Are you attracted to a romantic partner who is commanding, powerful, assertive, and take-charge? Or do you prefer someone who is less dominant? Your answer is likely to depend on your gender and your personality. Women may prefer dominant “bad boys” (and some men prefer “bad girls”). Different women have very different reasons for seeking out a dominant partner, as do other women for seeking the opposite.
There are different ways for a person to be dominant, but researchers consider social dominance to include traits like being authoritative, in control, and taking a leadership role.1,2,3 However, such traits are not normally associated with kind, caring people. Dominant people tend to be more self-centered and insensitive to others’ feelings, not traits most of us seek in a romantic partner.4 For dominant individuals to be seen as desirable mates, they need to combine that commanding personality with other traits that show a willingness to be generous and helpful.5 Women want a partner who is competitive with others, but treats them well.6
Evolutionary psychologists claim that women prefer dominant partners because such men have superior genes. Evidence has shown that women prefer more dominant men when they themselves are at the most fertile point of their menstrual cycle, whereas most men do not similarly seek out dominant women.7
New research by Gilda Geibel and colleagues goes beyond these evolutionary explanations, which focus solely on gender differences, and examines how our individual personality traits affect the preference for dominant partners.8 The researchers speculated that if a passive but nice partner is seen as “boring," then people who are especially averse to boredom in their lives will be the most likely to seek out dominant partners. They predicted that people who are high in sensation-seeking—"the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take risks for the sake of such experiences”9—would be especially likely to prefer dominant partners. They also wondered how anxiety, particularly for women, might influence these preferences.
In a survey, 172 German adults (60% female, 63% students) completed personality questionnaires, and then measured their own preference for a dominant partner. Participants rated how much they agreed with statements such as, “A very nice man/woman is often boring"; “I like it when the man/woman takes on a leadership role in our relationship"; and, “I feel attracted to assertive men/women." To assess sensation-seeking, participants completed a well-known measure of this trait, which includes four sub-scales:
- Thrill and adventure-seeking. The tendency to engage in “fearless” behavior, like skydiving and mountain-climbing.
- Disinhibition. Engaging in impulsive behaviors, like drug and alcohol use or unsafe sex.
- Experience seeking. Seeking out less risky, but exciting, new experiences, like travel or artistic experiences.
- Boredom susceptibility. The tendency to become bored easily and need constant stimulation from other people or activities.
The results revealed that sensation-seekers of both genders were especially likely to prefer a dominant partner. In particular, boredom susceptibility and disinhibition were correlated with a preference for dominant partners—while thrill-seeking was not. This suggests that those who are easily bored and engage in impulsive behaviors may choose more dominant romantic partners. Such partners may provide excitement that keeps them stimulated.
The researchers also examined participants' overall levels of anxiety. In particular, the researchers hypothesized that women who were highly anxious might prefer dominant partners because of the protection that they offer, rather than because they’re sexy or exciting.
Their results did reveal that there were two types of women who preferred dominant partners—those who displayed boredom susceptibility and disinhibition, and anxiety. These traits are totally uncorrelated to each other, providing evidence that these two types of women may have different motivations for seeking dominant partners. Anxious women appear to prefer dominant partners because they offer protection and security, while disinhibited, easily bored women seem to prefer dominant partners because they’reexciting.
Not all anxious women showed a preference for dominant partners, however. Anxious women were more likely to score highly on the experience-seeking aspect of sensation-seeking, the researchers found, and they concluded that anxious women have two different ways of coping with their anxiety: Some seek a dominant man for protection. But others, particularly those who seek out new and exciting experiences, may try to compensate for their anxiety by pursuing a more sophisticated, cosmopolitan and non-conformist lifestyle that involves new experiences, like travel and artistic pursuits. These women avoid a dominant partner who may try to control them and limit their ability to pursue those experiences. (Of course, there may be other explanations for this surprising pattern of results.)
While there may be some truth, then, to the stereotype that women seek dominant “bad boys," the real picture is complicated—and men certainly may also seek “bad girls” if they themselves are disinhibited and easily bored, just as some women may seek dominant partners if they have that same easily bored personality type. Other women may seek dominant partners because they are anxious and want protection from their mate—although other anxious women prefer the opposite, wanting less-dominant partners who allow them to explore new experiences.