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Why an Intelligent Partner Can Be So Attractive

IQ in the psychology of attraction — Is being smart a turn-on or a turnoff?

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How sexually attractive is intelligence as a feature of a person’s personality?

A new study by psychologists Gilles Gignac, Joey Darbyshire, and Michelle Ooi of the University of Western Australia suggests that there is a certain IQ score that is ideal to have in order to be maximally sexually attractive. Any higher intelligence score than this number and your desirability to others begins to drop off, while lower scores are found less attractive.

Their study, "Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality," argues for a kind of sexual attraction between people which possibly had not been properly described before — being physically drawn to how intelligent someone is. The authors believe they have identified a new kind of attraction, and novel terms have been coined — the sapiosexual or sapiophile — to refer to those who find high levels of intelligence (IQ) the most erotically desirable characteristic in a partner.

Being sapiosexual — i.e., finding intelligence a turn-on — does not mean that you need to be particularly smart yourself, according to the study. People with a wide variety of IQ scores also fancied the clever. A sapiosexual, this new study argues, does not value intelligence because of the benefits that may arise from partnering with a relatively intelligent person (e.g., better career or income prospects). Instead, intelligence is a pure “turn-on.”

Their new study, published appropriately enough in the journal Intelligence, argues that high IQ may be a genuinely sexually attractive trait in its own right. Some evidence comes from the fact that IQ correlates with income right the way to the top — meaning that even if you had an IQ score that put you in the top 0.5 percent of the population, you would still tend to earn more than those merely in the top 2 percent. In other words, there is no leveling off for income from an ever higher IQ.

Yet in terms of what people are attracted to, there is a "leveling off," and even a decline in attraction, towards those whose IQ goes above a certain number.

Previous research, including a study of almost 10,000 participants from 33 countries, confirms that "intelligent" is the second most highly valued characteristic in a mate, behind only "kind and understanding."

Another study quoted by the Western Australia team asked university students to rate the minimum acceptable level of intelligence in a mate across four levels of relationship involvement — single date, sexual relations, steady dating, and marriage.

A single date was associated with a mean intelligence minimum expectation of approximately average IQ in a partner, but marriage was associated with an expectation of a partner of being smarter than approximately two-thirds of the general population.

Other studies asking similar questions found that men and women similarly increase their minimum IQ requirements in a prospective partner as the seriousness of the relationship moves from casual dating through to marriage.

Some gender differences have emerged: Men are actually looking for a slightly higher minimum IQ in a marital partner than women are looking for in a man (or at least say they are). Both genders agree that they want superior intellects in their partners as the seriousness of the commitment in the relationship increases.

But when asked what was the minimum IQ expectation desired for a casual sexual relationship, men’s requirements in a female partner are almost 15 points below that of what women would look for in a man’s minimum IQ for casual sex.

Moving into more serious relationships, the new study found that an IQ of 120, which is roughly the IQ score of an average university student, was considered the most sexually attractive IQ of all. There was a significant reduction in sexual attractiveness of intelligence beyond this number. No one is entirely sure why being too smart becomes a turnoff, but perhaps being ultra-clever is associated with social awkwardness, given the Hollywood stereotype of genius portrayal in movies.

However, the authors of this study believe that by using a new personality questionnaire, they have uncovered the proportion of the general population — around 8 percent — who find intelligence a particular turn-on.

For these individuals — and women are slightly more likely than men to feature in this group — the perception of high levels of intelligence in another person has such an impact that it may induce sexual arousal, more so than any other attribute.

The crucial question for those having to play the game of love outside of the lab setting is: How do ordinary people assess another’s intelligence when psychometric testing or brain scanning is not available to them? You might use signals such as whether they have studied at an elite university or carry large books around, but such indicators can be faked; the popularity of bluffer’s guides to most subjects indicates that there are a lot of people trying to impress others by temporarily bumping up their intellect.

One reason so many women use the acronym GSOH (Good Sense of Humor) on dating apps and websites as a key feature they are looking for in men is that being witty could be a proxy measure for intelligence — so perhaps the most accessible way of assessing a prospective mate’s intelligence is their conversation: Do they ask intelligent questions of you, signaling not just interest, but also responsiveness, caring, validation, and understanding?

Another proxy measure of intelligence could be vocabulary, given that an increased use of rare words has been used as an indicator of higher IQ.

A few years ago, on a live BBC science TV program called Tomorrow’s World, we ran a nationally promoted psychology experiment where we assessed how attracted the UK was to a lonely heart’s advert. We just changed one word in one part of the experiment, so that instead of describing a "blue" sea in which the person would like to swim, in a parallel advert with all the same features and photograph, we changed the word "blue" to the rarer term "azure."

This alteration of just one word in a post several paragraphs long would not be overtly noticed by readers, but it might exert an effect below conscious awareness. And sure enough, there was a significant swing toward people finding the post citing the "azure" sea more attractive, although everything else in the ad was exactly the same as in the version with the "blue" sea.

We argued that the use of the rare word "azure" had influenced readers into considering that this possible future date prospect was more intelligent, and therefore more attractive.

Whatever the explanation for how our maneuver exerted its significant effect, now whenever we talk to attractive people, we casually drop "azure" into our conversation.


Gilles E. Gignac,, Joey Darbyshire, Michelle Ooi. Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality. Intelligence 66 (2018) 98–111

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