The Art & Science of Spotting College Bad Boys

Here’s a letter I got recently from a female Harvard undergrad. Names have been changed to protect the shady:

Dear Ali,

I have a question for you regarding a dating situation I had recently.

Jon had been pursuing me for several months, sending me friendly texts, chatting in our psych class, before I was finally convinced that his intentions were (at least somewhat) honorable. I began spending time with Jon outside of class; we would hang out together at parties on the weekend and sometimes grab lunch during the week. I was aware that Jon was far more available to spend time with me on weekend nights than during the week, but, I figured, we were both busy people.

After a few months of casually hooking up, I decided that I liked Jon, but I didn’t just want a casual relationship with him. Before things went any further, physically that is, I communicated my concern to Jon. I told him that I didn’t just sleep around. If he did not want a commitment, this could not go any further.  Jon understood, and even told me that I was the kind of girl he “respected.” I was satisfied with this response; maybe I had actually found a good guy.

Shortly after Jon and I slept together, he stopped calling me.

I thought I had been so careful. After all that time, how did I still become his one-night stand? I need sage advice — how do I spot a “bad boy” in disguise?


Wow. Tough one, Sara! Sounds like you were pretty circumspect about this one and still got blindsided.

Before we start, two things: It’s possible for you to do everything right and still get a bad result. It’s called life. The key is to dust yourself off, chalk it up to experience and keep on moving. Do not indulge in self-pity, blame or shame, but do learn from your experience.

Second: Could you have done things differently? This is where the gold nugget of learning resides. I was just reading about one of the greatest game players of all time. His name is Bill Robertie. You’ve probably never heard of him: he’s a champion chess player, a 2-time world backgammon champion (a record), and a poker expert. Nobody in the world has that level of mastery in those three domains.

By his own account, the way he got to be world-class in all three disciplines was to learn from his own mistakes. He would study every move he made, and think: “How can I do this better next time?” And he did. And he got that good.

So the key here is to see what you can and should do differently next time. I don’t have the full account of who Jon is and what transpired between you, so I’ll be talking in terms of principles rather than specifics.

What we’re going to focus on today is not just how to avoid bad boys, but how to ensure that you have as enriching, fun, and safe a love life as possible in college. Make sense? Let’s get to it:

1) To spot bad boys accurately, train your brain to spot them first — then trust your judgment.

In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer talks about how experts detect patterns that allow them to make good decisions (the opening of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink also deals with this). The way chess grandmasters, expert backgammon players and poker pros do this is by repeated exposure to various scenarios.

As a result, when they fall into an adverse situation, dopaminergic neurons in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) go “Danger, Will Robinson!” This signals them to get out of the jam.

This signal is called error-related negativity — or, in technical neuroscience jargon, the “oh shit” signal. Remember this: the only reason why those neurons fire is because they’ve experienced the pain of that adverse situation in the past. They’ve been trained.

So to successfully spot bad boys, you need to be exposed to them. Does this mean you have to deliberately go out with a bunch of them and have your heart broken 500 times? I don’t recommend that, and generally there’s no need to seek them out — they will find you. And one trial is usually enough to train the “oh shit” signal of the ACC.

In the meantime, do hang out with guys — a lot! This allows your brain to establish reliable patterns of what it feels like to be with a guy who genuinely cares for you and one who’s just in it for the thrill.

Once you’ve trained your brain, your job is to listen to it. You don’t say to yourself “Oh, well this one just might be different.” That’s called gambling with bad odds. Your heart deserves better than that. Speaking of bad odds…

2) Only play when the odds are in your favor.

As a semipro poker player, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve paid the price of not heeding the warning of the “oh shit” signal. I’d say it’s 90% accurate, and the 10% of the time when it’s a false alarm — hey, better safe than sorry.

The key here is to know how to spot bad boys. For a comprehensive review, I refer you to my previous post On Bad Boys and How to Spot Them. In the meantime, here are some pointers:

a) Is he part of an all-male group that’s intrinsically rowdy and loutish? At a place like Harvard, this means final clubs, sports teams and frats. Generally speaking, you’re looking for a guy who genuinely values you. Frat boys, athletes and final clubbers are embedded in a social structure that has lots of women shipped their way. As a result, the value they assign to any one woman is tiny. You don’t want to be that woman, so you avoid them altogether. Right?

But their parties are so fun! And they’re so cool and hot and everybody looks up to them, and and… Sister! Save it. I’m here for your long-term empowerment and happiness. When you step into a frathouse or final club, or sign up for a relationship of limited duration with one their members, you’re effectively signing up for unhappiness in the long run. Bad boys are like cheesecake: they taste so good at first, but they usurp the place of real nutrition. And make you fat and sick in the long run.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course! I’m sure there are great guys who just happen to be athletes/final clubbers/frat boys. As many as four, even.

But consider this study: scientists randomly put food on one of two sides of a maze for rats to find. Except that it wasn’t totally random: 60% of the time, the food was on the right; 40% of the time on the left. Rats very quickly figured this out, then swung right every single time. So they got the food 60% of the time.

Yale undergrads who were given the same task, however, didn’t do as well. They tried hard to game the system and figure out the pattern. As a result, they got the food reward 52% of the time.

There are two messages here: if frat boys, athletes and final clubbers are trouble, say, 80% of the time, your best strategy is to avoid them completely if you’re interested in a fulfilling long-term relationship in college.

The other is that, if you have a pet rat, don’t send him to Yale — he’ll get dumber. Don’t be a Yalie. Take the right path.

Other signs that you’re dealing with a bad boy (straight from the Tao of Dating):

  • He tends to move things along too quickly.
  • He’s just a tad too smooth. Too good to be true is almost always exactly that.
  • Evasiveness — lots of missing information.
  • Limited availability — usually means he’s busy seeing other women.
  • Inconsideration — late cancellations, poor planning, and other behaviors that adversely affect your mental and physical well-being.

3) Don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.

People have a touching attachment to words, even though they’re often not worth the puff of air that propels them into the atmosphere. Especially in the realm of romance, words are used as instruments of cunning and obfuscation rather than real communication.

So how to suss out someone’s true intention? Watch what he does — that’s how. (This goes for women, too, by the way).

Here’s the exercise: what does a guy who’s really into you look like? How does he behave? In case you’ve forgotten, I’ll tell you: he can’t wait to see you again. It would take the full force of twelve Clydesdales to keep him from contacting you the day after a date. He wants to make weekend plans with you, or see you even sooner if at all possible. He doesn’t want to overwhelm you, so he exercises a little restraint, but basically he’s very enthusiastic about seeing you again. And it shows in his actions.

Contrast that with our nonchalant boy who seems to only have time for you on weekends. Well, here’s some news for ya: he’s got time. You all have time — you’re in college, for godssakes. Yeah, I know, you’re all mini-CEOs these days with seventeen extracurriculars. But still, it’s not like you have a 9am-8pm job with a mortgage to pay and kids to feed. And you all live walking distance from one another. Even if you have schoolwork, you can get together and do it in each other’s company.

Moral of the story: if someone really wants to have you around, he’ll make it happen. You’ve seen “he’s way into me”, and it looks different from this. Keep that in mind, and know when you’re being treated as a mere option vs an actual priority.

4) Set the frame to favor your outcome.

This is one of the lines from the story that jumped out at me:

After a few months of casually hooking up, I decided that I liked Jon, but I didn’t just want a casual relationship with him.

What does that mean? What exactly is casually hooking up? For several months?! And what kind of impression do you think that makes on a boy?

I’ll tell you what it does not do for a woman: it doesn’t give her any power. Unless you’re the kind of girl who has a retinue of boys at her beck and call at all times, you’ve given most of your power away here.

You’ve also conveyed that you’re not really all that into him, keeping the emotional investment low and the relationship at the casual hookup level. To think that you can then put the genie back in the bottle by demanding that he get serious is a bit naïve.

When you’ve already given the store away for free, it’s difficult to demand payment ex post facto. The key is to know what you want — casual hookup partner, friend with benefits, steady boyfriend — and set things up to favor that outcome.

Whatever your outcome is, fine — there’s no judgment there. You’re in college, and this is where you’re supposed to gather experience and learn how to love. The problem arises when you have no outcome in mind. That’s just going about it blind. Without awareness, your expectations have a fatal collision with reality, and your ACC neurons make you feel crappy.

5) Never take anything personally — even when it’s personal.

Finally, a counterpoint: it’s possible that you actually did everything right. And that he was genuinely into you. But maybe the day after you got together, his grandma died and he was in a deep funk. Or maybe he thought you were incompatible in the sack and just couldn’t bear to repeat the experience (trust me — it happens). Or maybe you didn’t smell right to some primitive part of his brain that even he’s not aware of — heck, they say 90% of attraction is based on smell.

Who knows? If you can get some feedback, that’s great. But for the most part, don’t take it personally. And never take it as a verdict upon you from all dudekind: one dude, one vote, always.

So, in summary: know what you’re looking for; trust your judgment; play when the odds are in your favor; and for accurate information, trust actions over words. Now go have fun training that brain.

1 Comment on “The Art & Science of Spotting College Bad Boys”

  1. Richard

    Best of yours yet, Dr B. From a decent bloke who knows what the temptations of Los Angeles are, this is spot on.