Scientifically, nice (heterosexual) guys might actually finish last. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin recently found that while men were attracted to nice-seeming women upon meeting them, women did not feel the same way about men. Researchers from the University of Rochester, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in Israel investigated a possible mechanism explaining why women and men differ in their sexual reactions with receptive opposite-sex strangers.
One hundred and twelve undergraduate students volunteered for the study at a university in central Israel. The volunteer pool was split evenly between men and women, and participants were paired randomly with an opposite-sex individual they hadn’t met before. The study examined burgeoning sexual interest and the participants’ feelings on the possibility of long-term dating with their new “partners,” and how those connected to their perceptions of a personality trait the study calls “responsiveness.”
In the study, responsiveness is defined as a characteristic “that may signal to potential partners that one understands, values and supports important aspects of their self-concept and is willing to invest resources in the relationship.” A limitation of this definition, the authors state, is that the concept of “responsiveness” is ultimately elusive—it can mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, the researchers felt they could use their definition to help get at some of the different ways men and women perceive potential partners.
"Sexual desire thrives on rising intimacy and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time," lead researcher Gurit Birnbaum explained in a press release. It makes sense: responsiveness is key to any relationship, whether it’s a friendship or a romantic union.
But it’s not as important of a factor when you first meet someone, according to the study. "Our findings show that this does not necessarily hold true in an initial encounter, because a responsive potential partner may convey opposite meanings to different people,” stated Birnbaum.
In the first of three studies, researchers explored whether women or men perceived a receptive opposite-sex stranger as sexually desirable and, if so, whether that “responsive” quality registered as overtly feminine or masculine. The researchers found that men who perceived possible female partners as responsive found them to be “more feminine and more attractive.” Past research suggests that physical cues of femininity stimulate sexual attraction because they suggest higher estrogen levels, better overall mate quality and solid reproductive health.
On the other hand, women didn’t necessarily perceive a responsive man as less masculine, but they also did not find a responsive man more attractive. What’s more, when women perceived their male partner to be responsive, they were less attracted to the man.
In other words, it appeared that in an initial encounter men liked nice ladies; women thought nice guys were kind of lame.
The second study required participants to engage with either a responsive or unresponsive person of the opposite sex, then interact with them online while detailing a current problem in their life. The goal here was to remove the potentially confounding elements of live social interaction (smiling, physical attractiveness) to see if they could isolate how much responsiveness—or niceness—played into attraction.
Again, the men in the study thought responsive and attentive women were more attractive as potential partners, while women found men with those same traits to be less desirable.
The third and final study presented in the paper sought to test specifically whether the mechanism by which “responsiveness” motivated individuals to pursue relationships was, in fact, sexual arousal. To do so, they replicated the second study, but added a specific measure of sexual attraction. They then found that when men found women to be responsive, it led to a heightened sexual arousal among men. That, in turn led to greater desire for a relationship.
While the studies shed some light on why men find responsive women more sexually desirable, Birnbaum explains that researchers are still unsure why women are less sexually attracted to responsive strangers than men.
“Women may perceive a responsive stranger as less desirable for different reasons," said Birnbaum in a press release. "Women may perceive this person as inappropriately nice and manipulative (i.e., trying to obtain sexual favors) or eager to please, perhaps even as desperate, and therefore less sexually appealing. Alternatively, women may perceive a responsive man as vulnerable and less dominant.”
So for now, the question “what do women want?” will remain unanswered.