Cad vs. Dad

December 07, 2003

FINALLY, PROOF that all a guy needs to know about the sexual psychology of women (and evolutionary theory) can be found in a 19th century Brit Lit class.

Researchers asked 257 undergraduate women at the University of Michigan to read four short descriptions of leading men plucked from the nearly two-centuries-old novels of British authors Sir Walter Scott and Ann Radcliffe. Half were proper heroes (archetypal dads - sensible, gentle, monogamous) and the others were dark heroes or cads (moody, rebellious, self-confident). The women were then asked such questions as: Whom would you marry? Take on a three-week trip to California? Choose as a son-in-law?

The results, as surely Mr. Scott or Mrs. Radcliffe could have predicted, were obvious. Women liked those safe dads for long-term relationships - and for son-in-law purposes. But when it comes to an, ahem, shorter-term encounter, they liked those mercurial cads. In an article published in the fall issue of Human Nature, the researchers suggest long-term anthropological implications, chiefly that the dad vs. cad distinction is intuitive in women. In other words, Jennifer Lopez has known from birth that it's OK to date P. Diddy, but she had best try to marry Ben Affleck. The study also recommended continued "Darwinian literary criticism" as a means to test evolutionary theory.

We think the implications are much broader. First, it's heartening that 18-year-olds in Ann Arbor could read 19th century romantic texts with such comprehension. (Researchers provided helpful keys that explained, among other things, "supercilious = arrogant.") But, perhaps more important, it raises a profound question: What does this mean for the reality dating shows? Could Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy be The Bachelor? Wasn't the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein born to be the next contestant on Average Joe? A melancholy lifts from our countenance at the thought.

Naturally, more research is needed. Male students should be queried: Would they rather woo Rebecca of Ivanhoe or the Dashwood girls from Sense and Sensibility? Those still puzzled by the significance of it all, particularly the lonely dads who spend Saturday nights watching Masterpiece Theater reruns, should take comfort in the words of Lord Byron: "What a strange thing man is; and what a stranger thing woman." What a cad.

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