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Dating for Smart People: When Is Intelligence Attractive?

How to make intelligence, sapiosexuality, and romantic attraction work for you.

There is more than one way to be attractive to a romantic partner. In fact, people tend to look for a number of different traits in a mate. Beyond that, romantic partners often find unique features more appealing over time, too.

Given all of that, how does intelligence fit in? Is brainpower a benefit in the mating market, or does being too smart reduce a person's appeal? Research shares some answers...

Research on Intelligence and Attraction

To help answer these questions, research by Gignac, Darbyshire, and Ooi (2018) asked participants to evaluate potential mates, at different IQ levels, for both sexual partners and long-term relationships. The team also created a questionnaire to measure the degree to which each participant found intelligence sexually attractive overall (called Sapiosexuality). Finally, cognitive tests were used to measure the IQ of each participant as well, in order to see whether there was a relationship between a person's own intelligence and their level of sapiosexuality too.

Results indicated that participants generally found potential mates more attractive as the intelligence of those mates increased—at least, until they got to the 90th percentile (IQ of about 120). After that point, however, very high IQ seemed to become moderately less desirable in a mate, for both a sexual partner and a long-term relationship. The authors suggested that this moderate drop in attractiveness might be due to a potential trade-off, where very high IQ might result in lower performance on other desirable characteristics like social skills and interpersonal functioning. After all, more extreme success in one area might require less focus and development in another.

Nevertheless, additional results by Gignac, Darbyshire, and Ooi (2018) suggest that a subset of individuals do find very smart people particularly appealing—especially as sexual partners. Overall, 8.1% of participants were evaluated as having a high degree of sapiosexuality. Such participants tended to agree with statements such as; "a very high level of intelligence alone is enough for me to be attracted to someone sexually" and "listening to someone speak very intelligently arouses me sexually," as well as "a very high level of intelligence in a partner is necessary for me to be attracted to them sexually." Thus, while intelligence appears to lose some appeal at the very highest levels for the majority of individuals, a smaller percentage of folks tend to find high IQ essential and irresistible in a mate. Curiously enough, however, the sapiosexuality of individuals does not seem to correlate with their own intelligence. In other words, it is possible for a person to be attracted to high intelligence without being highly intelligent themselves (and vice versa).

Following up on this last point, additional research was conducted by Jonason and associates (2019). In this study, however, rather than looking at absolute intelligence, the team asked participants to consider the relative intelligence of potential partners. In other words, participants were instructed to consider how attractive they found someone less intelligent, equally intelligent, and more intelligent than them as a short-term or long-term partner. Additional evaluations about the participant's own mate value and their preferences for physical attractiveness in a partner were conducted as well.

Results obtained in this study suggest that people generally prefer a partner (both short-term and long-term) who match their level of intelligence, more than one who is below their own intelligence. Beyond that, however, partners who are more intelligent are generally not more appealing than partners who are just equal to them. Thus, for most folks, the goal appears to be finding a partner of at least equal intelligence. This is particularly true for women higher in mate value—as they seem to be the most likely to reject a partner who is less intelligent.

Beyond that, Jonason and associates (2019) also found a relationship between participants' considerations of physical attractiveness and intelligence in potential partners. Specifically, participants tended to focus on finding a sufficient level of physical attractiveness in a partner (especially for short-term relationships) and then consider levels of intelligence. In other words, some individuals appear to have a threshold that must be met for physical attractiveness first (generally on par with their own), before considering the merits of intelligence in a partner.

Taken together, these results suggest the following:

  • On one hand, some individuals (8% or so) tend to find high intelligence alone primarily and sufficiently attractive. Thus, someone high in sapiosexuality may prefer a very high IQ partner—the higher, the better. This may hold true, even when that partner has lower physical attractiveness or social skills than another potential mate of average intelligence.
  • On the other hand, other individuals, with lower sapiosexuality, tend to focus more on meeting their basic requirements on other traits in a partner first. For example, they may primarily try to match with partners who are at least equal with themselves on physical attractiveness and sociability, before considering general intelligence. Such people do not penalize high IQ partners directly in their considerations. Nevertheless, insofar as smarter individuals may be less likely to meet their standards for physical attractiveness or social skills, they may be overlooked for lower IQ partners who do meet those other standards.

Tips for Smart(er) Dating

Given the above research, we can see that different people prioritize obtaining different traits in a partner—at least, to a certain value, which often matches their own. More specifically, they set a specific criteria, for a particular trait, in order to be satisfied with their choice. They also desire to match up on characteristics with a partner, in order to increase fairness in the relationship. Overall, this helps to create a mutually-beneficial exchange.

With that general picture in mind, there are some tips that smart individuals can use to optimize their dating success:

1. Focus on finding partners who value intelligence. Individuals high in sapiosexuality tend to prioritize finding a high IQ partner. If you happen to excel in that particular trait, they might just be eager to meet you. Thus, even when the general dating market seems bleak, there is a promising niche group to consider. The trick will be focusing on partners from that group and finding them. Toward that end, most people find compatible partners through shared friends, schooling, or work. Also, online dating can help find individuals with more specific preferences, especially if they are a bit farther away. Activities that draw a larger intelligent and "nerdy" crowd, of mixed genders, can be a good way to meet individuals higher in sapiosexuality too (e.g. comic/anime/game conventions, board gaming events, artistic and cultural activities, book clubs, etc).

2. Don't totally neglect your looks. While the idea may be to find a partner who loves (and lusts) you for your mind alone, the reality is that most people consider how potential mates look as well—at least a little bit. Fortunately, despite what popular media tells you, you do not have to be a supermodel to be physically appealing to a partner. Nevertheless, there are a few basic requirements for personal hygiene and style to be considered physically attractive. Therefore, even when mundane tasks seem less important than high IQ pursuits, don't totally neglect things like brushing your teeth, getting a haircut, shaving, wearing clean and neat clothes, etc. More specifically, because most folks tend to prefer partners who match them, try to keep these physical traits at a level generally consistent with partners who interest you. In that way, by initially meeting those basic physical requirements for further consideration as a partner, you will give your superior intellectual attributes the chance to shine. If you need a boost beyond that, having a pleasant personality can make you look more attractive as well.

3. Focus on learning social skills, too. Intellectual pursuits can often be private and individual in nature. So, folks who focus on such activities may not always develop the social skills needed to put their best self forward and connect with others. Fortunately, though, smart people can learn. Given that, to make dating more successful, it can help to focus on learning how to break the ice, how to build rapport, and how to build attraction through conversation. Furthermore, learning how to flirt, read basic body language, and use non-verbal behaviors yourself can help too. Again, much like the physical requirements above, you don't need to become the world expert on these skills to be appealing as a partner—but being able to start a conversation or pick up on a few basic nonverbal cues can go a long way!

Beyond that, my general advice on this topic is to let your curiosity overcome any anxiety or negativity you might currently hold. Do what you do best and have fun learning! At the least, you will learn enough to find someone to love. At the most, you may fall in love with the topics themselves too (and become a dating and relationship nerd like me).

© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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Gignac, G. E., Darbyshire, J., & Ooi, M. (2019) Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality. Intelligence, 66, 98-111.

Jonason, P. K., Marsh, K., Dib, O., Plush, D., Doszpot, M., Fung, E., Crimmins, K., Drapski, M., & Di Pietro, K. (2019). Is smart sexy? Examining the role of relative intelligence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 139, 53-59.