- Interpersonal attraction is cultivated through perceived trait comparison between oneself and another person.
- With psychological distance, men were more attracted to women who displayed more intelligence than they did.
- With targets who were psychologically near, men were less attracted to women who were smarter than they were.
We have all seen the stereotypes in the movies and on television, of the beautiful brainiac. From movies like Legally Blond to popular books and sitcoms, female intelligence is portrayed in a variety of ways. Sometimes smart women are underestimated, sometimes naiveté is endearing. Other times, smart women are portrayed as aloof and unapproachable—sometimes creating a challenging combination for smitten suitors.
How do smart women fare relationally in the real world? The difference can depend on many other things, and other personality traits, such as kindness, humility, and even a sense of humor. But at the beginning of a relationship, when prospective partners are just becoming acquainted, is intelligence alluring or off-putting? Or does it depend on how it is displayed? Thankfully, research has some answers.
Attraction and Psychological Distance
Lora E. Park et al. (2015) investigated the impact of psychological distance and intelligence on men’s attraction to women.[i] They note that interpersonal attraction can be cultivated through a measure of psychological distance, defined as “the subjective experience that a target is close to or far from the self,” as well as through perceived trait comparison between oneself and the other person.
They found that with targets who were psychologically distant, men were more attracted to women who displayed more intelligence than they had. By comparison, with targets who were psychologically near, men were less attracted to women who were smarter than they were.
Through their research, Park et al. provide a unique way to understanding how the process of social comparison interacts with psychological distance to influence interpersonal attraction. Recognizing that many people describe an ideal partner as having more favorable qualities than they do, they are not surprised that men would be attracted to psychologically distant targets who are smarter than they are.
In contrast, however, when evaluating women who are psychologically closer, they note that men may be more likely to rely on factors such as how masculine they are feeling in the moment when evaluating attraction. They note that men may be less attracted to women who outperform them in psychologically near conditions may stem from feeling less masculine.
To illustrate psychological distance in practice, Park et al. give an example of a man agreeing to go on a blind date with a woman who is described as athletic and fun. That trait combination sounds great beforehand, but not so much once the pair ends up at a sports complex where the woman totally dominates him athletically both on the miniature golf course and in the batting cage. Thus, despite the attractive-sounding description beforehand, the first date becomes the last.
Attraction Through Authentic Admiration
So are intelligent women destined to turn off potential suitors who are not an intellectual match? Thankfully, no. In reality, and certainly over time, attraction is about much more than intelligence. Men and women often possess complementary traits that facilitate collaboration instead of competition. And speaking of using intelligence wisely, many people, both men and women, are smart enough to know how to bestow authentic admiration for the things a partner does well, creating a feeling of inspiration rather than intimidation.
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[i] Park, Lora E., Ariana F Young , and Paul W Eastwick. “(Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women." Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 41, no. 11 (2015): 1459-1473.