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Can You Really Be Too Attractive or Intelligent?

Research shows that being beautiful or smart could backfire in a big way.

Ashlyn Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Ashlyn Andrei/Shutterstock

The expression, "You can never be too rich or too thin," could also easily apply to cultural perceptions of beauty and intelligence. Much of the psychological literature supports the idea that people with ample quantities of both qualities are not only evolutionarily blessed, but also likely to be happier, more productive, and more successful. They find it easier to mate, have better jobs, and experience higher self-esteem—or so you might be led to believe.

There are, however, some surprising problems that come with having too much of one or both of these supposedly enviable blessings.

Let’s take intelligence first. For decades, psychology defined this aptitude in terms of the ability to do well on paper-and-pencil "IQ" tests. In the late 1980s, new data emerged questioning whether this traditional approach to intelligence actually tapped into people's ability to succeed at important life tasks. One line of studies investigated what we now call emotional intelligence (“EQ”), or the ability to understand yourself and other people, and found that children followed into adulthood who had done particularly well on tests of EQ were more successful in college than those who did well on standard IQ tests.

Along similar lines, Cornell psychologist Robert Sternberg’s notion of practical intelligence emphasizes “street smarts.” A person high in this quality can read other people well and solve actual problems that require solutions in the here-and-now. This individual may not score well on traditional IQ tests and, in fact, may perform quite poorly. Rather than simply learning the right answers to test questions, people high in practical intelligence can accurately judge the questions from a variety of angles. This makes it a challenge for them to pick out the one best answer on a multiple-choice test.

To capture intelligence as a multifaceted quality, including the ability to do well in school, Harvard’s Howard Gardner developed the notion of multiple intelligences. Emotional and practical intelligence are different abilities, in his view, but only part of the total picture. People can be intelligent with their bodies, in their understanding of nature, and their ability to produce and enjoy music.

Now let’s return to the question of how it is that someone can be “too” intelligent. As I’ve just shown, there may be more than one type of intelligence. If you have a choice of being smart in one or two, interpersonal sensitivity and self-understanding are probably the ones that will carry you furthest in life. However, there’s a difference between being smart and thinking you're smart.

When high intelligence becomes part of your identity, you may fall victim to the belief that “I can do anything.” As a result, you may feel burdened by the need to realize your potential. If you’re thwarted from realizing your identity as a smart person, your world can come crashing down around you. You might also find yourself constantly looking for direction in order to find that perfect "anything."

It’s possible that your identity as a smart person can lead you to become a bit too much of a smart-aleck. Having long been reinforced for being clever and bright, you play out this role, constantly trying to outwit everyone in your circle. You might also come to think that the only route to acceptance is to question or challenge what others around you are saying. Rather than endearing yourself to others, though, your intelligence seems like showing off, and you become a source of annoyance.

Being smart, then, can have its drawbacks particularly if your intelligence is limited to the academic and not the personal. How about appearance?

In a society that values beauty, how can anyone be too pretty or handsome? To answer this question, we can turn to a 2012 study by Swedish psychologists Jean-Cristophe Rohner and Anders Rasmussen that investigated the “physical attractiveness stereotype.”

This refers to our tendency to judge beautiful people as sharing a variety of psychological characteristics based on their looks alone. As Rohner and Rasmussen point out, “People have been associating beauty with positive qualities since the cultural ascension of the Ancient Greeks” (p. 60). Beautiful people, they argue, are perceived as nicer and more successful.

Their study examined the fascinating question of whether the physical attractiveness stereotype would lead hotel employees to view more attractive people as kinder, but also as more demanding and more likely to spend money. To test this question, they surveyed the attitudes of 113 hospitality employees at hotels along the Slovenian coastline. As they predicted, the more attractive the guest (as shown to the staff in photos), the more likely he or she was seen as fitting this stereotype.

Here, then, is an indication that being attractive might create problems for you when you’re trying to get someone to help you out. It’s not exactly a plus to be seen as wealthy and demanding—even if people do think you’re nice.

It’s possible, though, that people who are beautiful do become demanding, not because they’re the narcissistically entitled type, but because they tend to get special treatment. All they have to do is produce their dazzling smile, and others defer to their needs. Swiss psychologist Jessika Golle and colleagues (2014) found that viewers judged an attractive person who smiled as happier than a smiling person with an unattractive face. A lifetime of positive reinforcement teaches you that it works to flash your attractive smile at others when you want them do your bidding.

The problem of being too good-looking, smart, or both, boils down to a question of identity. The more you define yourself in terms of these characteristics, the more difficult it is to accept the disappointments that looks and aptitude can’t entirely prevent. Aging doesn't help: As you get older, your beauty will, at least according to society’s standards, fade. Your mental abilities may be more resilient, but if you rest on your laurels as the child genius you once were, it will be more difficult for you to accept the reality of what you could and could not accomplish in your career.

Maintaining your mental health may be a matter of redefining yourself not solely as someone who’s attractive and smart. To gain greater self-fulfillment, learn to use your experiences to gain insight into, and to develop, the more ordinary but equally worthy aspects of your identity as a total person.


Golle, J., Mast, F. W., & Lobmaier, J. S. (2014). Something to smile about: The interrelationship between attractiveness and emotional expression. Cognition And Emotion, 28(2), 298-310. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.817383

Rohner, J., & Rasmussen, A. (2012). Recognition bias and the physical attractiveness stereotype. Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology, 53(3), 239-246. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2012.00939.x

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014.

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