"Sara" and "John" met online. She was attracted by his profile, which made him seem smart, thoughtful and interesting. He liked how she looked in her photos, and also thought she sounded fun, interesting, and smart. Everything went smoothly—until they met in person for a cup of coffee. They had many things in common and talked for about 45 minutes. Then John looked at his watch and said that he had to get going. He didn’t mention getting together again, and that was the last Sara heard from him.
There are many possible reasons that John might have decided not to pursue the relationship further: He may simply have decided he was not attracted to her after all, or that she was not as interesting as she seemed in her profile. Or he may have difficulty with intimacy or some other issue she could have no way of knowing about. But Sara had a hard time letting it go. She wanted to know if she had done something to drive him away. As she went over their conversation in her mind, she realized there was one thing that stood out—though she did not want to believe it.
“He knew what I did for a living, because I listed it on my profile. But he made a comment about something in my field, and I responded with some information from a research paper I had just published,” she told me. “And it was right after that that he told me that he had to go.”
Sara is a scientist with several advanced degrees. “I’m used to sharing ideas with guys in the lab. But I’m also used to guys outside of work being intimidated by what I do.” When she was younger, she had gotten used to guys rejecting her as a possible girlfriend because they thought she was too serious, too scholarly, or too smart. Was that what had happened with John?
Years ago, Sara’s mother told her, “If you want to find a husband, don’t be too smart.” Sara had discounted the advice as old fashioned, and anti-feminist. Her previous long-term boyfriend not only did not seem bothered by her intelligence; he seemed to enjoy it. But now that she was dating again, she was worried that her mom might have been onto something.
Was Sara’s mother right? A study published in July, 2015 suggests that she might well have been, much to the consternation of many women—and some men.
Lora Park, a social psychologist at the University of Buffalo, and her colleagues Ariana Young and Paul Eastwick studied the reactions of men to women they experienced as smarter than them and found an interesting phenomenon that might very well explain what happened between Sara and John. In three separate studies, the team found that men were attracted to such women at a distance, yet found them less attractive, both physically and emotionally, when they were in closer contact.
In one study, male undergraduates were asked to read about a hypothetical situation in which a female student in their class outperformed them, or underperformed them, in either a math or an English class, and then to imagine how they would think, feel, and behave in such a situation. They were then asked to rate the woman both in terms of warmth and friendliness, and in terms of how desirable they would find her as a long-term romantic partner. Whether the subject was math or English, the men rated the woman who outperformed them as a desirable long-term romantic partner.
In a different study, the researchers put male college students in a room to take a test with a college-aged woman who was, in fact, a “confederate” or “plant” of the team. This young woman was supposedly taking the test with the students, and made limited small talk before the test began. Afterward, test “scores” were distributed, and in the final moments, the young men were asked by testers if they found the young woman attractive and would be interested in dating her?
In this study, men who believed themselves to have been outperformed by a woman in the same room with them tended to rate her as less attractive and showed less desire to exchange contact information or plan a date with her.
What is this about?
According to these studies, men seem to be attracted by women who they think are smarter or more competent at intellectual tasks than they are, but only if the women are at a psychological and physical distance from them. Up close and personal, it appears that men prefer women who are not so smart.
A third set of experiments revealed much the same data, with some possible explanation of why this happens. In those tests, male participants were asked to evaluate their sense of masculinity in the situations in which they had been outsmarted or outperformed in front of a woman who might have been a potential romantic interest. Park and her colleagues concluded that there may be something about being in physical proximity to someone who is outperforming oneself that decreases a man’s sense of his masculinity. Thus, they suggest, when a woman is nearby, some men may actually feel her competence as a threat to their masculinity, whereas this is not the case when a woman is distant.
Do you find these ideas troubling? Have you, like me, seen them borne out in some situations? It does seem to be one possible (albeit not the only) explanation for John’s behavior after meeting Sara in person.
Fortunately, of course, there are also men and women who do not fit the pattern discovered in the research. I have seen and known many men who are close to, romantically attracted to, and in long-term, successful marriages with women who outperform them—and whom they also consider smarter than themselves.
Sara, as it happens, finally met one of those men. After a lot of dates, a few duds, and a period of unsuccessful meet-ups, she met and fell in love with a man who admires and is attracted to her as a whole package—intelligence and all. They’ve been living together for a couple of years and are making plans for a wedding.
Please share your own thoughts, experiences, and ideas about these questions!
All names and identifying information (except for scholarly material) have been changed to protect privacy.
(Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women. In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2015, Vol. 41(11) 1459–1473 By Lora E. Park, Ariana F. Young, and Paul W. Eastwick
Follow me on twitter