To my mind, a highly intelligent date who manages to convey those smarts in a casual and laid-back manner — read: not arrogant or obnoxious or flashy about their enormous brain — is a dreamboat. Comfortable with their high IQ without being condescending about it? How rare, how intriguing, how immensely appealing. At least according to me. According to science, however, this particular confluence of traits, uncommonly high intelligence and an easygoing attitude, may actually put off prospective romantic partners past a certain tipping point. Honestly, this strikes me as very rude.
Researchers at the University of Western Australia corralled 383 young people and surveyed them on four ostensibly attractive characteristics: kindness, physical appearance, intelligence, and easygoingness, which I will call chill for the sake of syntactic economy. Participants scored their attraction to hypothetical new squeezes who were one percent, 10 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 percent, and 99 percent more kind, good-looking, intelligent, and chill than the general population. Although people tended to rank intelligence (along with kindness) as a crucial ingredient for romantic connection, once a prospective partner got too smart, interest dropped off: Respondents rated imagined love interests who fell in the 99th brain percentile as significantly less attractive than those in the 90th percentile. The same was true of chill, while reaction to appearance and kindness remained relatively unchanged past the 90th percentile.
"Previously published research suggests that elevated levels of intelligence may incite feelings of insecurity in some people, which may reduce desirability," Gilles Gignac, PhD, a senior lecturer in UWA's School of Psychological sciences and the paper's lead author, said of the results. "Correspondingly, exceptional easygoingness may be viewed as an indication of a lack of confidence or ambition."
This may be hard news to stomach in a culture that sometimes seems to prize romantic chillness above all else, especially in the early days of new relationships. And then, anyone who grew up being told that too much of an ingrained trait would send partners packing may balk at this suggestion — perhaps especially those who identify as women, and may be used to outmoded traditional types telling them to rein in their cleverness lest they bruise a male ego.
The study also points out that some people simply chart more interest in intelligence than others, which is fair: we all like what we like, and don't really get to decide. There are innumerable ways to be smart and few of them involve IQ, but because that seems to be the measure here, we can pinpoint a few reasons why a disparity might make rifts. When faced with a markedly more cerebral partner, people may feel they have less in common; the conversation doesn't always flow; they don't understand one another as well, none of which enables deep connection. Where an exceptionally laid back person might read as uninvested in a new partner, unconcerned with the relationship's progression, and potentially alarming to a person who wants the label. I can see, in short, where discrepancies in these two traits might make for misunderstanding.
If we feel someone is too smart, it can bring up our insecurities and make us feel inferior and/or self conscious with the other person, and cause us to pull away."
Nicole Richardson, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Austin, Texas, tells Bustle that this can in fact be the case. "Especially, in the first few dates we are looking to see how we are alike or similar," Richardson says. "If we feel someone is too smart, it can bring up our insecurities and make us feel inferior and/or self conscious with the other person, and cause us to pull away."
But if you have too much chill, people may decide you don't care — about them, or yourself, or anything else. "If we are really looking for a commitment and have concerns that the other person is 'too easygoing,'" she says, "we may assume that the easygoing style may mean that they are not serious about commitment or life or their career."
The Bright Side
If, however, you still feel miffed, here's the grain of salt. Dr. Stefani Threadgill, founder of the Sex Therapy Institute in Plano, Texas, emphasizes that 383 people makes this a small sample, and that other studies have found different trends. Threadgill points to the idea of differentiation: the balance people strike between the natural impulse to be alone and autonomous, and the natural impulse to couple up. "We are attracted to partners that are at the same level of differentiation as we are," she tells Bustle, adding that differentiation can involve intelligence. "If one partner becomes more self-differentiated than the other" — which is to say, if one partner wants companionship or independence more than the other partner does — "it can affect attraction." Which also makes intuitive sense.
"I have found that if one is intelligent, he or she is attracted to intelligence," Threadgill adds. So please, display your brainy ways to a new partner as you naturally would. If your intellect threatens this person, that's their own problem — and they needn't be yours.