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Do People With Dark Personalities Enhance Their Physical Attractiveness?

A friend recently passed along the following and termed it the first date riddle:

“A woman is attending her mother’s funeral and sees a man in the back of the church that she wishes to talk to. He leaves before she gets a chance to speak with him. The next day she kills her sister. Why does she kill her sister?”

The answer to this riddle is that she kills her sister so she can see the man in the back of the church again (she assumes if he attended her mother’s funeral, he would also attend her sister’s). A pretty dark answer, right? The assumption is that the person who answers this riddle correctly is more likely to be a psychopath (empirical evidence not available). Given this possibility, you can ask this riddle on a first date to identify potential psychopath romantic partners before you make the mistake of scheduling a second date.

A recent study suggests that we may need riddles like this to determine who has a dark personality. Three socially aversive traits - narcissism, psychopathy (lack of empathy), and machiavellianism (a manipulative attitude) – are referred to as the dark triad; people high in these traits often do not make good romantic partners1 (see this post for examples of how narcissists make lower quality romantic partners). Curious about how you rate on the dark triad? Take this quiz. Although dark personality traits are linked to negative relationship outcomes, people who are high in the dark triad tend to be rated by others as more physically attractive.2,3 But, is it the case that people with dark personalities are naturally more attractive, or do they manipulate aspects of their appearance to enhance their attractiveness?

To answer this question, researchers had peer group raters assess participants’ physical attractiveness in two different states: an adorned state (i.e., the participant dressed and looked how he or she typically looks and dresses in public), and a natural state (i.e., the participant wore a gray t-shirt and sweatpants, no makeup or styled hair, and no extra adornments such as jewelry). The researchers were interested in effective adornment, or the degree to which people do things to enhance their appearance beyond their natural attractiveness (such as groom their hair, wear makeup or dress in stylish or fitted clothing), and whether this was related to specific personality traits (as rated by the participant and raters from their peer group).4 In other words, the researchers were interested in whether attractiveness ratings for people high in the dark triad were based on their natural attractiveness or their appearance-enhancement efforts.

It turns out that people with dark personalities are not naturally more attractive, but instead they do more to enhance their appearance, such as dressing and grooming in ways that make them appear more attractive. For example, women with a dark personality might wear more make-up, style their hair and dress provocatively; men with a dark personality might groom their facial hair and wear expensive clothes or accessories. People with dark personalities may get boosts in self-esteem from being noticed for their appearance or may attempt to enhance their appearance to attract sexual partners.4 Although these appearance-enhancing efforts may seem harmless, if they increase our attractiveness to people who are potentially negative romantic partners, it may be worth using riddles or other attempts to uncover these wolves in sheep’s clothing.

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1Ali, F., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2010). The dark side of love and life satisfaction: Associations with intimate relationships, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 228-233.

2Holtzman, N. S., & Strube, M. J. (2010). Narcissism and attractiveness. Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 133–136. doi:10. 1016/j.jrp.2009.10.004

3Fowler, K. A., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Patrick, C. J. (2009). Detecting psychopathy from thin slices of behavior. Psychological Assessment, 21, 68–78. doi:10.1037/a0014938

4Holtzman, N. S., & Strube, M. J. People with dark personalities tend to create a physically attractive veneer. Social Psychological and Personality Science, online first, doi: 10.1177/1948550612461284

Dr. Amy Muise - Sex Musings | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.

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