When I was younger, I used to be a nice guy. If you’re a woman, you probably knew a guy like me or went out on a date with a guy like me. Sh*t, you may be planning to get up with the younger me tonight or tomorrow for a free dinner and night out on the town…before sending me home with a church hug and a peck on the cheek so you can text or call the guy that really gets your internal lubrication mechanism going.
If you’re a dude, you probably watched a guy like me lose repeatedly. You may have even considered yourself the proverbial nice guy. The struggle was real. You thought you were respectful of women and that you showed them the meaning of chivalry. You didn’t use them for sex because it felt unnatural and contradictory to everything your parents taught.
You probably listened to every word girls spoke and offered them reassurance accordingly. You may have even tried to play the friend role without knowing that you were forever branding yourself with a scarlet F, and heading to the “I will talk to you about other guys or treat you like you’re a gay friend” zone. That sh*t sucks. It’s a funny thing to treat a woman with the utmost respect and admiration then watch it seemingly cost you the opportunity you desired.
Yeah, I used to be a nice a guy. Then reality and maturity set in.
Last week I dropped a comment over in Bougie Land about the plight of nice guys and how they eventually learn the error of their or — in many cases — her ways. After commenting, I found myself reflecting on how I used to operate versus the way that I function today. I sat there unproductively at work and relived some of the most unpleasant moments of my teens and early 20s. But, I found solace in knowing how much I’ve changed, and that I’ll never again have to worry about watching the backs of everyone in front of me as I limp toward the finish line with a valiant but unsuccessful effort. Somewhere in the last few years, I figured out something that unbound the restraints that I unknowingly placed on myself:
I’m not just a nice guy that finishes last . That’s an outward looking excuse for my own insecurities and inability to understand how immature and often incompatible people operate. I’m just a good person. Period. I’m drawing a distinction here between “nice guy” and “good person”because depending on who you ask in 2011, a nice guy can take on multiple meanings. Let me briefly elaborate.
A nice guy in the most general and mature sense is a selfless person that people enjoy being around. He’s always willing to help where he can, has an optimistic outlook on life, has a good sense of humor, and brings an infectious positive energy wherever he goes. It doesn’t matter if he’s introverted or extroverted. He’s the type of person that when you hear something bad happened to him or someone close to him, you feel deeply for his troubles because “he’s such a nice guy.”
But when it comes to the hunt for women, the definition of a nice guy ain’t so peachy. For a man, being called a nice guy after a first date when she’s debriefing with her friends is greater than or equal to being called ugly…despite the fact that ugly men have proven that they can win. The competitive advantage for the aesthetically deficient is confidence. Something that the “nice guy” as I’m describing him to you often lacks.
I can say this because in the 28 years that I’ve traversed through life, I’ve never heard a woman describe a 1st date guy as nice without hearing her go on to say she’s not interested or inquiring about a friend of mine that peaked her interest. Granted, she may have enjoyed her meal with Mr. Respect & Care, but that was the extent of it. His efforts to be everything she wanted and what he thought she deserved were for naught. And because he thinks he needs to win her over, he’ll continue to foolishly exert 200% effort when his fate was already decided in the first quarter. That leads me to my next point:
Nice guy is starting to become synonymous with simp — a term that we’ve all grown to know too well.
If you get your Webster or Urban Dictionary on, you’ll see that a simp (or simpleton) is defined as a fool. Today, simps are the nice guys that after making several admirable — but usually unsuccessful — attempts to impress women, complain about finishing last and how women don’t want good men. Simps are everything that women really need without the 2 things they really want: confidence and experience.
They are the lads that let women have, say, and do what they want to a fault. And while he’s showering her with wholesome goodness, his cologne reeks of nonexistent assertiveness and subsequent incompatibility. And for whatever reason, he presses on trying to impress women who, if he paid close enough attention, make it clear they aren’t truly interested in him.
Note: Doesn’t this sound like the woman that gives and does everything possible for a man that hasn’t even feigned the possibility of commitment?
What the modern day nice guy and unpleasantly labeled (and even confident) nice guy fails to realize is that it’s difficult for his kind gestures and proverbial awesomeness to be understood by a woman that doesn’t know how to separate her wants from her needs. She’s not gonna see the value and possibility of what could be with him because she doesn’t want the man that he is today. But as he gets older, those that weren’t interested before reappear with a smile and some eggs.
So how does the Mr. Nice Guy win today? That’s simple. He changes his attitude.
He goes into dating situations knowing that women are at different places on the needs-wants-values continuum and acknowledging incompatibility is part of finding the one he’ll be most compatible with. He understands that just because he plays by the rules doesn’t mean he should win; and if he keeps losing, he needs to go back to the drawing board and look at why he has a bunch of ribbons but no trophies. But most importantly, he doesn’t get discouraged by the “success” of the assholes. He just accepts that if that’s the type of man she wanted, she wasn’t the one for him to begin with, and vice versa.
It was when I had that realization that things turned around for me. I started running my own race and women started popping up like gophers at the arcade. No women were bopped over the head in the making of this man.
So when it comes down to it, it’s not about nice guys (or girls) finishing last. It’s about nice guys not finishing until she does. Well, that and not worrying about finishing in last place when it comes to love. If you approach dating as a learning experience, you’ll get to the finish line when you’re supposed to. Don’t lose yourself trying to excessively be someone for somebody that doesn’t want and isn’t right for you. Be a good person free of labels. And if you can’t do that, you need some more training before you step up to the starting line.
Are there distinctions between good and nice guys or girls? If so, what are they? If not, why not? Any other thoughts or tips for the “nice people” that came to mind after reading this post? All thoughts are welcome!
I originally wrote this essay for an academic feminist audience.
Empirical Investigation of Female Preferences in Men: The “nice guys finish last” question
In Casino Royale, the 2006 movie version of Ian Fleming’s book of the same name, the character Solange wonders why she is attracted to men who are “bad.” During a moment of passion with James Bond, she asks him, “Why can’t nice guys be more like you?” With his characteristic suaveness, Bond replies: “Then… they’d be bad” (Fuchs, 2006).
“Nice guys finish last.” Or so the stereotype insists. The “nice guys finish last” view is that there is a discrepancy between heterosexual women’s stated preferences and their actual choices in men: in other words, women supposedly say that they want “nice guys,” but really go for men who are “jerks”, or “bad boys” in the end. Urbaniak and Killman (2003) write that, “although women often portray themselves as wanting to date kind, sensitive, and emotionally expressive men, the nice guy stereotype contends that, when actually presented with a choice between such a ‘nice guy’ and an unkind, insensitive, emotionally-closed, ‘macho man’ or ‘jerk,’ they invariably reject the nice guy in favor of his more macho competitor.”
An opposing view is that women do want “nice guys,” at least when they are looking for romantic relationships. Desrochers (1995) suggests that, “it still seems popular to believe that women in contemporary America prefer men who are ‘sensitive,’ or have feminine personality traits.” Women have differing opinions about whether “nice guys finish last” sexually or not. Herold and Millhausen (1999) found that 56% of 165 university women agreed with the statement: “You may have heard the expression, ‘Nice guys finish last.’ In terms of dating, and sex, do you think women are less likely to have sex with men who are ‘nice’ than men who are ‘not nice’?” A third view is that while “nice guys” may not be as successful at attracting women sexually, they may be sought after by women looking for long-term romantic relationships. Herold and Millhausen (1999) claim that, “while nice guys may not be competitive in terms of numbers of sexual partners, they tend to be more successful with respect to longer-term, committed relationships.”
Do “nice guys finish last?” Yes and no. Really, this question is unanswerable, because what exactly the question is asking is ambiguous. This paper discusses some empirical research on heterosexual attraction that may shed light on the subject, yet the answers that this research provides depend on how the question is asked. I will employ popular culture, psychological research, feminist debates over experience, and random internet rants, in order to explore some of the discourse on this question to demonstrate why it is important, analyze attempts to answer it, and suggest a program of research to ask it in a more fruitful manner.
The importance of female preferences
Women’s preferences in men are important both for the interests of men and for the interests of women, for at least the following reasons: (1) female preferences may be implicated in their complicity with gender oppression, (2) some men harm themselves and/or harm women in response to rejection by women, or widely disseminate misogynistic attitudes, (3) female preferences influence male behavior on both implicit and conscious levels, and (4) cultural discourse over female preferences influences the behavior of both men and women, specifically through constructions of masculinity that can become harmful to both men and women.
Female preferences influence female behavior. To the extent that this influence occurs, female preferences have an impact on the interests of women. Various radical feminists have suggested that female sexual desires can lead women to be more accepting of their own oppression. Dworkin (1987) claims that in male-dominant gender hierarchies, women learn to “eroticize powerlessness and self-annihilation.” Similarly, MacKinnon (1987, p. 7) writes that for women, “subordination is sexualized.” Bartky (1984) suggests that, “surely women’s acceptance of domination by men cannot be entirely independent of the fact that for many women, dominance in men is exciting.”
Female preferences influence men. Female choices in men influence which men have sex and relationships with women and which men do not. Men who are unsuccessful with women can respond by harming women or by harming themselves. In an analysis of school shootings by boys, Klein (2005) found that many of them had targeted girls who had rejected them, or were generally frustrated in their interactions with women. Prior to their rampage at Columbine High School, Dylan Klebold was reportedly so shy with girls that his parents had to pay him money to attend the Columbine prom, while Eric Harris was rejected by three girls he had invited (Belluck & Wilgoren, 1999, as cited in Klein, 2005). In England, a teenager named Joe Burns couldn’t lose his virginity and took his frustration out not on girls, but on himself, by committing suicide (Evans, 2006).
Furthermore, rejection by women can impact male attitudes towards women, often in the direction of misogyny. Urbaniak and Killman (2003) found many websites of men complaining that “nice guys finish last.” It’s easy to find these websites on the internet. For example, on the website “The NiceGuy’s Women / Ameriskanks (mostly) Suck Web Page,” a man who calls himself NiceGuy describes how he once listened to what women told him they wanted in men, and only met with rejection when he tried to behave in the way he thought they wanted (NiceGuy, 2005). He reports that, “I once RESPECTED American women very much. I want to treat women in general as equal partners, and I think women are just great.” Yet he came to conclude that romantically, he was “invisible” because he was “nice,” and asks, “Why the hell should any guy like me treat any woman decently—ever? You always end-up feeling cheated in the end and passed-over as a love interest!” He says that “nice guys” are viewed as “just friends” by women, or as “wimps” (i.e. inadequately masculine). He also views his resentment of women as following from his negative experiences with them: “Misogynists aren’t born—they’re made. Be informed: as far as you American chicks are concerned, you have killed-off the nice guy inside me.” NiceGuy’s rant demonstrates the consequences that can occur when men feel they have been deceived about what women are attracted to: they can feel lied to and used by women, which meshes with misogynistic stereotypes about female deceptiveness and manipulativeness.
Female choices provide men with incentives that can influence their behavior. These incentives are important, because they can motivate men to behave in ways that are harmful to women, and/or to themselves. For example, Bargh et al. (1995) found that some men exhibit an implicit association between power and sex, which they hypothesize as a motivator for sexually harassing behavior. Bargh et al. suggest that, “even if only some women are attracted to a man by virtue of his holding a position of power, the association between power and sex could be formed,” an association that could lead a male who implicitly associates power and sex “to interpret the ambiguously flirtatious behavior of other women as sexual, when in fact it is just friendly and deferential because of his power over her.” Psychological theories of reinforcement and learning offer proximate explanations for how female choices could influence male behavior.
In addition to influencing men’s behavior on an implicit level, female choices in men can also influence male behavior on a conscious level. Desrochers (1995) claims that many “sensitive” men do not believe that women want “nice guys” due to their personal experiences. Men’s beliefs about women’s preferences are a factor in how men behave around women, and those beliefs are shaped by men’s experiences with women. (Of course, experience only influences beliefs through a framework for interpreting those experiences. More on that later.)
Not only do actual female preferences influence both male and female behavior, but so does the cultural discourse around female preferences. This discourse is hardly unified. While the general cultural perception may be that women want “nice guys,” as Desrochers argues above, there are also conflicting narratives, like the scene from the James Bond movie quoted at the beginning of this paper.
Cultural discourse about female preferences may influence both female preferences themselves, and male perceptions of female preferences. Katz (2002) argues that one reason the rapper Eminem’s popularity is a “disaster for women” is because “girls are encouraged to be attracted to boys and men who don’t respect women.” He claims that “magazines with predominantly young female readership, like Cosmogirl and Teen People, now regularly feature ‘Em’ on their covers, posed as a sex symbol, as an object of heterosexual female desire.” In Katz’s view, not only does Eminem’s popularity encourage women to be attracted to “bad boys,” but it also normalizes misogyny or abuse from men. If Katz is correct, then the media plays a role in what women are attracted to in men. Katz asserts that another problem with Eminem’s popularity is that his popularity with girls sends a dangerous message to men. According to Katz, “Boys and young men have long expressed frustration with the fact that girls and young women say they’re attracted to nice guys, but that the most popular girls often end up with the disdainful tough guys who treat them like dirt.” He wonders what message men hear about how women want to be treated when they admire Eminem; whether men will hear “that girls want to be treated with dignity and respect? Or that the quickest route to popularity with them is to be verbally and emotionally cruel, that ‘bad boy’ posturing is a winning strategy to impress naïve (and self-loathing) girls?”
Another avenue where cultural discourse influences male beliefs and male behavior is through dating advice. According to McDaniel (2005), there is a strain of popular culture and dating advice arguing “that women claim they want a ‘nice guy’ because they believe that that is what is expected of them when, in reality, they want the so-called ‘challenge’ that comes with dating a not-so-nice guy.” She discovers that “countless self-help books, magazine articles, bulletin boards/chat rooms, and websites have been dedicated to helping the nice guy become more successful at attracting women.” For example, the “Ladder Theory” (Lynn, 2002) purports to break down what women are attracted to in men: Money/Power is 50%, Attraction is 40% (which includes Physical Attraction, Competition, and Novelty), and Things Women Say They Care About But Don’t is 10% (which includes intelligence, sense of humor, honesty, sensitivity etc.).
Another example of advice for men are the internet forums, websites, teachers, and workshops designed to teach men how to “pickup” or “seduce” women. Strauss (2005) documents this phenomenon in The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists, and eventually became part it. He uncovered a whole underground community of men who view themselves as shy or inept with women, and who consider mainstream dating advice to be inadequate. These would-be “pickup artists” spend hours a day reading internet materials on how to be more attractive to women, or practicing talking to women. According to Strauss, “seduction gurus” and coaches can charge hundreds or thousands for workshops and media teaching “seduction techniques” to men. Pickup artists believe that women are attracted to men who are dominant, self-confident, and socially-skilled. They claim that most men are “average frustrated chumps,” who fail at this ideal of masculinity. An “average frustrated chump” is “a stereotypical nice guy who has no pickup skills or understanding of what attracts women; a man who tends to engage in supplicative and wimpy patterns of behavior around women he has not yet slept with” (Strauss, 2005, p. 440). “Supplication” means, “”to put oneself in a servile or inferior position in order to please a woman, such as buying her a drink or changing an opinion in order to agree with her” (p. 447). Professional pickup artists like Erik von Markovik (who goes by the pseudonym “Mystery”) instead teach that the men who are most attractive to women are the “alpha males,” an idea inspired by evolutionary psychology (p. 21). Strauss writes that books on evolution are required reading for pickup artists: “You read them, and you understand why women tend to like jerks, why men want so many sexual partners, and why so many people cheat on their spouses” (p. 294).
Yet the study of “pickup” and “seduction” can have damaging effects, both for men and for women. Strauss recounts how as his success with women improved, he went through a period where every woman he met seemed “disposable and replaceable” (Strauss, 2005, p. 161). In an interview with Playboy magazine, a “seduction guru” named BadBoy is quoted saying, “Women do not want to be respected,” including “the ones who seem emancipated” (Playboy, 2006). Like the Ladder Theory, pickup artists, in varying degrees, advocate some form of what Connell & Messerschmidt (2005) call “hegemonic masculinity.” Considering that many forms of male abuse or victimization of women involve a lack of empathy and respect, it is a problem for women when males come to believe that those qualities are, as the Ladder Theory puts it, “Thing Women Say They Want But Don’t.” It is also a problem for men if they have to—or even just believe that they have to—suppress their own empathy and vulnerability to be desirable to women. Strauss also describes the stresses on men of studying seduction. He noticed many men becoming obsessed with learning to “pickup” women, even to the point of abandoning school or work (p. 194). Many of these men had severe shyness or self-esteem issues, and looked on the seduction gurus as role models or surrogate fathers. The pickup guru Mystery himself had spurts of depression and went in and out of mental facilities in between running workshops for thousands of dollars per man. Strauss also documents the competition and in-fighting among pickup artists, most of whom apparently wanted to be the “alpha male.”
In short, concern for both women and men should motivate us to examine women’s preferences in men, and pay attention to what is being said about these preferences. (Of course, we should also observe men’s preferences in women, for different but overlapping reasons, but men’s preferences are beyond the scope of this paper.) These examples (like school shootings) and views (like NiceGuy’s) are not representative of males and their responses to female desires: it’s not as if every young man who gets rejected by a woman goes out and storms his school, shoots her, hangs himself, creates a misogynistic website, or vows to become a pickup artist. Still, they demonstrate the extremes of male responses to their perceptions of female preferences and behavior.
Do “nice guys finish last?”
This is a question that won’t go away. As McDaniel (2005) points out, there are countless websites and forums for debating it. If we approached the “nice guy” question naively, we might think that finding out the answer is easy: all we have to do is ask women if they want “nice guys,” or we can go find some “nice guys” and ask if they “finish last.” There seems to be precedence for such an approach in Smith (1974), who advocates a sociology that begins “from the world as we actually experience it” (Smith, 1974). For Smith, experience must serve as an “unconditional datum” to call into question systems of what is taken to be knowledge. She is on the right track, because the nature of female preferences in men is an empirical question. Yet while any investigation of the “nice guy” question will have to start with experience, it cannot end there. Scott (1991) correctly identifies the difficulty of appealing “to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation—as a foundation on which analysis is based” (Scott, 1991). In Scott’s view, the use of experience as evidence is problematic because it ignores the “the constructed nature of experience” by historical and discursive forces. When people report conflicting experiences, like they do over the “nice guy” question, examining their experiences and their interpretations of those experiences is necessary to resolve the conflict. Otherwise, we are left with women who say that they go for “nice guys,” (who feel affronted when disgruntled “nice guys” question that), and disgruntled “nice guys” who say that women don’t go for them (and who feel affronted when their experience is questioned).
This paper attempts a synthesis of, or at least a compromise between, the approaches of Smith and Scott. For me, experience is contestable evidence. I accept experience neither as an unquestionable foundation, nor as a site of myopic analysis over its “construction.” Instead, I view experience as a rich source of hypotheses. In the case of the “nice guy” question, we must ask men and women about their experiences, but we must also pay attention to how they interpret those experiences, and how we frame our questions and interpret the answers we get. There are at least several problems with the “nice guy” question that make it difficult to interpret people’s reported experience: (a) semantic ambiguity, (b) a confusion of correlation and causation, (c) the problematic nature of “nice guy” as an identity, (d) the social desirability bias, and (e) the theory-ladenness of observation.
One of the main difficulties in asking whether “nice guys finish last” with women is that the very question is ambiguous. I will dissect it to show why:
“Nice guy.” This term means different things to different people. Many traits, both positive and negative are associated with “nice guys,” which sometimes are conflicting or contradictory. In their qualitative analysis, Herold & Millhausen (1999) found that women associate different qualities with the “nice guy” label: “some women offered flattering interpretations of the nice guy, characterizing him as committed, caring, and respectful of women. Others, however, emphasized more negative aspects, considering the nice guy to be boring, lacking confidence, and unattractive.” The “bad boys” were also divided into two categories, and described “as either confident, attractive, sexy, and exciting or as manipulative, unfaithful, disrespectful of women, and interested only in sex.” Researchers have operationalized the “nice guy” and “jerk” constructs in different ways (McDaniel 2005).
“Finish last.” Again, this term is ambiguous. It is unclear whether it refers to being unsuccessful in short-term, sexual relationships, or in long-term, romantic relationships, or in both. The conceptualization of “finish last” may influence the answer to the question, because Urbaniak & Killman (2003) found that for purely sexual relationships, “niceness appeared relatively less influential than physical attractiveness.” Finishing last may be relative to specific male goals. Furthermore, this framing, like the question of “what do women want,” fails to distinguish between women’s preferences (what women desire) and their choices (what women select). (Of course, in some social contexts, women’s choices over sexual or marriage partners are limited or nonexistent, which limits this analysis to contexts where women do have choices.) Some women may not choose the males they sexually desire, because they believe that interactions with those males would not be positive in other ways. For example, Bartky’s (1984) analysis provides political reasons why feminist women could want to avoid relations of sexual submission and masochism, no matter how arousing they are. Social desirability or economic stability could also be a reason for choosing some males over others regardless of preferences. Another difference between preferences and choices is that what women prefer in men may not always be available for them to choose. For instance, some women may find a trait like shyness attractive in men, but since they are naturally less likely to meet shy men or have conversations with them, women are consequently less likely to select them as mates. Women cannot order what isn’t on the menu.
“Women.” Even assuming the stability of the concept of women, exactly which women are we talking about? We should try to find out in which dimension women are similar in their preferences, and in which dimensions they differ. Unfortunately, so far, a large amount of the research on female preferences in men has been on white, middle-class, undergraduate college women. This will not do. Women’s preferences may vary across races, socioeconomic classes, and age. Another way that women’s preferences vary is at different times during their menstrual cycles (Gangestad et al. 2004).
As hinted at above, “nice guy” discussions may confuse correlation with causation. If “nice guys finish last,” is this because they are “nice,” or for some other reasons? If males with certain personality traits or behavioral traits are indeed unsuccessful with women, is their lack of success caused by those traits? Or is some underlying factor causing both their behavior and their lack of success with women? For example, Bogaert and Fisher (1995) studied the relationships between the personalities of university men and their amount of sexual partners. The study found a correlation between a man’s number of sexual partners, and the traits of sensation-seeking, hypermasculinity, physical attractiveness, and testosterone levels. They also discovered a correlation between maximum monthly number of partners, and the traits of dominance and psychoticism. Yet this correlational study cannot tell us much about causation. We don’t know whether sensation-seeking, hypermasculine men have more sex because women desire them more, or because those men simply want more sex and pursue it more.
One difficulty with interpreting the reported experience of men who call themselves “nice guys” who “finish last” is the constructed nature of “nice guy who finishes last” as an identity. As Scott (1991) comments, one problem with accepting experience as “uncontestable evidence” is the tendency to “take as self-evident the identities of those whose experience is being documented.” Although men who call themselves “nice” may see their “niceness” as part of their identity, women may not necessarily perceive them that way. For example, in another internet rant, this time from a woman, Mithrandir (2006) describes her impression of men who base their identities around being rejected for being “nice guys:” that the views of “Nice Guys are almost identical to those of their ‘asshole rivals,’ and that they think of women the same way as well: basically, as potential ‘rewards’ for all their hard work pretending to be a decent person.” She says she has a hard time believing that being “genuinely nice” was the reason these men were romantically unsuccessful with women. Hence, some skepticism should be directed at men who claim that they are unsuccessful with women because they are “nice guys.” If women don’t actually find them to be “nice” (and see them, like Mithrandir, as just “pretending”), then they cannot base their sense of self on being rejected on the grounds of being too “nice.”
One difficulty with interpreting the reported experience of women is that social norms can bias their responses and the way they interpret their experiences. When this is the case, then as Scott (1991) argues, the evidence of experience simply “reproduces” cultural norms. In Urbaniak and Killman’s (2003) study that found that women preferred the “nice guy” script they constructed over a neutral script and a “jerk” script, they note that the social desirability bias could have influenced their results in favor of the “nice guy.” If, consistent with Desrochers claims above, the cultural norm is that women should want “nice guys,” then women’s responses may be biased towards reporting a preference for “nice guys.” Not only would women be biased in reporting, but they would also be biased in how they interpreted their experiences with men. Since the terms “nice guy” and “jerk” are so ambiguous, a woman could convince herself that just about any guy is a “nice guy,” or a “jerk,” depending on which aspects of his behavior she chooses to emphasize. If a woman feels like she is supposed to want “nice guys,” then she can reframe all men the men she was attracted to as “nice guys,” and the social desirability bias could provide her a motive to do so.
The question of how “vision is structured” (Scott, 1991), what philosophers of science call the “theory-ladenness of observation,” is at the core of the difficulty of interpreting men’s and women’s reported experiences. As Desrocher observes above, many men claim that they have come to believe that “nice guys finish last” based on their own experiences. Yet experiences only stand as evidence for a hypothesis within a certain framework that they are interpreted in. This framework is influenced by cultural ideas about what women are attracted to, including the stereotypes that women do or don’t want “nice guys.” When theory-ladenness is combined with semantic ambiguity, it is easy for both men and women to use their experiences to either confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis that “nice guys finish last.”
After viewing some of the many possible problems with asking the question of whether “nice guys finish last,” are there any recommendations we can make? My recommendations for a future research program are that we (a) reject the question, (b) decide on the real questions we want to ask, (c) be careful how we define and measure our concepts, and (d) use behavioral studies to try to avoid the social desirability bias.
It seems clear that a cultural answer cannot be provided to the “nice guy” question, because our culture cannot decide what the question is. If we cannot get society to agree on what this question means, then we should reject it. Due to ambiguity of the question, the same empirical results will be taken as either confirmation or disconfirmation of the idea that “nice guys finish last.” For example, in two studies Jensen-Campbell et al. (1995) operationalized “niceness” as prosocial behavior, which included agreeableness and altruism. They found that female attraction was a result of an interaction of both dominance and prosocial tendency. Yet does this mean that women want “nice guys,” or not? If you understand “nice” to mean “agreeable,” then you may take this study as confirmation that women want “nice guys.” If, on the other hand, you understand “nice guys” to be both agreeable and non-dominant, then you may take the study as confirmation that “nice guys” aren’t as attractive to women as “alpha males.” Hopefully, we can eventually reject the “nice guy/jerk” dichotomy as a simplistic lens to view male personalities and behavior through.
Instead, we should try to find out what people mean when asking whether “nice guys finish last” or not. The real questions may be whether altruistic behavior can get anyone ahead in life, or whether or not women are attracted to masculine men. Of course, we can never discover what people “really” mean, if they mean anything, and any answers we get will also suffer from ambiguity (such as the term “masculinity”). Yet at least we can start by escaping from the mile-wide ambiguity of “nice guys finish last.”
Future researchers should be careful in how they define their concepts and in how they are measured (researchers call this process “operationalization”). For example, “dominance” is another ambiguous term that can be conceptualized in different ways. Another methodological recommendation is that studies try to get around the social desirability bias. Herold and Millhausen (1999) report that “research findings to date proclaiming the popularity of kind, sensitive men have overemphasized women’s partner preferences obtained through checklists while neglecting to study their actual relationship choices,” and found in their study that “although the women in our study reported preferring dating partners with limited sexual experience, more than one third reported having dated someone who had had more sexual partners than they would have liked.” Like Herold and Millhausen, I advocate the virtue of studying both women’s stated preferences and actual behaviors.
Will better research actually help reduce polarization between heterosexual men and women? Maybe, maybe not. Those who are convinced of naïve notions like “women want nice guys” or “women want bad boys/jerks/alpha males” may be impervious to empirical evidence. Yet at least, it seems that understanding each other’s preferences is a necessary—although not sufficient—condition for reducing romantic alienation between men and women. If it turns out that women don’t desire masculine men, or that only a minority of them do, then perhaps the “nice guys finish last” stereotype could be laid to rest. If women do systematically desire masculine men in ways that could give men sexual incentives to act oppressively towards women, then there may be moral reasons for our culture to try to direct women’s preferences away from hegemonic masculinity (to the extent that this is possible). For a start, white middle-class culture could stop actively encouraging female attraction to hegemonic masculinity, and stop erecting misogynists like Eminem as idols for young women.
Bartky, S. L. (1984). Feminine masochism and the politics of personal transformation. Women’s Studies International Forum, 7(5), 323-334.
Bogaert, A. F., & Fisher, W. A. (1995). Predictors of university men’s number of sexual partners. Journal of Sex Research, 32, 119–130.
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