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IQ in the psychology of attraction—is being smart a turn on or a turn off?
How sexually attractive is intelligence, as a feature of a person’s personality?
By Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen
A new study by psychologists Gilles Gignac, Joey Darbyshire and Michelle Ooi from the University of Western Australia suggests that there is a certain IQ score which is the ideal to have in order to be maximally sexually attractive.
Any higher an Intelligence score than this number, and your desirability to others begins to drop off, while lower smartness scores are also found less attractive.
The study entitled, ‘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 smart someone is.
The authors believe they have identified a new kind of attraction, and novel terms have been coined, the sapiosexual, or sapiophile, which refer to those who find high levels of intelligence (IQ) the most erotically desirable characteristic in another.
Being sapiosexual, in other words, finding intelligence a turn on, did not mean you had to be particularly smart yourself, according to this study. People with a wide spread 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 genuine and pure, “turn-on”.
Their new study, published ironically enough in the academic journal Intelligence, argues that a high IQ may be a genuinely sexually attractive trait in its own right.
Some evidence for this 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% of the population, you would still tend to earn more than those merely in the top 2%.
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 Gilles Gignac, Joey Darbyshire and Michelle Ooi, 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 intelligence expectation in a partner of being smarter than approximately two thirds of the general population.
Other studies asking similar questions find that men and women similarly increase their minimum IQ requirements in a prospective partner as they move from seriousness of the relationship across casual dating through to marriage.
Some gender differences emerge.
Men are actually looking (or at least say they are looking) for a slightly higher minimum IQ in a marital partner than women are looking for in a man. Both genders agree they want superior intellects in their partners as the seriousness of the commitment in the relationship goes up.
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 away from a one night stand into more serious relationships, this new study found that an IQ of 120, which is roughly what the IQ a university student should score on average, was considered the most sexually attractive IQ of all. There was a significant reduction in sexual attractiveness of intelligence beyond this number.
Being too smart becomes a turn off. No one is entirely sure why this is, but maybe 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 a proportion of the general population—around 8 percent—who find smartness a particular turn on.
For these people, 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 psychology laboratories is how do ordinary people assess other’s intelligence, when psychometric testing or brain scanning is not available to you?
Perhaps you might use signals such as whether they have studied at an elite university, or carry large books around?
But many of these indicators are fakable; it’s not that difficult to buy a T-shirt with the name of a leading college emblazoned across it, and impressive looking books may not actually have been read. The popularity of bluffer’s guides to most subjects indicate that there are a lot of people trying to impress by temporarily bumping up their intellect.
One reason so many women use the acronym GSOH (Good Sense of Humour) 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 yourself signaling not just interest, but also responsiveness, caring, validation and understanding?
Another proxy measure of intelligence is possibly vocabulary, given that increased use of rarer words has been used as an indicator of higher IQ.
A few years ago, on a live BBC science TV programme 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 instead of describing a ‘blue’ sea in which the person would like to swim in over the forthcoming week-end invitation to party, in a parallel advert with all the same features and photograph, we changed the expression ‘blue’ to the rarer term for blue; ‘azure’. Now the sea was not blue, it was azure.
This alteration of just one word in a lonely heart’s advert several paragraphs long would not be overtly noticed by the readers, but might exert an effect below conscious awareness.
Sure enough, there was a very significant swing towards people finding the lonely heart’s advert ‘azure’ sea person more attractive, although everything else in the ad was exactly the same as for the ‘blue’ sea ad.
We argued that the use of the rare word ‘azure’ had influenced viewers into considering this possible future date prospect was more intelligent, and therefore more attractive.
Whatever the various possible explanations for how our manoeuvre exerted its significant effect, now, whenever we are talking to attractive people, we casually drop the word ‘azure’ into our conversation…
Dr Raj Persaud and Dr Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. Download it free from these links
Gilles E. Gignac,, Joey Darbyshire, Michelle Ooi. Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality. Intelligence 66 (2018) 98–111