Cads and Dads

Tyler, Alex, Alex’s wife Monique, Bryan (Caplan), Ilia (Rainer) and I had a fun conversation on Thursday.

A standard story says that women like cads for short term relationships, to get good sex (i.e., genes), and dads for long term relationships, to get security and comfort (i.e., resources to raise kids).  Of course some men are good in both roles, but most men are thought to be better at one role than the other.

Woman always want both sex and security, but they seem to prefer "bad  boy" cads more when they are young, and dads more when they are older.  Why?  We were looking less for proximate psychological causes and more for functional explanations.  We came up with these four theories:

1.  Young women must practice having relationships, in part to discover the distribution of guys out there and their own ability to attract guys.  This requires short term relationships.  But it is not clear why these should be more with cads rather than dad candidates.  And this would predict young women avoid sex when practicing, to avoid having kids.  This theory applies to better to young teens than to young women.

2.  Instead of having all her kids with a dad, many women may have enough negotiating power to get a dad to support her even if she has one kid with a cad.   Dads object less to supporting a cad kid created before they met, as a cad kid created during their relationship suggests that it won’t be the last.  A cad kid early in life can be written off to the "foolishness of youth," and she can credibly claim that she didn’t intend for this to be a cad kid; she had hoped the cad would be a dad.

3.  Girls more than women expect parents to help with their mistakes.  A young woman expects a cad kid to be cared for not by a dad but by her parents and extended family.  Since parents die eventually, older women are less likely to have such support available.  This theory predicts that women without living parents would be less attracted to cads, all else equal.

4.  Young people have stronger incentives to signal than older people, since they are still forming long term attachments, and want to attract the best partners.  Young women compete to attract cads in order to signal their attractiveness and social power, and having sex with cads helps to attract cads.   Women compete more for cads than for dads because cad quality is easier to see in young men – it can take many years to reveal who are the best resource providers.  This theory predicts young women have less interest in private unobserved relationships with cads.

The truth is probably a mixture of these theories.   But some are probably more important that others.

TC: Here are related posts on the topic.


The world as seen by Jane Austin might support theories 1 and 4 but not 2 and 3, given the prohibitive penalties on pregnancy out of wedlock. You might also examine relationships from the point of view of the male--why are cads more successful than dads in Austin's world? One reason--they're less constrained by moral codes.

Younger women are obsessed/addicted to drama. Cads scratch that itch (commonly described as "they are exciting"). As women mature, they become less likely to fall for cad addiction. Sometime around 23-27 American women grow out of the cad addiction and start looking for stability and maturity (I noticed that women from other nations grow out of this cad addiction at a much lower age). When she's able to say "when will this guy ever grow up," then she's starting to mature into a dad-seeking woman. I note that some women never "grow up" just as some men never "grow up" either.

Part of the driving force for the drama/cad obsession are romance novels and soap operas. These end up transmitting a culture of drama: an amplification of the gossip-teen years.

I'd think that the "biological clock" factor is one of the most important. Women want to find a dad at some point, and preferably a high quality one. If a woman waits too long to focus on finding a dad, then that increases the chances that she'll never find one or that she'll have to settle for a lower quality dad. When she's younger, the costs of waiting to look for a dad (or spending less effort looking for a dad) are lower, since that still leaves her with plenty of time to find a dad.

The shift to dad-search when mating years are getting short is magnified by the fact that finding a dad is more important than finding a cad, since dads are pretty good substitutes for what cads do well (just slightly lower gene quality, on average), but cads are bad substitutes for what dads do well (much worse providers of security and companionship).

These factors explain the shift to dads, but they don't have much to say about why women ever spend time on cads. For that, you have to go to one of the other explanations.

Focusing on proximate causes for a moment, it seems to me that almost-attainable-but-not-quite mates are often very attractive, for both young men and young women. People wind up in "bad" relationships that they are convinced they could turn into good ones, if only the other person would change a little bit. Cads will have an easier time becoming such objects of desire than dads, almost by definition. This is related to Peter's "drama" hypothesis above, except that I would place less weight on the importance of romance novels and soap operas. Rather, it has to do with people assigning importance to various emotions that they experience; namely, I think that the potential for rejection is particularly compelling for many people. As people age, however, they do become wiser, and as they achieve greater peace with themselves they find themselves less attracted to cads.

I appreciate the evolutionary arguments, and I think they are important. However, when people imply things like, "Oh young women like drama just because they want to better genes for their kids," alarm bells go off in my head. Human psychology cannot simply be reduced to the propogation of superior genetic material. Or should I think that everyone's opinion in this debate can be explained in terms of one reproductive strategy or another?

A cad is generally more carefree and easy around women than a dad (speaking as a "dad" type). The cad's cavalier attitude suggests to women that he has the ability and virility to spread his seed around to many women. That ability is seen as a sign of good genes, because he should have more opportunities to pass his genes on.

By contrast, the dad's nervousness signals that he doesn't have a lot of opportunities to spread his seed around, that each occasion is a dfficult or unusual moment. This signals to a woman that his genes have fewer chances, making his genes less attractive.

There are, of course, other notions that figure into female attraction - security, power, money, good looks, etc. - but the dad/cad dichotomy does signal underlying ability/opportunity to spread genetic wealth.

- Josh

Girls like cads because cads are more forward than dads. This requires less effort on her part, at least until the cad loses interest and moves on.

In other words, cads have a low start-up cost but are expensive to maintain. Dads are the reverse. This also explains why guys like fast women.

Apocryphal knowledge (I can't tag the resource) says that children of older parents tend to marry older men. It would seem that girls are attracted to men that offer them what they think they want. And what they think they want is determined by what they've had. Also, by definition, a cad is charming, good looking and focused on the social side of relationships. The social side is important in the beginning of any relationship along with the other physical traits called attractiveness. A lot of dad's are not, they're focused on material accumulation and that doesn't come across as important because to pass the tipping point takes more than a few years.
Fun stuff.

I've often heard the figure that at least 10% of children are being raised by non-biological fathers who don't realize that fact.

Young women are attracted to aggressive men because that increases the likelihood their male children will be strong and aggressive and highly successful breeders.

I think the later year relationships are harder to reason about from an evolutionary stance since we weren't designed to live this long -- it's an accident. And birth control has thrown a wrench into our instinctive strategies.

Women are attracted to social status. We are built to live in small societies where everyone pretty much knows everybody else. Being aggressive is a way of faking high social status. In a small society a low status male acting aggressive would be taken down by the high status males.

Confidence and aggressiveness are good signals of status, especially in small social groups. Of course, men try to fake social status, and women then get better and detecting the fakes. Classic evolutionary arms race.

Maybe the desire for a sense of mastery plays into this. A lot of women choose difficult men in the hope of reforming them--in that case, young women choose cads for the same reason that young men chose motorcycles. In both cases, as they get a little older, they get a better sense of which challenges are worth the risk.

Alternatively, cads specialize in being attractive to women and get more practice at it than dads.

You have discussed subgroups of men according to type (cad/dad) and subgroups of women according to age (girl/woman). I wonder if women should also be differentiated according to type and men according to age. Does the experience of a young cad condition his behaviour as an old cad, possibly making him a better partner?

Apparently every romance novel is about a cad who turns into a dad.

If you think about it, there isn't too much to be gained by looking at the ultimate evolutionary explanations -- it's not like there's a whole level of explanation that's inaccessible to basic introspection. Cads are attractive because you need to be attractive to be a cad. When a woman is young, the idea that she can change a cad into a dad is more compelling than when she is old, and this is not best understood as an evolutionary phenomenon.

It's interesting that nerdy men are fascinated by the idea of secret subliminal signals that affect women's brains due to natural selection, but I'm not sure how much explanatory power this fascination has.

Maybe cads are analogous to peacocks with tails that are attractive by ancient standards, but middling by modern ones and the women eager to have sex with them are looking for characteristics that would be conducive to the survival of species in the ancient environment. Sure, cads are aggressive in some ways (Chatting up girls with cheesy lines and such), and tend to be tall, but they don't often seem to attain status that's useful in the modern world by becoming lawyers, executives, politicians, or doctors. Maybe young women have to learn to overcome evolutionary instincts?

Nancy, Pearl, Barbar, Daniel, and others are all drawn to the idea that women learn with time. If so the natural question is why evolution starts women out with the wrong expectations. Some suggest women have to learn that the modern world favors cads less than the ancient world.

I saw a recent study showing that women prefer cad men more today than a few decades ago, plausibly because with increasing wealth women need be concerned less about dad resources. If so, cads would seem to be more, not less, attractive in the modern world, relative to the ancient world.

Peter, our media tells people the things they want to hear - if that includes drama, it is because people want to be told about drama.

David, if others could confirm your observation, that would be a great question: Why do American women like cads more?

A few comments:
1.) I do agree that cad vs. dad selection depends on wealth.
2.) Cad vs. dad also depends on the influence or parents and other role models as well as friend. If the parents have time and the opportunity to guide their (young)females, then it seems less likely that the female has many cads. The influence of parents appears stronger in Europe (and other nations) where young folks live home longer (or near home). That in turn might make it seem that younger people grow up faster and do not do as many "stupid" things.
3.)I disagree that "Most young women want them tall, stupid, drunk and tall, and also tall. Then they can't handle the wreckage"
Most of my smart friends had relatioships with the sporty, smart and well suited (materially), the less smart ones or "ugly" had the opposite but that doesn't mean the cad is different from a dad.

This has been hinted at but I think that many younger cads grow older and turn into dads. I've seen it many times. Both sexes change personality dimensions as they get older.

Also, some people seem to be assuming that it is a mistake for women to be attracted to cads. Sure, pursuing cads is risky, and has the potential to cause a lot of heartache and drama, but that hardly makes me wonder why evolution allows it to happen.

Isn't there an underlying tone of "young women like hot men, but it's such a mistake for them; they should like nice guys like me instead, because we're really nice and loyal" in a lot of this discussion? (See Peter's 10:24 AM post from yesterday.) Nice guys should just settle down with fat chicks and stop complaining about how evolution screwed them over.

Barbar, yes, many are using this forum to advocate for dads over cads. I suspect this isn't the best place to reach their intended audience. :)

Todd, yes, confidence is correlated with success, but I think that is because confidence is correlated with quality. Choosing a high confidence without a high quality won't get you very far. And there are different qualities appropriate for cads vs. dads, so there are different things to be confident in.

It's not necessarily true that Alpha males are cads and nerds are dads. That rising young corporate executive with his BMW and country club membership might be an excellent father to his children. And the computer geek who never misses a Star Trek convention might - in the unlikely event he's been able to find a woman with whom to have children - be a neglectful, uncaring father.

Robin said: "Mike suggests 'later year relationships are harder to reason about from an evolutionary stance since we weren't designed to live this long.' The transition in female preferences seems to happen in their late 20s, and 30 year old women were well within the range of ages with evolutionary significance."

Weren't 30 year old women more likely to be grandmothers than mothers in our distant past? If so, wouldn't hte strategy be to try to get Cads when young and (grand)dads when old?

I'm a little late to the discussion and have many things to say. I'll limit myself to two points.

First, I think the entire debate is mistaken. Cads can only be cads in the modern environment. In the environment in which we evolved, which I understand is presumed to be similar to that of the bushmen, it was difficult to escape one's reputation and one's children. The inclination to mate with men who today would be cads would, in *that* environment, get one a superior dad, one more likely to dominate his peers and fetch for himself and his family a larger piece of the collective pie. He might dominate and abuse his family as well, but he wouldn't escape them.

Second, men and women's preferences evolve along the same lines though their reproductive strategies are vastly different. If this evolution of preferences has a similar origin in both genders, these arguments which crucially depend on female reproductive strategies must be mistaken.

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