Is Sapiosexuality A Real Thing?

by JR Thorpe
Portrait of an African-American student carrying a notebook and a laptop in front of the University
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If you're on OKCupid, you may already be aware of a "new" trend for those seeking love: self-identification as a "sapiosexual," or a person sexually aroused and attracted to intelligence. Just to be clear, this isn't meant to be an actual sexual classification alongside, say, "homosexual". It's designed to be a shorthand meaning, essentially, people with PhDs, high IQs, and/or a tendency to think in footnotes are welcomed as potential partners. But what's the real story about human attraction along intellectual lines? It turns out that science has revealed "sapiosexuality" is more complicated than it first appears, and that brains may not be the trump card you might envision.

Sexual attraction is one of the most rewarding and nuanced areas of human behavioral research, and (for obvious reason) one that garners a lot of media attention. Whenever there's a new aspect of research about female attraction to male face shape, genetic similarity between partners, or our attraction to physical symmetry, you'll hear about it. Intelligence attraction is no different: there have been numerous studies about the link between various kinds of brainiac and sexual magnetism. (You could argue that researching attraction to smart partners might have a vested interest for anybody intelligent enough to be a research scientist.) But the picture they produce isn't a straightforward one.

It's also worth noting that most of these studies were done in a Western context, many of them on college campuses in America, and that cultural attitudes towards intelligence and gender may have distinct impacts on the outcome. That said, let's have a look at what it really means to be a "sapiosexual" in 2016, according to the science.

1. Heterosexual Men Are Ranking Intelligence As More Important Than They Used To

What we say we're attracted to and what we actually become aroused by are, as we'll discover, two different things. But in the case of heterosexual American men, it does seem that intelligence has risen up the totem pole of things that are important in the make-up of a potential partner. A study has been mounted by the University of Iowa every year since 1939 asking both men and women about ranking their 18 most desirable characteristics in a long-term mate. And the shifts indicate some very distinct cultural changes in the intervening decades, particularly when it comes to women and intellect.

A 2009 audit of the survey found that modern men placed intelligence in fourth place as the most desirable trait in women, coming after "mutual attraction and love," "dependable character," and "emotional stability". (Women put intelligence fourth too.) In 1939, intelligence was ranked at 11th. Financial prospects also faced a massive jump, from 17th place in 1939 (and last place in 1967!) to 12th place in 2008. The subjects were all university students, so that does skew the results a bit, but it's an interesting picture of the changing importance of brains as a factor in mate choice in America over the 20th and 21st centuries.

2. ... But May Be More Intimidated By Intelligent Women Than They Admit

The unfortunate thing about saying what you're attracted to is that it might not actually correspond with what you really find sexy. (We've all done it. We've all said we're cool with XYZ and, when it actually shows up, run a mile.) A fascinating study published in 2015 indicated something very interesting about "sapiosexuality" in modern American men: while they may be very keen on a smart woman on paper, in real life their enthusiasm is... less pointed.

The study was done by the University of Buffalo, California Lutheran University, and the University of Texas, and set up two scenarios. First, the 105 male subjects were asked, hypothetically, how attracted they were to numerous women who'd done better than them in tests; a full 86 percent of them said they'd be comfortable dating a smarter woman, and the majority showed interest in meeting the women behind the tests. Afterwards, however, the 105 men were actually given the opportunity to meet the "smarter" women, both in a social scenario and after taking a test (in which they were told the women had beaten them). And in both scenarios, their enthusiasm and attraction dried up almost completely.

The really interesting (and sad) bit about this is that the researchers also asked the subjects all the way through about how "masculine" they felt. Even though the participants were theoretically sure that dating a smarter woman wouldn't make them feel less "manly," when they met one in the flesh, their "masculine" self-rating plunged and they didn't want to reach out or date them. So be warned: sapiosexuality may be earnest on the Tinder screen, but less enthused in real life.

3. There May Be A Link Between Intelligence And Hip-To-Waist Ratio

The science of female attractiveness has, for several decades, had a focus on one particular measure: the hip-to-waist ratio, a technical measure for how "curvy" somebody is. Studies across different countries have shown that, on average, a hip-to-waist ratio of 0.7:1 is viewed as the most attractive, a fact that holds true across most major pageant winners. And, interestingly, this may also be an investment in female intellect, though it doesn't immediately look like it.

A study published in 2007 in Evolution & Human Behavior surveyed 16,000 American women and girls, and found that those with a higher hip-to-waist ratio tended to do much better on intelligence tests. There could be many factors behind this, from better diet to higher socioeconomic status, but it's an interesting feature of attraction: what we find cute may also, in some way, also be a mark of intelligence. The jury's still out on whether this is definitive, though — and obviously, this one is potentially highly problematic from a body pos perspective. Plenty of intelligent, hot women don't have a high hip-to-waist ratio, and most likely, there are other socioeconomic factors at play here.

4. Women Seem Able To Sense Which Males Are Most Intelligent

When it comes to female attraction to bright men, the evidence is slightly stronger than the other way around, likely partially because of the lack of restrictive masculinity and "shame" about having a brighter partner. New Scientist, in 2009, explored a series of studies in both birds and humans where females picked the most intelligent males as the most attractive. In the animal kingdom, female bowerbirds were likely to pick the males who were best at problem-solving, likely because it would lead them to be good mates. When it came to humans, a study from Elon University showed female students videos of male students performing athletic or cognitive feats; it turned out that they couldn't pick the smartest boys if asked, but when they were just asked which ones were most attractive, they went for the most intelligent automatically.

This makes sense in a sociological context: women haven't been told for centuries that smart men are a challenge to their authority, or that males just don't have the same intellectual power as they do. Instead, intelligence in men represents capability, earning potential, and a bunch of other positive traits.

5. Very Intelligent Teens Tend To Have Less Sex

In findings that will be blatantly unsurprising for virtually every person who was a geek in high school, a 2000 study of various adolescent surveys, including one of 12,000 high school students from 7th to 12th grade, found that intelligence was a very good sign of your sexual status. Or, to be more accurate, it was a sign of the likelihood that you weren't getting any. In other news, water is wet.

According to the researchers, "a significant curvilinear relationship between intelligence and coital status was demonstrated; adolescents at the upper and lower ends of the intelligence distribution were less likely to have sex." Very smart kids, in other words, were much less likely to be sexually experienced in the cesspool of high school. "Higher intelligence," the researchers added, "was also associated with postponement of the initiation of the full range of partnered sexual activities." Smartness in adolescence didn't act as an aphrodisiac, at least in terms of sexual activity.

There are numerous ways to interpret this data; smart kids may be more willing to put off sexual activity until they're older, or more invested in school than social activities that lead to clothes coming off. But overall, the picture indicates that the idea of intellect as a mark of attractiveness only develops once you graduate high school, possibly because research on adolescence indicates we're preoccupied with "fitting in" and obeying social norms until our twenties. Exceptional intelligence, in other words, can only start to flourish once we accept our differences as an advantage. And put them on Tinder, obviously.

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