One of the great things about being a relationship scientist is that you get to ask interesting questions and find out the answers to those questions. One question that has always intrigued me is whether people want a smart partner, and if so, how smart? I have also wondered if men and women will differ (i.e., will men be less likely to want a smarter partner?)
On the one hand, an intelligent partner would be more desirable because you may benefit from more insightful conversation, a better sense of humor, and more successful career outcomes. On the other hand, if your partner is smarter than you they may have more power and influence, and thus make more of the decisions and it could make you feel bad about yourself due to social comparison.
With this in mind, I enlisted the help of the Monmouth University Polling Institute1 (see additional poll details below) and asked the following question to over 800 adults across the United States:“Who is the ideal person to marry - someone a lot less smart than you, someone slightly less smart than you, someone equally as smart as you, someone slightly smarter than you, or someone a lot smarter than you?”
When we asked people about this, most (51%) wanted someone equally as smart, while 39% wanted someone slightly or a lot smarter, with only 3% wanting someone slightly or a lot less smart (8% didn’t know or refused to answer). Slightly more men (41%) than women (36%) reported wanting a smarter partner, with differences between men and women a bit larger among those already in a relationship (42% of men and 34% of women). Differences were more noticeable when you compared ages within men and women. For example, for men 18-34, 51% wanted a smarter partner, but for men 55 and older, only 27% wanted a smarter partner. Among women aged 18-34, 39% wanted a smarter partner, but for women 55 and older, only 30% wanted a smarter partner. Overall, the numbers suggest that men report valuing intelligence slightly more than women do when considering an ideal marriage partner.
These results are consistent with previous research which asked over 300 participants (200 newlyweds and over 100 undergraduates) in heterosexual relationships the traits they wanted in a spouse.2 Participants in that study also reported that they highly valued intelligence, ranking it 4th most important for both men and women behind traits such as warm, reliable, and fair. (You can read more about the other preferred traits here.)
Importantly, these recent poll numbers are self-report and susceptible to social desirability or trying to make yourself look good. That is, these number could simply be the result of men and women trying to give socially acceptable answers – and let’s face it, it doesn’t look good to claim you want a dumb partner. And even if the participants gave authentic answers, research indicates that a person’s ideal preferences may not actually predict the types of partners they actually pursue.3 In other words, saying you want a smarter partner and truly seeking one out are two different things.
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1The Monmouth University Poll was conducted by telephone from January 12 to 15, 2017 with 801 adults in the United States, including 50% who are married, 10% who are living with a partner, and another 10% who are in a non-cohabitating romantic relationship. The results in this release have a margin of error of +/– 3.5 percent. The poll was conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, NJ.
2Botwin, M. D., Buss, D. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (1997). Personality and mate preferences: Five factors in mate selection and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality, 65(1), 107-136. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1997.tb00531.x
3Eastwick, P. W. & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 245-264.
Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.