You might have seen the word ‘sapiosexual’ popping up on people’s dating profiles. Perhaps you’ve used it yourself in yours. It’s kinda trendy at the moment, so we want to take a little look under the hood at what’s going on. What is sapiosexuality, is it real, and why are we attracted to intelligence?
There are a lot of types of intelligence. Emotional intelligence, for example, is different from academic intelligence. But since most people who use the term sapiosexual to refer to a kind of intellectually stimulating sort of intelligence, that’s the one I’ll be using for what follows. The kind of intelligence that can be measured by IQ tests, or comes in useful in quizzes.
So, how do we recognise intelligence? We tend to know beauty when we see it, despite its subjectivity, because it’s derived from passive observation. Intelligence, on the other hand, is harder to detect, since it involves a dynamic interaction – the intelligence has to be actively sought out. A reaction to a beautiful face can be identified in brain activity, there’s a measurable neurological response, but it’s much harder to identify people’s reactions to displays of intelligence through similar brain scans. In everyday life, though, we quickly and easily detect intelligence in conversation, identifying and analysing content, tone, accent, vocabulary, humor, and any number of other cues and clues.
We generally use IQ tests to define intelligence, and they’re as good a measure as anything else, I guess. A 2019 study showed that we are most attracted to people who are as intelligent or more intelligent than 90% of the population – that applies to people with an IQ of 120 or more, though we are less attracted to those who are more intelligent than 99% of the population, applying to people with an IQ of 135 or more.
The level of attraction towards a partner based on their intelligence varies too, according to the same study. For a date, we will generally settle for someone of generally average intelligence. For a long-term partner, for marriage and so on, we tend to require a partner with an intelligence higher than two thirds of the population.
For those who use the term ‘sapiosexual’, it has taken on a sense of being a sexuality, like heterosexuality and homosexuality and so on. It’s not really though, and no sexuality should be defined by it. It’s simply preferential, an element of a larger attraction.
We’re constantly drawing connections between intelligence and attraction. Think of the difference a pair of glasses can make to a photo. Not only can though make the subject look sexier even though they are wearing glasses, which formerly had a kind of nerdy aesthetic, now the subject might look sexy because of the glasses. “Glasses” has a category all to itself on most porn sites, since we have a habit not just of finding intelligence sexy, but of sexualising intelligence.
The term ‘sapiosexual’ itself is generally traced to an online community known as LiveJournal, a kind of early – but still extant blogging platform. It’s credited to a user known as “wolfieboy”, who stated, “Philosophical discussion is my foreplay.” While the word is new, the phenomena of finding intelligence attractive certainly isn’t.
Marilyn Monroe kept a photo of Albert Einstein on her white piano, as perhaps the pinnacle of intelligent fantasy. Marlène Schiappa, the French Secretary of Equality, stated: “We sapiosexuals are sexually attracted to highly intelligent people, regardless of looks.” Diana Raab (2014) further claims that “Perhaps the most intriguing thing about sapiosexual, something that might strike us as modern and open-minded, is that it removes gender identity as well as looks from the equation of romantic attraction.” While that might be stretching it a little beyond the realistic, it certainly diminishes the influence of elements like looks or weight in terms of partner-seeking behaviour. Librarians, for example, populate so many fantasies – is it because of their perceived lack of social skills, and their inherent nerdiness, according to stereotype? Or do you prefer the philosopher, far more difficult to categorise or envision?
The librarian is easier to explain, because it’s a simpler fantasy: we tend to imagine a submissive woman with a secret yearning, communicated by chewing on her glasses and letting her hair loose. Perhaps this doesn’t accurately convey the kind of intelligence that a sapiosexual desires. A similar fantasy involves the educated nerd – smart, but with social skills lacking.
“Librarians are featured in the sexual fantasies of so many people. After all, the brain is the most important sex organ in the body…. Librarians, in my experience, are often both smart and sexy.” Bix Warden
Either way, why do we find intelligence attractive at all? There seem to be two psychological mechanisms at play which underpin sapiosexuality: personality halo, and arousal transfer.
The halo is the effect of assigning other, unrelated attributes to someone based on a single characteristic. For example, we tend to assume that beautiful people have other valuable qualities too, like money, or success. Therefore, they tend to be treated better and viewed more positively than others. They earn more, and are offered opportunities the rest of us might not get.
Arousal transfer is a little less tangible. Here, the excitement triggered by one thing ignites normally undue excitement at the thought of another. I’ve mentioned in other articles here about how many of us are more open to the idea of sex with a stranger after stepping off a rollercoaster. The death-defying thrill of the rollercoaster ignites a sexual interest that might not otherwise exist. The same effect happens after a conversation with a particularly smart person.
In that sense, a stimulating conversation is very literally that: stimulating. Then, of course, there are the perceived evolutionary and biological impulses we encounter. Humanity is more or less defined by our intelligence, not requiring the same strength of ferociousness as our ancestors or their predators. Intelligence is key to our survival as a species, and that’s a highly attractive characteristic in a partner.