Despite criticism of the trope, the “bad boy” character remains immensely popular among readers and audiences. Whether he’s got a supernatural side that makes him potentially lethal, like True Blood‘s Eric and Twilight‘s Edward, or a callous side that could turn him into a heartbreaker, like Lost‘s Sawyer and Gossip Girl‘s Chuck, they catch other characters’ eyes and make fans swoon. (“Femmes fatales” likely serve the same function, for similar reasons, though they seem to be less common in stories these days.) The theory most often suggested is that we like the idea of a love interest we can change for the better. But wouldn’t it be easier to go for someone who doesn’t need changing in the first place, and who isn’t so likely to rip out our hearts (figuratively or literally)? Why is dangerous so much more appealing than safe? I think psychology may provide an answer.
While you might assume that you experience an emotion (like romantic or sexual attraction) first, and the physical reactions to that emotion (like a pounding heart or sweaty palms) follow after, most psychologists believe that it happens the other way around. We enter a situation that sets off what is called the automatic arousal of our nervous system, with a surge of adrenalin causing the elevated heart rate and breathing, perspiration, and so on. Then, because our body has reacted, we use our perceptions to determine what emotion we’re experiencing. Those perceptions can be internal, but it’s likely that we also use external cues to figure out why we’ve gone into fight-or-flight mode.
A classic study to investigate this theory was conducted by researchers Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron on bridges in a park. The participants were young men encountering a young woman at the bridge, who asked them to stop and fill out a brief questionnaire. Afterward the woman offered her phone number as an opportunity to discuss the research in the future. But not all participants faced the same situation. Some met the woman on a narrow, precarious suspension bridge 230 feet above a river. Others met her on a shorter, solid bridge only 10 feet above a stream.
The experimenters wanted to see whether the participants would attribute some of their automatic arousal caused by the unstable first bridge to the woman instead, interpreting the emotion as lust instead of fear. And the end result suggests this is true. Half of the men who met the woman on the high, shaky bridge called her afterward, whereas much fewer of those who met her on the safe bridge did.
Though there are many factors that come into play when experiencing and interpreting emotions, I think studies like this can tell us a lot about why bad boys or femme fatales would appeal to their romantic interests, rather than scaring them away. The character encountering a fierce or callous figure would experience that same fight-or-flight reaction: heart thumping and breath catching. But if the threatening figure is also physically attractive and/or charismatic in some way, a response that perhaps should be interpreted as anxiety, instead becomes passion. An attractive guy who doesn’t have that dangerous quality may have to work a lot harder to provoke the same intense feelings. So maybe critics shouldn’t be quite so hard on characters who make apparently idiotic romantic choices.
Of course, this doesn’t only affect the story’s characters, but its readers or viewers as well. After all, our emotions are set off by what the characters are experiencing and feeling (assuming we’re engaged by the story) via empathy. So if a character enters a dangerous situation, our hearts will start pounding, too. And if that situation was created by another character seen to be or described as attractive, we may view that sense of danger as exciting and romantic instead of just frightening. Which may very well by why, for many people, the worse crime a fictional romantic interest can commit is not cruelty or coldness, but being boring. After all, that nice, helpful, safe guy or gal might not provoke any emotional response at all.
It goes without saying that there are plenty of other types of characters people find appealing, for a variety of reasons. But the draw of the bad boy often seems the most mysterious until you consider the psychology of the matter.