Why trolls see the glass as half-full

Last month, after an intense study of 200 young adults roughly 18 and 19 years old, researchers learned the following: Put a pretty girl in front of a guy for three minutes and he becomes a bonobo monkey. It doesn’t matter if he’s as homely as Homer Simpson: He’s going to convince himself he looks like Brad Pitt and the girl is as interested in him as he is in her.

Arguably, the results of this study could have been predicted. Discovering in this day and age that men in heat are morons is only slightly less newsworthy than figuring out that Oscar-nominated actresses don’t eat for the 17 days leading up to the Academy Awards or – not to put too fine a point on this – cleavage sells.

Here, in essence, is what happened in the study. Carin Perilloux, now a Williams College psychology professor, and Judith Easton and David Buss of the University of Texas, paired up about 200 straight male and female undergraduates in three-minute “speed-meeting” introductions. Prior to meeting, the subjects rated their own appearance. After the meeting, they rated the attractiveness of the person they met and that individual’s sexual interest in them.

Among the findings – and, in fact, there is actually quite a lot in the research that is indeed unexpected and interesting – are these two nuggets: The prettier a man found a woman, the more likely he was to believe she was sexually interested in him. Second, the less attractive guys were more likely than the handsome studs to believe that attractive women were drawn to them. The full study appears in “Psychological Science” magazine, though I read the highlights on msnbc.com, my source for all news about celebrity hook-ups, reality TV shows, and studies of an even remotely salacious nature.

Now, I have known that ugly guys will hit on hot girls my whole life – or at least since I hit on my wife when we were 18. (Discerning readers will note that we were precisely the age of many of the undergraduates in this study.) The researchers suggest this is logical from an evolutionary vantage point: Beauty is linked to fertility (octo-moms notwithstanding) and so Shrek will keep trying, knowing that eventually even he will get lucky.

Of course, it is also possible that pretty girls occasionally respond to trolls because they sense the troll’s confidence. Or doggedness. Perhaps from an evolutionary perspective, the beautiful woman sees a good provider in that gargoyle trying to pick her up. Make no mistake, I was no troll when I was 18, but I’ve seen the pictures: Bad haircut, bad eyeglasses, and a Cyrano de Bergerac beak. The girl I hit on when I was 18 was way out of my league. We’re talking Steve Buscemi sidling up to Blake Lively at the bar.

So, I asked my wife why she agreed to go out with me three decades ago, when I started hitting on her at a freshman mixer in college. “You were persistent,” she said. “You just tried so hard I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

In other words, determination was not a bad strategy on my part.

Of course, I am still not sure what gave me the confidence to approach her in the first place. The easy answer would be “beer.” But my sense is that there was more to it than that, and it does indeed go back to Perilloux’s completely delightful study. (I find any study “delightful” in which an ugly or nerdy guy gets the pretty girl.) Sometimes, a guy just has to access his inner bonobo monkey.

Or – to quote every chick flick and romantic comedy ever filmed – sometimes you just have to go for it.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 8, 2012. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on April 24.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.