Why Intelligence Is So Sexy to So Many, and When It isn't
Sapiosexuality and its cultural stereotypes.
Posted May 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
“An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex.” —Aldous Huxley
A “sapiosexual” is someone who is attracted to intelligence. What is so appealing about intelligence? And, why are librarians perceived as sexy while philosophers are not?
Intelligence as a valuable capacity
“And all I need now is intellectual intercourse, A soul to dig the hole much deeper.” —Alanis Morissette
There are many kinds of intelligence. Here, we discuss intelligence as it is measured by an IQ test. Studies indicate that intelligence is consistently ranked by both men and women as most valued characteristics (second only to kindness) in a prospective mate.
How do we identify intelligence? Unlike beauty, which we are pretty sure we know when we see it, as it is associated with passive observation, intelligence is difficult to detect, since it involves dynamic interaction. In this sense, sexiness, but not beauty, involves a type of intelligence (Ben-Ze’ev, 2019). Reactions to beauty can be identified in brain activity (e.g., Ishai, 2007), but it is much harder to track responses to intelligence through brain scans (but see Akimoto et al., 2018). In everyday life, though we easily detect intelligence in dynamic conversations, taking note of content, vocabulary, and humor.
Gilles Gignac and colleagues (2018, 2019) showed that intelligence in a prospective partner peaks at the 90th percentile, i.e., the point at which one surpasses 90% of the population. They further claim that the 90th percentile of intelligence (IQ ≈ 120) was rated, particularly by women, the most sexually attractive and the most desirable in a long-term partner.
People who are smarter than 99% of the population (IQ ≈ 135) are slightly less attractive as a partner than those at the 90th percentile, but are still more attractive than someone smarter than 50% of the population. The researchers also found that males and females require progressively higher levels of intelligence across increasingly greater relationship investments. For a date, a partner is expected to have about an average intelligence, but marriage was associated with the expectation of a partner being smarter than approximately two-thirds of the general population (see also Persaud & Bruggen, 2018).
The decline in attraction at extreme levels of intelligence remains an open question: Social competence difficulties attributed to people with such high intelligence may be a factor.
“I date men and women and identify as bisexual, and I realized the thing that linked all people that I have dated has been their brains.” —Nichi Hodgson
“In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind.” —Nora Ephron
Despite what the word sounds like, sapiosexuality is not a sexual orientation as heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality; it is a preferential attitude in choosing a partner.
Our global culture is full of links between intelligence and sexiness; think of enticing images of women wearing eyeglasses (following the stereotype). Here’s how Wikihow puts it: “Though glasses were once considered to be nerdy and uncool, that idea has been over for a long time…. You [are] able to look hot not even though you wear glasses but because you wear glasses!” Indeed, in porno movies, when a woman is presented as intelligent and nerdy, she often wears glasses and keeps wearing them during the sexual encounter.
Sapiosexuality is not in the closet: Many people readily admit to being sapiosexual. Marilyn Monroe, too, was a sapiosexual. One of her greatest sexual fantasies was Albert Einstein; she also had a silver-framed photograph of Albert Einstein on her white piano. Marlène Schiappa, the French Secretary of Equality, stated: “We sapiosexuals are sexually attracted to highly intelligent people, regardless of looks.” Diana Raab (2014) further claims that “Perhaps the most intriguing thing about sapiosexual, something that might strike us as modern and open-minded, is that it removes gender identity as well as looks from the equation of romantic attraction.”
I agree that giving a greater weight to intelligence in choosing a partner is open-minded, but I disagree that intelligence totally removes external appearance and gender identity from the equation. In my view, it just reduces their weight. Furthermore, I maintain that the gap in intelligence between the two people should also be considered.
Stereotypes of sexy librarians and nerdy philosophers
"Philosophical discussion is my foreplay." —A LiveJournal user known as “wolfieboy," who invented the term “sapiosexual”
“Librarians are featured in the sexual fantasies of so many people. After all, the brain is the most important sex organ in the body…. Librarians, in my experience, are often both smart and sexy.” —Bix Warden
Librarians, like philosophers, spend much of their time on brainy tasks—but we have wildly different stereotypes of these two groups (relating to the fact that so far most librarians are female and most philosophers are male). Our concern is with the stereotypical sexy female librarian, who removes her glasses and shakes free her hair, becoming instantly “hot.”
Among the various stereotypes of philosophers, we will consider the smart nerd (intellectualized, lacking social skills). It is worth mentioning that the opening lines of an online quiz entitled, “How much of a philosophy nerd are you?" states: “There are many smart people in the world, and the smartest are philosophers.”
While librarians are often regarded as highly intelligent, probably in the 90th percentile, the philosopher-as-nerd ranks higher still, probably in the 99% percentile. The finding that people who are smarter than 99% of the population may be less attractive as a partner than those in the 90th percentile explains why there are fewer sexual fantasies about philosophers than about librarians. According to Samuel Richardson, “Women do not often fall in love with philosophers.”
Of course, these generalizations—like all generalizations—miss the boat on many people (an opinion I hold not only as a philosopher but also personally). They do make it ashore, though, when we take into account prevailing stereotypes.
Why intelligence is so sexually attractive?
“His high IQ and EQ makes for incredible lovemaking and deep conversations. I feel like I’m falling in love with a brilliant dark-haired Einstein!” —A married woman about her lover
Two major psychological mechanisms seem to underlie sapiosexuality: personality halo and arousal transfer.
In the well-known attractiveness halo, someone perceived as beautiful is assumed to have other good qualities as well. Attractive people are indeed treated better and viewed more positively than others; they also earn more than their professional peers, find sexual partners more easily than average-looking people, and are more likely to be treated leniently in court and to elicit cooperation from strangers than their run-of-the-mill friends.
The personality halo works in a similar manner but in the opposite direction. Here, highly praiseworthy qualities, such as intelligence, caring, kindness, sense of humor, and social status, make people seem more attractive. Sex appeal is influenced by qualities like wealth, sense of humor, class, and race.
Arousal transfer exists when the excitement triggered by one thing facilitates the excitement triggered by another, sometimes quite different, thing. In Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron’s (1974) classic bridge experiment, male passersby on either a fear-arousing suspension bridge or a non-fear-arousing bridge were engaged by an attractive woman, who asked them to fill out questionnaires. Sexual arousal toward the woman was greater in subjects on the fear-arousing bridge. Their fear arousal was transferred to sexual arousal, generated by the presence of an attractive woman.
Similarly, in makeup sex, which takes place after a heated fight with a partner, arousal from the fight is transferred to a high arousal state during the sexual encounter. The transfer from the excitement of being with an intelligent person to greater sexual attraction is then quite natural.
Is sapiosexuality a good development? Arguably, it’s a matter of taste. However, since intelligence is more related to the long-term than is physical attraction, it seems that sapiosexuality puts greater weight on the more profound aspects of the romantic bond. Indeed, as the seriousness of the relationship increases, the weight put on more enduring characteristics, including intelligence, should rise as well.
Facebook image: Maria Loginova/Shutterstock
Akimoto, Y., et al., R. (2018). Approach or avoidance: Neural correlates of intelligence evaluation from faces. European Journal of Neuroscience, 48, 1680-1690.
Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago.
Dutton, D. G. and Aron A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 30, 510–17.
Gignac E. G., Darbyshire, J., Ooi, M. (2018). Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality. Intelligence 66, 98–111
Gignac, G. E., & Starbuck, C. L. (2019). Exceptional intelligence and easygoingness may hurt your prospects: Threshold effects for rated mate characteristics. British Journal of Psychology, 110, 151-172.
Ishai, A. (2007). Sex, beauty and the orbitofrontal cortex. International journal of Psychophysiology, 63, 181-185.
Persaud, R. & Bruggen, P. (2018), Why an intelligent partner can be so attractive. Psychology Today, Feb. 13.
Raab, D. (2014). Sapiosexuality: What Attracts You to a Sexual Partner? Psychology Today, Aug. 26.