What do most people want in a partner? Intelligence.
This trait appears again and again when people think about their ideal partner. In fact, a cross-cultural study that surveyed over 200,000 people revealed that intelligence is the number one preferred partner trait by men (followed by good looks) and the number two trait for women (ranked behind humor; Lippa, 2007). Clearly, intelligence is an advantage in the mating game.
But could you be too intelligent to be desirable?
Traditionally, researchers have gathered data on mate preferences by asking participants to rank their preferred partner traits (e.g., first, second, third), or to rate different traits using a scale of say, 1 – 7. While all of these approaches provide information on the relative standing of different mate characteristics, like humor, kindness, and intelligence, they do not tell us how much of each trait is desirable.
Indeed, rank order and rating studies could lead us to believe that if a trait is desirable, the more, the better. If kindness is good, very kind is better! If humor is good, hilarious is better! If intelligence is good, super high IQs are even better! And maybe there’s some truth to these ideas: high intelligence, for example, indicates an array of desirable heritable traits, including creativity and problem-solving, and suggests stimulating companionship for a long-term relationship. The adaptive benefits of intelligence makes smart look pretty darn sexy.
But could their be a limit to the sexiness of smartness? Researchers Gignac, Darbyshire, and Ooi (2018) out of University of Western, Australia, decided to find out. Instead of relying on rank orders or ratings, they focused on the perceived attractiveness of specific levels of intelligence. Sampling about 375 individuals with estimated IQs of about 100 (i.e., average), they asked participants to indicate their attraction (for short-term or long-term relationships) to an attractive potential partner whose IQ scores ranged along a continuum (1st, 10th, 25th, 50th, 75th, 90th, and 99th).
The results suggest yes, extraordinary intelligence may hurt your attractiveness, at least to a degree (Gignac et al., 2018). Attraction – be it sexual, short-term attraction or long-term partner interest – tended to increase steeply from the 1st to the 50th percentile, and then it increased again to the 75th percentile but began to peak at the 90th percentile. Men and women actually reported less attraction to individuals in the 99th percentile than they did to those in the 90th percentile. In other words, super-smart people appear less desirable than their slightly less smart counterparts.
So how smart is too smart? The 90th IQ percentile appears to be the most desirable intelligence level and represents an IQ of 120, slightly less than 2 standard deviations above the mean of 100. Prior to this point, more intelligence increases attractiveness, and after this point, it starts to hurt attraction for short- and long-term relationships.
The take-away? All this suggests that desirable traits can be desirable, but maybe not at extreme levels. While the authors speculate that perhaps people with extraordinary intelligence are less apt to have strong interpersonal skills, there’s no consistent evidence to support this, though it may reflect a (false) stereotype about highly intelligent people. While their effect was observed for intelligence, there’s reason to suspect that other traits might share this pattern: an excess quantity of any number of traits that are otherwise desirable might sour their owner’s attractiveness.
Of note, a small sub-sample of the population report considerable sexual arousal by the conveyed high intelligence of others. These sapiosexuals are turned off by people of average intelligence, are excited by intellectually stimulating conversations, and value high intelligence as a necessary trait of a potential partner. Gignac and colleagues (2018) found that scores on their sapiosexuality questionnare positively correlated with attraction to individuals described as being in the 99th percentile for their IQ scores.