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Romantic Desires Drive Some Women From the Lab

New research links women's poor performance on math tests with their wish to date a smarter man.
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Lego woman.

(Photo: Ekaterina_Minaeva/Shutterstock)

You know that prince who girls dream about as their ideal romantic partner? For many, he's not only handsome and powerful—he's also highly intelligent. Smarter, in fact, than they are.

That image—undoubtedly outmoded, but still an active part of many young women's fantasy lives—provides a compelling, if unorthodox, reason as to why so few women end up in the STEM professions.

Three years ago, University of Buffalo psychologist Lora Park presented evidence suggesting that, for many female college students, excelling in the STEM arena (science, technology, engineering, and math) "conflicts with pursuing romantic goals." Apparently believing braininess is a turn-off to men, some women avoid these traditionally male-dominated fields in an attempt to attract a mate.

In a new study, Park and her colleagues re-affirm and refine those findings. They focus on a key indicator suggesting a woman is bound to traditional romantic scripts and rigid gender norms: The desire to date someone more intelligent than themselves.

When you teach your daughters they deserve to be equal to their mates in all domains, you may be helping the nation produce a much-needed, more-diverse new generation of scientists.

In a series of studies, young women with that arguably antiquated preference performed more poorly on a math test if, prior to the exam, they had thought about a time when they wanted to be romantically desirable. Focusing on romance and preferring smarter romantic partners also dampened women's interest in STEM careers.

The results "document an insidious effect of holding a particular partner preference," the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. Fortunately, they also suggest this inclination is far from universal.

A preliminary study with 947 undergraduates found "women reported significantly greater preferences for smarter romantic partners than did men," and this mindset "was positively related to endorsement of traditional gender roles for women."

The first of the three main studies featured 97 undergraduates, who were asked whether (and how strongly) they preferred a smarter mate. A few weeks later, the undergrads returned to the lab to take a challenging math test.

Immediately before the participants grappled with numbers and algebraic equations, they were asked to think about, and describe in a short essay, either "a time when you wanted to appear attractive/romantically desirable," or "a time when you wanted to appear competent/intelligent." Members of a third, control group wrote about the objects in the room.

The researchers report that, compared to those in the other two groups, "women who preferred smarter romantic partners performed worse on a math test when the goal to be desirable was activated."

A second, similarly structured study featured 119 students who had previously reported being interested in STEM careers. Its results were similar, suggesting even women who are drawn to these fields are not immune from this dynamic.

"Women who preferred smarter partners performed worse on a math test, and tended to report less identification with math, when primed with romantic goals (imagining themselves appearing attractive/desirable to a date) vs. doing something neutral (imagining their commute)," the researchers write.

A final study with 232 undergraduates provided more confirmation, revealing "that women reported less interest in STEM careers the more they preferred smarter partners and thought about romantic goals."

On the bright side, Park and her colleagues note that "women who did not strongly prefer smarter partners ... showed better STEM outcomes when romantic goals were activated." This suggests such women "do not experience conflict between wanting to be desirable and wanting to be intelligent," and may even look at braininess as an attractive quality.

So parents, when you teach your daughters they deserve to be equal to their mates in all domains—including intellect—you're not only boosting their self-esteem. You may be helping the nation produce a much-needed, more-diverse new generation of scientists.

If you sense resistance, remind your daughters that Marie and Pierre Curie had a fabulous marriage.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.