Are Men Attracted to Clever Women?

New research explains why men often choose a “bimbo” over a “boffin”.

Are smarter women more attractive? Nottingham Trent University/Flickr

The claim that men are intimidated by clever women has been backed by the results of a new study of speed-dating by Polish economists.

The scientists were able to determine the odds that men and women would respond positively to a speed-dating partner based on that partner’s intelligence and physical attractiveness. Participants at a speed-dating event meet a different potential partner every few minutes, and indicate whether they would be interested in meeting each partner again.

Adam Karbowski and his colleagues from the Warsaw School of Economics analyzed data from the Columbia University speed-dating experiment, in which over 500 students participated. The men and women took part in what was a regular speed-dating event. After each date, the participants stated whether they would like to meet their date again: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They also rated their date on a 10-point scale for both intelligence and physical attractiveness.

The researchers analyzed their data using a technique called logistic regression. This method allowed them to predict whether a person would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a date based on that date’s rated intelligence and attractiveness.

What women want

Karbowski first examined women’s choices. Unsurprisingly, he found that handsome men were more likely to be chosen than less handsome men. But women didn’t shoot down every unattractive man. If an unattractive man was intelligent, he still stood a chance of being marked a ‘yes’.

The analysis also revealed how women trade off the two traits against one another. Of course, a woman is most likely to say ‘yes’ to a man she perceives as both intelligent and attractive. And as intelligence and attractiveness increase, a woman is more likely to want to meet the man again. However, her decision is much more strongly influenced by attractiveness than intelligence.

A man who tops the chart in intelligence with a score of 10 out of 10 has only a 10% chance of being chosen if he scores a 2 for attractiveness. The likelihood that he will receive a ‘yes’ increases slightly with every additional point of attractiveness. With a rating of ~5 for attractiveness, a genius-level man has a better chance of being chosen, but it’s still only 50–50. With a 9 for attractiveness, our genius has a chance of 75%.

On the other hand, a man who scores 10 for 10 in attractiveness has a 30% chance of being selected even if he’s so stupid he can’t tie his own shoelaces. If we increase this man’s intelligence his appeal will increase too, but the effect is diminishing. With an intelligence score of 2, a Ryan Reynolds lookalike has a 55% chance of being chosen, and if he scores 4.5 out of 10 for intelligence he is in with an 80% shot. After that, any further increases in intelligence have little to no effect on his chances of being picked.

The researchers say:

“if male speed daters can choose, then it is better to be perceived by female conversation partners as handsome and not necessarily brainy than the opposite. Obviously, it is best to be perceived as both smart and physically attractive.”

What men want

When it comes to what men want, the results of Karbowski’s analysis run contrary to what we might expect, because they suggest that men are pickier than women. Women who score less than 4 for attractiveness or 2 for intelligence have very little chance of being chosen. This isn’t true when women judge men.

However, the results do conform to expectations when it comes to the relative importance of attractiveness and intelligence: an increase in one attractiveness point is more likely to cause a man to tick ‘yes’ than a corresponding increase in a woman’s intelligence. Men value beauty over brains: no surprise there.

But Karbowski’s most interesting result was that there is a clear point at which men stop valuing a woman’s increasing intelligence. We have seen that, when it comes to women’s preferences, more is better: a man is more likely to be chosen if he is more attractive and more intelligent. As far as women’s preferences are concerned, the sky’s the limit. Women may be happy to trade intelligence off against attractiveness, but they will always be more likely to choose a man who is that little bit more attractive or intelligent. Not so when it comes to men choosing women.

To illustrate this, let’s track the chances of one woman being chosen by a man at a speed-dating event. This woman scores a 6 out of 10 for attractiveness: about average. Now, if her intelligence rating is a lowly 2 out of 10, she has only a 20% chance of being chosen. Let’s imagine that her intelligence increases 2 points, to 4 out of 10: now she has a 30% shot. Boost her intelligence by another 2 points, to 6 out of 10, and she now has a 40% shot. But a further 2 intelligence points have virtually no effect: she is still at 40%. And maxing out her intelligence to 10 out of 10 reduces her odds of being chosen, back down to 30%.

To sum up, our hypothetical woman with a 6 out of 10 score for attractiveness will do best with men at a speed-dating event if she scores around a 7 for intelligence: if she is any less or any more intelligent than this, men will be less interested in her.

By the way, this isn’t only true of women who are of average physical attractiveness. The same pattern also holds true for very attractive and unattractive women. At every level of attractiveness, the optimum level of intelligence is somewhere around 7 out of 10. For very attractive women, the optimum intelligence level is slightly higher; for unattractive women, the optimum intelligence level is slightly lower. But it’s always the case that a woman with a brain the size of a planet will be less appealing to men than a woman who is equally attractive, but less intelligent.

“Bimbos” over “boffins”

Karbowski’s findings perhaps explain why clever women are sometimes said to intimidate or threaten men, or why some women downplay their intelligence in an attempt to appear more appealing to men. Very intelligent women are less appealing than somewhat intelligent women. What this experiment cannot tell us is why men are not as attracted to geniuses.

A paper published in late 2015 suggested that men are less attracted to intelligent women because the comparison with their own intelligence damages their fragile male egos. The authors of that paper write:

“when evaluating psychologically near targets (e.g., in real interactions, spatially near interactions), men may be less attracted to women who outperform them, and this could be due to momentary shifts in their self-evaluations (e.g., feeling less masculine from being outsmarted by a woman)”.

Karbowski and colleagues offer another possibility:

“Perhaps women’s mating demands (of the physical attractiveness and intelligence of a potential partner) can … be effectively met by more pairs of the levels of [attractiveness and intelligence].”

That is, maybe women are more flexible when it comes to judging an ideal partner. They can get what they want from a man who is attractive but not so intelligent, but also from a man who is intelligent but not so attractive. Men may be more rigid in their requirements, and — for whatever reason — have a fixed idea of what constitutes an ideal partner.

Or it could be the ego thing.

Karbowski, A., Deja, D., & Zawisza, M. (2016). Perceived female intelligence as economic bad in partner choice. Personality and Individual Differences, 102, 217–222. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.07.006

Park, L. E., Young, A. F., & Eastwick, P. W. (2015). (Psychological) distance makes the heart grow fonder: Effects of psychological distance and relative intelligence on men’s attraction to women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(11), 1459–1473. doi:10.1177/0146167215599749

For an audio version of this story, see the 27 September 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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