Having a successful sex, dating, and romantic life is of tremendous importance to our well-being. Despite the growing popularity, even among some psychologists, of the idea that being single is as great as having a good partner or that not having sex is as good as having it, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands explained in a recent study that science has proven this idea to be completely wrong.

Do not be fooled by the alluring promises of positive psychology (some of which is really good and science-based, some of which is wishful thinking), and if only, remind one thing from this article: according to science, having a successful sexual and romantic life is one of the most important factors of long-term happiness, life satisfaction and low stress. Of course, having bad sexual or romantic experiences can be as bad and often way worse than being single. Having clarified how important it is, let’s move on.

I was roaming recently through intelligence journals, when I found a wonderland of knowledge that I had not expected. A lot of research is increasingly showing that intelligence plays a massive role in our dating and romantic life, in ways you would have never imagined. Or at least they never crossed my mind. 

The importance of the relationship between intelligence and mating is so massive that it even explains why we humans are humans, why we are capable of the things we are, and why our cognitive skills are no match to other species. 

In this article, we will explore that relationship, how intelligence is affecting on a daily basis our romantic and sexual lives, how it shaped our evolution as humans and even how we can use this knowledge to have more fulfilling romantic lives. Both single and committed readers will find something useful.

Our first stop in our journey will be understanding how the relationship between intelligence and sex pushed our species to evolve to where we are now. So pack your concentration, get on board and throw your prejudices overboard as we navigate the incredible scientific seas of intelligence and sex. You will not leave unmoved. 

The evolutionary roots of human intelligence

Traditionally, researchers have believed that we humans developed our outstanding intelligence because it helped us survive. According to the most famous theory of Darwin, those that possessed the skills most valuable for survival had higher chances of dodging the dangers and having descendants.

Thousands of years ago, the most important skills were mostly related to physical survival. Examples could be escaping from wild animals (look behind, there is a tiger!!!), hunting for food, or fighting with equals. But the increasing emergence of larger and sedentary groups of humans, changed the focus of the pressure into the skills -such as problem-solving and advanced social skills- that allowed them to cooperate, be altruistic or even deceive.

However, as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller very well proposed, our level of intelligence goes way beyond the basic social needs that were necessary to survive in groups. It was another force that was in play, a force already proposed by Darwin yet dismissed by most that suggested that which genes survived was a question of who managed to have sex and reproduce.

When Darwin was studying animals like the peacock, he became really confused as he noticed that some traits had survived even when they were detrimental to the survival of those animals, like the peacock’s tail. Soon enough he understood that those traits helped find partners, as they made the animal look more attractive (hey peacock you are much sexier with that tail!), even if sometimes they were bad for survival as the animal was easier prey to spot. So Darwin had to expand his theory of selection to include the sexual selection component.

Both animals and humans will try to offer to the other sex the traits and behaviors that the other sex finds appealing. Doing that will help in finding partners and reproducing. And if you want a modern proof of the peacock’s theory, just go to a nearby disco in a winter storm. The college women with frozen skirts will be your evidence of how one sex tries to offer what the other sex wants, even when doing it entails risks.

Since the traits that each sex offers is a function of demand and supply by the other sex, you will find that the other sex will try to offer what they think is being demanded. If what you want to find is different from what the majority of your own sex looks for in your culture, you will have more trouble finding it. 

How does this sexual selection apply to the specific trait of intelligence then? Since a higher intelligence usually led to higher success, status and survival chances of a family within large sedentary human groups (an affirmation that holds true even today, as you can learn in our article about how intelligence predicts success), it is understandable that both sexes -and especially women- would prefer a more intelligent mate compared to a less intelligent mate (other variables equal, of course other factors can influence and make things more complicated). 

If you also add that intelligence seems to be an indicator of physical fitness and therefore the quality of someone’s genes, as for example some studies have found out that IQ correlates with physical symmetry, we can understand how intelligence has become so important in a partner. To calibrate if someone could be a good mate, humans developed the ability to discern the level of intelligence of a person in social interactions, even if with a certain degree of error.

As the least intelligent persons at any given time were being discarded as sexual partners in favor of more intelligent individuals, over centuries, only persons of higher and higher intelligence were being selected as partners. This process explained why we reached our current levels of high intelligence as humans and is called the “intelligence selection loop”.

All this sounds reasonable but, I hear you say. Well I think it is fair to conclude that there are some very dumb people out there that you and I have for sure met through life. Intelligence definitely could not have been the only important factor for finding a partner. And you are right! 

What we look for in a partner

Do we all look for the same things in partners? There is some variation from person to person, but at the most basic level, yes!, there are four main things that we are pretty much genetically predisposed to look for in a partner: (1) physical attractiveness and health, (2) psychological competence -such as intelligence, sense of humor, and so on-, (3) compassion -willing to invest in the relationship and collaborate- and (4) compatibility -fitting well together, having similar or complementary hobbies, lifestyles, life or religious views, political standpoint, or even ways of working out conflicts-.

Many scientists, spearheaded by the world-renowned anthropologist David Buss, have studied how the different factors of interest in a partner weight relative to each other, in other words how important each one of them is. Attractiveness (as an indication of good genes and health) has been ranked again and again in each study as the most important factor and dealbreaker. A minimum is necessary to have some level of interest.

But the second most important trait was, not surprisingly with what we have seen, intelligence. Even for short-term sex, studies have proven that IQ plays a role in attraction as strong as in long-term dating. But it is not just about IQ. A very recent study from professors from the University of Western Australia found that although cognitive intelligence was highly valued, emotional intelligence was actually ranked as more important when considering how attractive a person was.

A logical conclusion would be: okay so the more intelligence someone has, the better, as the number of persons interested will be higher, so it would be easier to find interesting partners right? Well…hocus pocus, biology always surprises us and it ain’t so easy. 

How intelligence affects our dating game

When we are flirting, dating or even retaining a partner, we are always assessing if that person is the right person for us at that moment. We judge non-stop both our own value and the other person’s value, it’s normal and it is okay. Deep beneath our fears of aging or losing beauty stands this tension. Two forces which compete with each other on deciding if someone is right for us or if we are the right one for our partner. On the one hand we want someone with the highest possible overall value (attractive, intelligent, healthy and so on…), while on the other hand we want and need someone who has a similar overall value to us.

This last force of similarity calms our dreams of finding someone perfect and is called assortative mating. This inclination towards similar traits helps to avoid the risk of having a more valuable partner that abandons us and helps in finding someone that is compatible. As psychologist Maryanne Fisher from the University of Saint Mary in Canada and their colleagues explain, understanding our own real value is highly important, otherwise we will be rejected by those who feel their value is clearly superior or inferior. In the second article of this series, we will present to you a simple exercise that you can use to understand your mate value self-perception. It's super interesting. 

Another important effect to take into account, especially if you are quite bright, is that higher intelligence means higher mating value. But only until a certain point, because in the last years several studies from scientists have found, that there is a very high level of intelligence after which the more gifted someone is, the less attractive each extra ounce of intelligence is perceived by the general market. Let’s see it in a graphic (where the X-axis is IQ in terms of % of population beat, and the Y-axis how attractive it is from 1 to 6):

Data published by Gignac et al. (2020)

How is it possible that being super intelligent turns out to be worse? Well, according to the studies it seems that most people have the prejudice that super gifted persons will not make for good partners. Some of the reasons that participants in the study gave were that very gifted partners would probably be arrogant, have low emotional intelligence, be socially awkward or be so intelligent that there would be an imbalance in the couple (remember the similar mate value we talked about before?).

Yet despite these rampant stereotypes, the funny thing is that studies have found that in real-life very high IQ people have on average similar social skills to normal IQ people and they actually seem to be more conflict avoidant than the general population, as hollandish psychologists have discovered.

Quite a different story happens when we focus only on emotional intelligence (EQ). As with cognitive intelligence, people will try to find a partner with a similar level of EQ, but in this case there is no caveat, the higher the better. It just reaches a point where an ounce more of understanding emotions and good communication does not add. Let’s see the graphic (where the X-axis is EQ in terms of % of population beat, and the Y-axis how attractive it is from 1 to 6):

Data published by Gignac et al. (2020)

When finding the right one is hard

If you were to look for a partner with exactly the same traits as you, and ideally even a little bit better, you would have a lot of trouble finding someone, your exact copy, your half orange. To improve our chances of success, we look for someone with similar overall value that offers less in some traits than us but more in others. Additionally, since it seems that each sex has slightly different preferences and even each person has its own constellation of desires, everyone will go to the dating world with a very unique mix of desires and attraction factors, as professor Curtis Dunkel from the University of Western Illinois explains in a recent study.

Call to mind how incredibly beautiful many of the wives of famous NBA male players are when compared to many of the athletes themselves. Well, that is precisely because of this, the couple has found an equilibrium between the woman’s beauty and the man's high societal and economic status. Men are more inclined to do that, as physical attractiveness plays a greater role for males than for females.

You might be thinking, “I had noticed that and found it very superficial!”. I understand your frustration. Prof. Buss explains that science has found that men had a good evolutionary reason for this preference. There is an association between the beauty of the woman and her fertility. And this kind of material preferences apply to women too, because women have been found in several studies to give way more value than men to the education, social status and income of their partners. Which makes a lot of sense, since thousands of years ago it was a strong predictor of whether the family would be able to feed and sustain their kids. So let’s say that the count is even.

The dating trap for high IQ women

Little is known about how each combination of traits plays out in the dating world, which one is better, and which one is worse. But there is one very specific combination that recent studies are verifying, and that I find personally quite troublesome. Women with high or very high IQ and average physical attractiveness are at greater risk of not finding a partner.

American scientists found that while the intelligence of wives was predicted by the intelligence of her husband, that was not true the other way around. The intelligence of husbands was predicted by the woman’s own intelligence but also by her attractiveness. This, in other words, means that highly intelligent women had to compete for men of similar intelligence with less intelligent but more attractive women. An effect which occurred only to high IQ women and not to women of average intelligence.

This situation creates a dating trap for high IQ women, as professor Jonason explains, because women want someone of similar or preferably higher intelligence and are less willing to lower their standards in this aspect. If you add to the mix that a woman who has a super high level of intelligence will have a smaller subset of men to choose from, you see that the problem can be quite big, since as we have said before more than necessary by now, we try to find someone similar.

Reaching the port of destiny

After navigating together for a while the incredible seas of intelligence and dating, we have reached port. We have covered a lot about how we choose romantic partners, the evolutionary roots of those preferences and how both cognitive and emotional intelligence profoundly affect our romantic lives. But that is not all, because this knowledge can be applied to improve your romantic life. If you want to learn specific strategies on how to apply it, whether you are single or in a relationship, check in one month our second article of this series: How your intelligence can boost your dating and romantic life.