Ever since Chad Thompson kicked a pile of wet leaves on me during third grade recess, I’ve been drawn to the challenge of a wayward guy with zero interest in me. (I would have married Chad right there on the playground if he’d asked.)

 It took a doozy of a relationship—with a man who was only vaguely interested in me, emotionally unavailable, and in the process of getting over a troubled childhood—for me to take stock and realize that every guy I’d fallen for was either hard to get or a fixer-upper (or both, in the aforementioned case). Even now, certain triggers (strong jaw, tragic boyhood story, aviator sunglasses) inspire a primal and immediate magnetism in me. I see a man, presume him bad and think, first, uh oh. Then, game on.

 I’m hardly alone in my desire for bad boys. Once reserved for the type of guy who resided on the wrong side of the tracks, rode a motorcycle and didn’t care about the law, the “bad boy” definition has evolved into a catchall phrase describing men who women empirically know better than to fall for, but who they somehow can’t resist.

 Why These Boys?

To understand this affliction, I recently set out to uncover why certain types of “bad” men appeal not just to me, but also to so many women. According to behavioral expert Patrick Wanis, Ph.D., one of the defining differences between men and women is how we’re attracted to the opposite sex. While men tend to fall in love with a woman as she is, women often fall in love with the guy she believes a man can become. While exceptions exist, he says, the overall appeal of the bad boy is rooted in this female tendency to fall in love with potential, above all else.

 In fact, women pride themselves on their ability to convince a man to change, a skill that is tightly bound to the nurturing instinct, Wanis explains. “Women expect a man to evolve, grow and change,” he says. “When a woman sees a ‘bad boy,’ she thinks she can turn him into a ‘good boy.'”

 This impulse is also connected to our brain’s natural reward system. As biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., author of Why Him, Why Her, maintains, “any kind of barrier in a relationship intensifies it.” 

 “The reward system in the brain is run by dopamine, ” Fisher says. “When the dopamine system doesn’t get what it wants, it just keeps pumping. And you only get more focused, more craving, more need-to-have-it.” Thus, “having your heart set” on a bad boy is more than just a clever turn of phrase—it’s also chemical.

 Breaking Down Bad

Somewhat like the Supreme Court’s stance on obscenity, what actually constitutes a bad boy tends to follows the I-know-one-when-I-see-one threshold test, varying from woman to woman.

 Still, there are well-known “types” of men who fall into the bad boy category, and I asked Wanis to shed some light on why certain woman are drawn to some more than others. For example, the elusive bad boy—who seems out of reach because he runs in a different social circle and doesn’t know you exist, or is forbidden to you for some reason (à la those the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet)—intrigues a woman because he activates her dopamine system, creating a sense of thrill-seeking, anticipatory and emotional excitement, Wanis says.

 Recent research from the University of British Columbia highlights this hardwired desire for a man who presents a challenge. In a study that measured how women responded to various male facial expressions, researchers found they were least attracted to images of men who appeared smiling and happy. Psychology professor Jessica Tracy, who lead the study, explains that, “Happiness shows availability and, while men found happy-faced women extremely attractive, that message of availability [from a man to a woman] is not really necessary. Women generally assume that men are open to sexual relations.” In short, women perceive that a man who’s trying too hard must have something wrong with him. (And now I feel justified for swooning over Chad post-foliage attack instead of shunning him, as well as for the times I’ve stuck the “creepy” label on guys who seemed overly interested in me. Thanks, science!)

 Similar to the elusive guy is the guarded bad boy—a mysterious man who might be more withdrawn, or simply one who’s selective about the people he allows into his inner circle (think Edward Cullen from Twilight, or perhaps Larry David in his heyday). The appeal here is the reward of feeling special upon being “chosen” by this man, given that he doesn’t offer himself to just anyone. Subsequently, a more guarded man also holds greater value. “Women believe that if they have to work a little harder to get through to him, they’ll have a more powerful connection,” Wanis says.

 Because women tend to tie their personal identity and value to their relationships, the bad boy impulse isn’t just about wanting what they can’t have or fulfilling psychological desires, explains Wanis. Snaring a more guarded man is, in fact, the ultimate badge of honor among women. “A woman wants to conquer the man to say, ‘I got him,’ but also to snag the boy that no other girl can get,” he says.

 While the elusive and guarded types appeal because they give women the excitement of a chase—not to mention a rewarding feeling of accomplishment upon capture—the draws toward other bad boy types are more nuanced.

 A woman who pursues the non-committal bad boy (picture consummate bachelor George Clooney), for example, may be seeking the satisfaction of taming a steadfast bachelor. However, she could just be looking for a “safe” relationship because she too doesn’t want to commit, Wanis says, and she knows that this type of man won’t expect that from her. A woman may also go for a man who’s unwilling to commit because she’s subconsciously afraid of being rejected. By pursuing a known relationship-avoider, she protects herself from getting hurt, because she expects him to remain unavailable. “The rejection isn’t personal, because he won’t commit to anyone, and she walks away saying, ‘It’s not my fault,'” Wanis says.

 Another more complex bad boy choice is the fixer-upper bad boy. He could be a slacker with so much potential (like Ethan Hawke’s character from Reality Bites), or he could have a painful past and a suitcase full of issues to work through. Either way, this kind of man is attractive because he inspires a woman to rescue him. Wanis says that she may have grown up taking care of her younger siblings, so this role feels natural to her, but subconsciously, she may also go for a man like this because of the sense of relationship security she’ll get (in the form of control) if he becomes dependent on her. Although I’d like to believe that pining for a man in distress is far more empowering than being the damsel, ultimately pursuing someone who needs saving is its own desperate act, stemming from a desire to become indispensible.

 Finding The Good In The Bad

Although some women do consciously convince themselves that they’re just not attracted to nice guys, most go for the supposed bad ones to fill a subconscious need, especially younger women. “The young are much more experimental, and they haven’t had as many relationships,” Fisher says. “They also may not be able to spot the bad boy and link him with a bad ending.”

 Wanis also notes that, as women mature, they should theoretically stop going for bad boys, not because the instinct to shape and nurture ebbs, but because they eventually realize that men won’t change.

 Yet, with this alluring barrier in place comes an inescapable temptation: Once under the influence of the “right woman,” there’s an expectation that a hard-to-pin-down type can be subdued into a family man, the slacker’s hidden talents can be cultivated, and the guarded man will crack open the doors to his heart. While chasing bad boys appears to be a younger woman’s game, the appeal endures as women continue to optimistically believe they can tame these men and be the “right” ones for them. “Most people who go out with a bad boy, deep in their hearts, are hopeful that they will win,” Fisher says.

After all, she says, “Even bad boys fall in love with somebody.”

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