does not seem to enhance your sexual desirability to women, at least in the context of initial attraction. In contrast, however, niceness appears to make women more appealing to men on first meeting.
In the first study, researchers recruited 112 heterosexual college students to participate. Students were divided into male-female pairs in which one of them was asked to disclose a recent negative event they had personally experienced (e.g., an argument with a friend, work or money problems, etc.). Participants discussed the event for 5-7 minutes. Afterwards, the discloser was asked to rate how responsive their partner was during the discussion (i.e., the extent to which they felt understood and validated). Disclosers also reported how sexually attractive their partner was and his or her degree of masculinity/femininity.
For women, the more responsive (i.e., "nice") they saw a guy as being, the lower his ratings of attractiveness. Surprisingly, it wasn’t because women saw responsive guys as being less masculine—in fact, ratings of masculinity were unrelated to ratings of responsiveness.
In contrast, the more responsive women were, the higher their attractiveness ratings from men. Responsive women were also rated as being more feminine, and this increased femininity statistically accounted for the link between responsiveness and attractiveness. In other words, the results suggested that “nice” women were seen as more attractive precisely because they were perceived as more feminine.
In the second study, a different group of college students completed an experiment in which they disclosed a negative personal event to a supposed stranger of the other sex over instant message. In reality, the experimenters were on the other end of the computer sending either supportive or unsupportive feedback to participants.
The pattern of results was identical to the first study for male participants, with responsive women being viewed as more feminine and more attractive. For female participants, male responsiveness was unrelated to ratings of masculinity and attractiveness. So, in this study, niceness neither helped nor hurt attractiveness for men.
The third study focused just on men and used the same methodology as the second study. Again, they replicated the findings from the previous studies, but also found that men felt more sexually aroused after interacting with a responsive female stranger and had more desire for a relationship with her.
These studies suggest that, for men, female responsiveness is viewed as a signal of gender-stereotypic behavior. And when men perceive women as acting more feminine, it appears that men see them as more sexually desirable. To put it another way, when women act consistent with cultural expectations for how females are “supposed” to behave, they seem to get an attractiveness boost in the eyes of men.
In contrast, women do not seem to have the same association between male "niceness" and attractiveness. Why doesn't being nice enhance a guy's sexual appeal? It wasn't because women saw "nice" guys as lacking in masculinity. Although the results don't let us come to any definitive conclusions on this, it could be that guys who are seen as being too nice are also viewed as desperate, or maybe even as inauthentic or as “trying too hard.”
Of course, it is important to keep in mind that there is a lot of individual variability in what people find attractive. Indeed, there may be many women who find nice guys incredibly attractive and appealing. The results of these studies only tell us about general trends. Also, these studies just focused on initial attraction, which isn’t everything in the world of relationships. Indeed, when it comes to selecting our long-term romantic partners, niceness is actually at the top of the wish list for both men and women.
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To learn more about this research, see: Birnbaum, G. E., Ein-Dor, T., Reis, H. T., & Segal, N. (in press). Why do men prefer nice women? Gender typicality mediates the effect of responsiveness on perceived attractiveness in initial acquaintanceships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
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