Thursday, August 16, 2012

Cognitive Bias and the Supposed Appeal of 'Bad Boys'

The estimable Coates has a post up about Caitlinn Flannagan's piece about Kennedy from a while back.  It was a piece that I never finished because a) Caitlin Flannagan and b) Boomer Kennedy nostalgia -- neither of which are things I'm a fan of.

The text quoted in Coates's post is vintage Flannagan - a ludicrous attempt to universalize her own tastes and experience to all women, the sort of thing that offends me because I resent the implication that my wife, my best friend and all the other women I like and respect are actually pertpetually adolescent daddy's girls who want a man who will mistreat them.  But that's less what concerns me.

Flannagan makes a particular claim that 'a significant number of women' are drawn to Kennedy because he treated women horribly*.  More generally, that a 'significant number' of women are attracted to men who treat women badly, because they treat them badly.  Coates goes on in comments to argue that this statement is truer if universalized -- that there's a decent number of people, male and female, who are attracted to people who mistreat them, or who are bad for them.

Intuitively, I wanted to agree with that.  I've known women with abominable taste in men and men with abominable taste in women (and women with abominable taste in women and men with abominable test in men).  But I suspect that in both cases I may mistake where the attraction lies due to my own biases.  That is to say, just because someone (person A) is attracted to a person (person B) who cheats on and belittles their romantic partners doesn't mean that cheating and belitting is the reason for the attraction.  But to an outside observer, cheating and belittling are the salient characteristics of person B, particularly when we see them treat our friend like crap.    Because we define person B in terms of cheating and belittling, we may be blind to what's actually appealing about them to person A.  Person B could be attractively assertive or flirtatious, person A could just be desperate etc.  Just because we mentally define people in certain ways doesn't mean that others do as well.

A fictional example of the bias at work is the common misreading of Pride and Prejudice that sees Lizzie Bennet being attracted to Darcy's seeming callousness and general jerkassitude.  In fact, the sequence of events in the book is 1) Lizzie is attracted to Darcy 2) he's a bit of a jerk 3) she gives up on him 4) he's a real jerk 5) he apologizes 6) she accepts 7) happily ever after.  But because we, as readers remember the hostility between them in steps 2-4, this becomes what's salient in their relationship.  Since the mutual hostility is, for us, Lizzie and Darcy's defining feature, his jerkish attitude is 'what she sees in him' -- not that he's wealthy, handsome, kind to his servants and loyal to his friends.  Because most of the action of the novel revolves around his pride and her prejudice, readers naturally asssume that the key to the underlying attraction is said pride and prejudice, not the fact that Lizzie and Darcy are both pretty attractive (if prickly) people.

*(I don't mean the adultery thing, I mean the just-about-raping 19 year old white house staff and then having them fellate his friends thing).

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