The claim that men are intimidated by clever women is backed by the results of a new study conducted by Polish economists
Adam Karbowski and his colleagues from the Warsaw School of Economics analyzed data from a Columbia University speed-dating experiment, in which more than 500 students participated. The men and women took part in a regular speed-dating event. After each date, the participants stated whether they would like to meet their date again, with a simple "yes" or "no." They also rated their date on a 10-point scale for 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 for a date 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 percent 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 that chance is still only 50 percent. If he scores a 9 for attractiveness, our genius has a 75 percent chance of being chosen.
On the other hand, a man who scores 10 for 10 in attractiveness has a 30 percent chance of being selected, even if he’s not very intelligent. If we increase this man’s intelligence, his appeal increases too, but the effect is diminishing. With an intelligence score of 2, a Ryan Reynolds lookalike has a 55 percent chance of being chosen, and if he scores 4.5 out of 10 for intelligence, his chances increase to 80 percent. After that, any further increases in intelligence have little to no effect on his chances of being picked.
The researchers state:
“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
The results of Karbowski’s analysis of male choice run contrary to what we might expect, because they suggest women are not as picky as men. 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. In other words, men value beauty over brains (no surprise there).
But Karbowski’s most interesting result is that there is a clear point at which men stop valuing a woman’s increasing intelligence. 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 for attractiveness, but they will always be more likely to choose a man who is a little more attractive or intelligent.
This isn't true 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. Say 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 percent chance of being chosen. Let’s imagine that her intelligence increases 2 points, to 4 out of 10: now her chances are 30 percent. Boost her intelligence by another 2 points to 6 out of 10, and she now has a 40 percent shot. But a further 2 intelligence points have virtually no effect—she is still at 40 percent. And maxing her intelligence to 10 out of 10 reduces her odds of being chosen, back to 30 percent!
In sum, 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. Men will be less interested in her if she is any less or any more intelligent than this.
By the way, this isn’t only true for women who are of average physical attractiveness. The same pattern holds true for very attractive and very 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 powerful brain will be less appealing to men than a woman who is equally attractive, but less intelligent.
"Bimbos" Over "Boffins"
Karbowski’s findings may explain why clever women are sometimes said to intimidate or threaten men, or why some women downplay their intelligence in an attempt to be 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 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 they can also get it 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 just be the ego thing.
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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., and 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