Most People Want a Partner Who's Smart, But Not Too Smart
There's an optimal level of intelligence when it comes to attraction.
Jan 24 2018, 6:00pm
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Despite what the success of swiping apps like Bumble and Tinder may lead you to believe, most people don't prioritize looks above all else when choosing a new partner, according to a recent survey.
In the survey of nearly 200,000 adults who were given a list of 23 traits and asked to choose the three they most prefer in a potential romantic partner, 49 percent of men and 44 percent of women included intelligence among their selections. Believe it or not, more men and women put intelligence in their top three than “good looks."
While it may seem obvious that intelligence can be attractive, what's less clear is just how smart we want our romantic partners to be. And why do we want intelligent partners, anyway? Is it because intellectual conversation actually turns us on, as the popular concept of sapiosexuality implies? Thanks to a new study published in a journal titled Intelligence, we're a little closer to answering these questions.
In the study, 383 adults participated, about half of whom were university undergraduates in Australia. The other half consisted of US residents 18 to 40, all of whom were recruited online. Participants were first asked to rank the importance of 13 different traits in a potential romantic partner, including intelligence. They also reported the degree to which they were attracted to people at seven different IQ levels, ranging from the 1st percentile to the 99th percentile.
Participants also completed a questionnaire designed to measure sapiosexuality—their sexual attraction to intelligence. Items on the scale, for instance, included “listening to someone speak very intelligently arouses me sexually” and “a very high level of intelligence in a partner is necessary for me to be attracted to them sexually.”
Consistent with previous research, participants said that intelligence was one of the most important traits in a romantic partner. In fact, it was rated second out of the 13 traits on the list, just behind “kind and understanding.”
However, it appears that higher IQs aren’t necessarily always better: There was an optimal level of intelligence when it came to attraction, a finding that held for men and women alike. Specifically, those with an IQ in the 90th percentile (translating to a score of 120) were rated as most attractive out of the seven intelligence categories tested. Put another way, being smarter than 90 percent of the population was seen as the ideal level of intelligence for a partner.
The only higher level of intelligence researchers asked about—specifically, a result in the 99th percentile, meaning a score of 135—was still seen as attractive overall; however, it wasn’t quite as attractive as the 90th percentile. Why is that? We can’t say for sure, but it may be because there’s a common tendency to associate extremely high levels of intelligence with “geeky” or “nerdy” traits.
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Although most people said they were attracted to high levels of intelligence, were they necessarily turned on by it? Not so much. Scores on the sapiosexuality scale resulted in a nearly perfect normal distribution (translation: the data resulted in a bell curve). This means that the vast majority of people fell in the middle, suggesting that they weren’t particularly turned on or turned off by intelligence.
So while most of us want to have an intelligent partner, the reason we want them to be smart isn’t because it makes it easier for us to get off. Instead, attraction to intelligent partners probably has more to do with the fact that intelligence signals other desirable traits, like success and achievement—that, or as evolutionary psychologists argue, maybe it stems from a desire to pass those smarts along to our children.
That said, a small number of participants—about 8 percent—did say that they find intelligence to be sexually arousing, of whom just over half (55 percent) were women. However, only about 1 percent said they find intelligence to be very arousing. A small portion of people report that they cannot be attracted to another person unless they are intelligent, suggesting that IQ may take on a potential fetish quality for sapiosexuals.
It’s worth noting that about 5 to 6 percent of participants were the opposite of sapiosexuals: They found high intelligence to be a turn-off. (I’m not sure “intellectophobe” is a word, but that’s kind of what these individuals seemed to be.) Future research could help determine why intelligence is such a turn-off for them, and whether this necessarily means that they find a lack of intelligence to be arousing.
On a side note, participants’ own intelligence was unrelated to whether they were turned on or turned off by a high IQ. So none of this has anything to do with how smart you are. Of course, this study—like all studies—has limitations, including the fact that many participants were college students, which means they didn’t reflect the full range of intelligence. Additional research with a more diverse sample would be useful.
Overall, these results provide further evidence for the powerful role that intelligence plays in romantic attraction. They also provide the first scientific evidence that sapiosexuality exists. However, while intelligence is indeed a major turn-on to some people, it can still be a real turn-off to others.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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