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Why Intelligent Men May Not Be So Attractive After All

Eye-opening new research on desirability.

Key points

  • It has long been believed that humor is a signal of intelligence and that is why it enhances one's attractiveness.
  • Although we can accurately assess the intelligence of others after a brief encounter, intelligence alone doesn't make someone more attractive.
  • Being funny can make you seem more intelligent, and it carries more weight than actually being intelligent.
Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock
Source: Khakimullin Aleksandr/Shutterstock

It has long been accepted in evolutionary psychology circles that being intelligent, at least for men, increases one’s attractiveness as a mate to members of the opposite sex.

Researchers such as Geoffrey Miller believe that humor, along with other creative abilities, such as art and music, evolved as an honest signal of intelligence and genetic quality. These qualities became part of human nature through sexual selection, as individuals successfully exploited their senses of humor to both compete for mates and to hang on to them after initial romantic infatuations had faded. After all, if one has the confidence to engage in self-deprecating humor (and to do so cleverly!), one must have so much quality in reserve that there is no danger of losing status by being the butt of a joke.

The value of such a skill in defusing tense, aggressive situations and in managing alliances and friendships should not be underestimated either.

So, the assumption is that humor is attractive primarily because it is a stand-in for intelligence.

But there has always been a bit of uneasiness about the soundness of this assumption. In studies where individuals list the traits that they find attractive in a hypothetical romantic partner, intelligence almost always makes the list. However, studies of mate preferences in real-life situations show that the traits we say we want in hypothetical situations do not always line up with what we actually pursue when we are seeking a flesh-and-blood romantic partner.

What is going on here? Does intelligence increase the attractiveness of men to women or not? This very question was tackled head-on in two recent studies published by psychologist Julie Driebe and her colleagues in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

In their first study, Driebe’s team had 179 women rate the desirability of men as short-term or long-term romantic partners after watching three videos of them reading newspaper headlines, engaging in pantomime, and trying to make someone else laugh. The women also assessed the men’s physical attractiveness, their intelligence, and how funny they thought the man was. All of the men in the videos had completed a brief measure of intelligence along with other demographic and personality measures before being videotaped.

In a second study, 763 individuals, 397 of whom were women, participated in a “speed dating experiment” where they briefly interacted with between two and four potential dates and then rated each one of them on attractiveness, intelligence, funniness, and several personality traits. All of the speed-dating participants had completed a measure of intelligence along with the other qualities that were assessed before the speed-dating sessions took place.

Both studies indicated that people could accurately assess an individual’s intelligence, but that a man’s actual measured intelligence did not make him more desirable as a romantic partner. In fact, in the first study, intelligent men were actually rated as having a slightly lower sexual mate appeal.

Being physically attractive and funny, on the other hand, greatly enhanced the man’s desirability. The women’s perceptions of men’s intelligence were positively correlated with their ratings of his funniness, but actual intelligence was not correlated with perceived funniness. In other words, intelligent men were not funnier than less intelligent men, and being perceived as intelligent was only helpful if you were also perceived as funny.

These findings are eye-opening because it has been assumed that funniness is attractive because it is an honest signal of intelligence, but Driebe’s studies indicate that this may not be true.

So, the take-home message for men is that being funny and good-looking will make you more attractive to women and may also make you seem more intelligent, but your intelligence alone will not impress women as much as you might have hoped.

Facebook image: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

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