By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
Classic stereotypes hold that men prefer women less intelligent than they are, but research shows that modern men value intelligence in a long-term partner as much as women do (Whelan, 2010). In fact, a recent survey found that 90% of all high-achieving men want a female partner who is just as intelligent as they are (or more so), and two-thirds of respondents stated a belief that intelligent women make better mothers (Whelan, 2006).
So why does the assumption that men prefer less intelligent women persist? The findings of older studies do suggest that in the past, a high IQ may have been slightly detrimental to women in the marriage market. This is no longer the case, but older studies and research focused on very young men (most of whom are probably not thinking about long-term partners) continue to garner a lot of press.
Whelan’s (2010) research into mate-trait priorities for men and women has shown that the importance men place on female intelligence and education rose dramatically between 1939 and 2008, in conjunction with the rise of the information economy (women’s prioritization of intelligence and education in a partner also rose during the same timeframe). In this modern era, there are stronger links between intelligence, education, earning power, and social status, so Whelan’s findings are unsurprising.
It should be noted that what men value in a life partner may be very different from what they value in a one-night stand or for a short fling. It’s possible (and quite likely) that many men don’t care much about intelligence in women with whom they won’t be spending their lives, sharing their resources, and possibly raising children. Many studies simply ask what men find attractive – not what men prefer in a long-term partner.
Overall, studies suggest that while smart women may have no advantage when it comes to one-night-stands, they’re more likely to attract men for long-term relationships. This is supported by a Census Bureau survey of 50,000 American households, which found that 88% of 35-39-year-old women with advanced university degrees were married, compared to 81% of women in the same age group who had not completed secondary education degrees. Furthermore, women with more education are less likely to get divorced than their less-educated counterparts (Whelan, 16 November 2007). By contrast, as late as the 1980s, just over 20% of U.S. women with graduate degrees were unmarried at 34, compared to just under 10% of women who did not have advanced degrees (Whelan, 2006).
The overall shift to a preference for smart women is unsurprising, given that intelligence and status are now linked for both genders. In the past, a woman’s status typically reflected that of her family or husband. Now that women can raise their status through their own initiative by pursuing higher education and lucrative career prospects, female intelligence has become increasingly valued by men.
Whelan (2006) notes that high-achieving women often marry later in life, but they have better romantic prospects overall. Unmarried women between the ages of 30 and 40 who have university degrees are now more likely to get married than women with less education.
Whelan’s findings are supported by studies indicating that both genders value social status (Tran et al., 2008) and earning power (Jason, 10 February 2009) in a potential mate, as well as by primate research showing that high-status females enjoy greater reproductive success (Dunbar & Dunbar, 1977; Pusey et al., 1997; Setchell & Wickings, 2006; van Noordwijk & van Schaik, 1999).
- Dunbar, R.I.M., & Dunbar, E.P. (24 March 1977). “Dominance and Reproductive Success Among Female Gelada Baboons.” Nature, 266, pp. 351-352.
- Pusey, A.; Williams, J.; & Goodall, J. (1997). “The Influence of Dominance Rank on the Reproductive Success of Female Chimpanzees.” Science, 277(5327), pp. 828–831.
- Setchell, J.M., & Wickings, E.J. (2006). “Mate Choice in Male Mandrills (Mandrillus Sphinx).” Ethology, 112(1), pp. 91-99.
- Van Noordwijk, M.A., & van Schaik, C.P. (1999). “The Effects of Dominance Rank and Group Size on Female Lifetime Reproductive Success in Wild Longtailed Macaques, Macaca Fascicularis.” Primates, 69(3), pp. 105-130.
- Whelan, C.B., Dr. (2010). “Rank Ordering of Mate Preferences Across 7 Decades, by Participant Gender.” ChristineWhelan.com/research.
- Whelan, C.B., Dr. (16 November 2007). “The Marriage Gap: Media Hype Wrong Peril.” New York Post, NYPost.com.
- Whelan, C.B., Dr. (2006). Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women. Simon & Schuster.