Two women in their late 20s walk into a Manhattan bar. One, an energetic blonde named Jayne, is the cofounder of a financial technology start-up. Her friend, Tina, is a computer programmer with a tattoo and an Ivy League degree. Both single, they instinctively know not to talk about their jobs with any men who approach them. “Guys shut down,” Tina says.
Ask a straight man if he’s attracted to smart women and in all likelihood he’ll say yes.
Ask him if he’d go for someone smarter than he is and, again, he’d likely say yes, as was discovered in a recent study led by psychologist Lora Park at the State University of New York at Buffalo. When male volunteers were told that a hypothetical female classmate outscored them on a math or verbal test, the majority said they would prefer her as a romantic partner over a woman with a lower score.
Sounds enlightened. But Park and her colleagues—psychologist Paul Eastwick and Ariana Young, a doctoral student—pressed on. They asked their subjects to take a math test, then manipulated each man’s result to make it higher or lower than that of an actual woman sitting next to him.
When the man’s score was higher than the woman’s, he was more likely to put his seat nearer to her and express romantic interest. But when his score was lower than hers, the study showed, he was likely to feel less attracted to her, less masculine himself, and less interested in getting her contact information or going on a date with her. He also set his chair farther away from her.
If a man reacts negatively to the perceived superiority of a woman, he’s probably unaware of it.
“People are not very good at introspecting and reporting why they do what they do,” Park says. If she had asked any of her subjects why he wasn’t romantically interested in the woman who outscored him, chances are he would come up with reasons unrelated to her smarts. He might reframe the woman’s intelligence—a trait he claimed to value dearly—in an unflattering light, casting her as cold, pretentious, or a cookie-cutter know-it-all, when, in fact, his ego was threatened. If any of us could access our unconscious, we’d see that we pick partners and stay with them based not on lofty, abstract ideals, but on how they make us feel.