This is why I'm still single?: Men think smart women are sexy — but only from a distance

#MasculinitySoFragile is real when it comes to dating, a new study says

Published October 21, 2015 8:04PM (EDT)

Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in "Mad Men"               (AMC)
Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss in "Mad Men" (AMC)

One of my most vivid memories is the night before my first day of kindergarten. My dad sat me down and said it’s more important for me to be smart and nice to people than it is to be pretty or popular. He reiterated this statement the night before my first day of high school, and it’s a piece of advice I’ve carried with me since.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. I love the career I’m building and have a group of friends I trust and admire. Dinner and text conversations range from recent features in the New Yorker, to the political landscape to the etymology of favorite words like the Portuguese “saudade.”

Overwhelmingly, though, my female friends and I are for the most part single. There’s been eviscerating break ups, whirlwind romances and casual dates in between. But for some reason few men have stuck. The romantic ones of the bunch attribute it to not yet finding a perfect match, while the more cynical ones say it’s the guys we’re choosing, like we have bad taste in men. I’m more inclined to think it’s not so much bad taste in men, but a taste for the bad boys. When I talk to my dad about it, he rolls his eyes and says to stop over-analyzing and that we’re too smart for our own good.

According to science, my old man is right.

A new study published in the November issue of "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin" suggests that while men like the idea of partnering with intelligent women, being presented with one in real life is a turn off. Let’s just jump off this pedestal right now, shall we?

Research teams from the University of Buffalo, California Lutheran University and the University of Texas at Austin studied intellectual preferences in men by presenting them with two scenarios.

The first scenario told male participants a woman outperformed them in either an English or math course, and then asked them to imagine the woman as a romantic partner. Then the men were asked a series of questions based on a ranking scale. The research team found “men formed favorable impressions and showed greater interest in women who displayed more (versus less) intelligence than themselves.”

This sounds great -- promising, even! -- as things in theory are wont to do.

For the second part of the study, researchers administered an intelligence test to the men, and then told the participants they were about to meet a woman who had outperformed them on the same test. According to the study, the men “distanced themselves more from her, tended to rate her as less attractive, and showed less desire to exchange contact information or plan a date with her.”

When presented with the real life possibility of an intelligent woman as a romantic partner, men seem to find it as inconvenient as a glass filled to its brim. No one wants to dance while balancing a full martini in one hand.

The researchers who led this study believe “feelings of diminished masculinity accounted for men’s decreased attraction toward women outperformed them.” So basically women have to worry about stepping on shards of shattered masculinity when breaking glass ceilings.

It’s an interesting cultural moment to be a woman. Women are purchasing more music than men, emerging as leaders in STEM fields, and now hold more advanced degrees than men do. Michelle Obama spoke a few weeks ago on the importance of girls paying attention in school and getting good grades. “There is no boy at this age that is cute enough or interesting enough to stop you from getting your education,” said the First Lady at The Power of the Educated Girl panel hosted by Glamour at the end of September. Actress Charlize Theron reaffirmed the sentiment at the panel, saying “there is nothing sexier than a smart woman.”

Intelligence is something most agree to be universally sexy. But when it comes to dating, men seem to admire more intelligent women, and end up with women whom they have intellectual superiority to. Intellectual distance, the paper argues, makes the heart grow fonder. It makes you understand Amazing Amy’s rage in “Gone Girl” once she learns she’s being replaced by the not-so-outstanding Andy.

Men today have a much larger selection pool to choose from.

In “DATE-ONMICS: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game,” author Jon Birger argues that shifting dating and hookup culture paradigms among the post-collegiate crowd is due to shifting demographics regarding who is more educated. In 2012, 34 percent of women were more educated than men, and it’s expected that this number will soar to 43 percent within the next decade. It’s an empowering statistic in terms of the progress women have made within the last century, but discouraging when it comes to romantic partnership.

Nearly a century ago F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Given cultural and scientific evidence, maybe those words apply to modern women who can outperform men intellectually, but still seek long term romantic partnership. We’re encouraged to cultivate our intellects, but it runs the risk of making us less romantically appealing. Maybe intelligence will put us on idealized pedestals, rendering intelligent women alone but adored. The alternative would be to exist as a pretty fool, a la Daisy Buchanan’s wish for her daughter. But I wouldn’t want to be a woman who’s ignorant to the wonders a scholarly life has to offer — nor would I want a man dumb enough to love me for it.

By Erin Coulehan

Erin Coulehan is a freelance journalist with work in Rolling Stone, Elle, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @miss_coulehan

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