“We found that men preferred women who are smarter than them in psychologically distant situations. Men rely on their ideal preferences when a woman is hypothetical or imagined,” said the study’s principal investigator Lora Park, associate professor at University at Buffalo, New York.
“But in live interaction, men distanced themselves and were less attracted to a woman who outperformed them in intelligence,” Park noted.
The findings suggests that psychological distance — whether someone is construed as being near or far in relation to the self — plays a key role in determining attraction.
“There is a disconnect between what people appear to like in the abstract when someone is unknown and when that same person is with them in some immediate social context,” Park pointed out.
The researchers conducted six separate studies involving 650 young adult participants. The studies ranged from presenting participants with hypothetical women, to women they expected to meet, to actually engaging in an interpersonal interaction.
“In each case, how much you like someone or how much you are attracted to them is affected by how intelligent that person is relative to you and how close that person is relative to you,” Park said.
But the area of performance has to be something important to the individual.
“If you do not care about the domain, you might not be threatened. Yet, if you care a lot about the domain, then you might prefer that quality in somebody who is distant, then feel threatened when that person gets close to you,” Park explained.
The study appeared in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.