Study of sapiosexuality suggests some people really are sexually attracted to intelligence

A minority of people are genuinely turned on by intelligence, according to new psychology research.

The study, recently published online in the scientific journal Intelligence, found that most people desire a partner who is smart. Furthermore, a small percentage of them reported that they were specifically sexually aroused by intelligence.

“A lot of research had shown that ‘intelligent’ was a highly ranked characteristic in a partner, but I had my doubts that people preferred a very high level of intelligence in a partner,” explained Gilles Gignac, a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia.

“Because much the previous research in the area had used rank measurement, it was impossible to tell what level of intelligence people, on average, preferred. A different type of study needed to be conducted to find out,” he told PsyPost.

“A second part of the study was relevant to the word ‘sapiosexual,’ a person who finds high levels of intelligence the most sexually attractive characteristic in a partner,” Gignac said. “The word sapiosexual had been used in popular culture, but had not yet been investigated scientifically. Consequently, I wondered whether sapiosexuality could be measured with a conventional psychometric scale and how many self-described sapiosexuals there might be in the population.”

For their study, Gignac and his colleagues surveyed 383 adults regarding what traits they valued in a romantic partner and how attracted they were to people of varying intelligence levels.

“Intelligent” was the second most highly ranked trait, behind “kind and understanding.” The third and fourth most highly rated traits were “exciting personality” and “easygoing,” respectively.

The researchers also found that people rated those with a higher intelligence as more attractive. But this effect appeared to have a ceiling.

“We found that the association between desirability of a prospective partner and IQ of the prospective partner is curvilinear: it peaks at an IQ of 120 (90th percentile) and drops a bit from 120 to 135 (99th percentile),” Gignac told PsyPost.

In other words, people were most attracted to a potential partner who was smarter than 90% of the population. They found someone who was smarter than 99% of the population to be slightly less attractive as a partner. (But still more attractive than someone who was only smarter than 50% of the population.)

The researchers also developed a measure of sapiosexuality that asked participants how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “Listening to someone speak very intelligently arouses me sexually” and “It would excite me sexually to have an intellectually stimulating conversation with a potential partner.”

In addition, the study used four cognitive tests to examine the intelligence of the participants themselves.

“We found that sapiosexuality can be measured psychometrically and that between 1% and 8% of relatively young people (18 to 35) may be sapiosexuals. However, interestingly, how intelligent a person is (measured with an actual IQ test) does not appear to predict the degree to which people identify themselves as a sapiosexual,” Gignac explained.

Like all research, the study had some limitations.

“With respect to examining predictors of sapiosexuality, the study did not include people with below average levels of intelligence (i.e., IQ < 100),” Gignac said. “Consequently, a relationship between actual IQ and degree to which people identify with being a sapiosexual may yet emerge.

“Also, it remains to be determined whether intelligence is the only desirable mate characteristic that peaks at the 90th percentile. Perhaps all sorts of desirable mate characteristics (good looks, kindness, easygoingness, etc.) would show a drop in desirability at very elevated levels (i.e., from the 90th to 99th percentiles).”

The study, “Some people are attracted sexually to intelligence: A psychometric evaluation of sapiosexuality”, was co-authored by Joey Darbyshire and Michelle Ooi.