Beware: On a First Date, Red Flags Can Look Red Hot

Many people pride themselves on being excellent judges of character.  And when it comes to selecting friends or hiring help, sure enough, they usually make excellent decisions.  Yet some of those same people are incapable of exercising the same judgment personally that they do professionally.  Romantically, they end up falling for inappropriate, sometimes even dangerous suitors.  How do intelligent, educated people make such disastrous choices when it comes to romance?

The Dark Side of Dating: The Desirability of “Dark Triad” Traits

In a study aptly entitled “How Alluring Are Dark Personalities?” (2016), researchers Jauk et al. studied the appeal of the three Dark Triad traits: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, on speed dating.[i] They define narcissism as including self-admiration and grandiosity, Machiavellianism as cynical thinking and detached affect and coldness, and psychopathy as callousness, manipulativeness, and anti social behavior.

Jauk et al. began by noting that three Dark Triad personality traits are linked to short term mating strategies.  In their study, they discovered that narcissism was linked to both short and long term mate appeal for both men and women. This was due to the link between narcissism and other traits in men and women, respectively: extraversion and physical beauty.

Regarding psychopathy, Jauk et al. found that for women, psychopathy was linked with short-term relationship mate appeal, although this may have been also due to physical attractiveness.  They also found that women with psychopathic traits seemed more open to short term relationships, which could result in signaling sexual permissiveness, causing men to choose them for dates. 

Some personality traits are beyond dark, they are dangerous.  Yet even aggressive predisposition can masquerade as attractive and assertive on a first date.  Consider an example (altered to protect the identity of the parties involved) from my years of work prosecuting domestic violence crimes.

When What Growls Like A Wolf is a Wolf[ii]

Kyle makes a strong impression on his first date with Maria at an expensive restaurant where he has reserved the best table. As a veteran business executive, he entertains her throughout dinner with war stories and vivid descriptions of his brilliant deal making ability and prowess in the boardroom.      

Maria is not only impressed by his job, she is also impressed by his assertiveness. Not only does he order for both of them and select the wine, but also he demands that the waiter send back Maria´s steak when it is cooked incorrectly. Maria perceives Kyle´s taking charge of the situation as comforting because it demonstrates that he can take care of her needs.

What it also demonstrates, as Maria will no doubt understand over time, is his need for power and control.  If this relationship continues, not only will the perception of care turn into control, perceived protection will turn into possessiveness. Maria will wonder in retrospect, were those negative traits there all along?

As I state in my book Red Flags, within abusive relationships:

  • Possessive looks protective  
  • Controlling looks comforting 
  • Aggressive looks assertive  
  • Violent looks passionate
  • Rude looks direct
  • Condescending looks confident

From the beginning of the evening, Kyle was focused on himself and controlling his environment. Demonstrating brazen disregard for social etiquette, he monopolized the conversation, berated the servers, and even dictated Maria´s order. While a man ordering for a woman in a restaurant is not terribly unusual, in most cases the man has some indication of his date’s preferences. Is she a vegetarian? A Vegan? Regarding the wine, how did Kyle know Maria wasn’t a recovering alcoholic? Can you imagine?

Getting to Know Before Getting Involved

The fact that dark and dangerous traits can appear desirable upon first impression is one of many reasons to get to know potential paramours before getting involved romantically.  First dates are about first impressions.  Yet they are also the time you are at your most objective.  So become informed before becoming infatuated.  Examine the behavior, temperament, and suitability of a potential partner early on, to ensure that seemingly desirable qualities are as good as they look.    

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD

[i] Emanuel Jauk, Aljoscha C. Neubauer, Thomas Mairunteregger, Stephanie Pemp, Katharina P.  Sieber, and John F. Rauthmann, “How Alluring Are Dark Personalities? The Dark Triad and Attractiveness in Speed Dating,” European Journal of Personality 30, no. 2 (2016): 125–138.

[ii] This example is an altered vignette from my book Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).


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