Nov. 13, 2007 -- Could curvier women be more intelligent than their skinnier peers? A new study seems to suggest that this is the case. But there may be more to these findings than meets the eye.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California at Santa Barbara looked at data from a study of more than 16,000 women and girls from 1988 to 1994 that detailed their body measurements, as well as their education level and their scores on various cognitive tests.
What they report is that women with waists that were about 70 percent of the diameter of their hips scored slightly better on intelligence tests and tended to have a slightly higher level of education than women with a higher waist-to-hip ratio, or WHR.
The study was published in the journal of Evolution and Human Behavior.
"Controlling for other correlates of cognitive ability, women with lower WHRs and their children have significantly higher cognitive test scores," the study authors note in the article.
And the study authors also said that men, whether they know it or not, tend to prefer mates with a lower waist-to-hip ratio because of this advantage.
The researchers suggest that the reason for the findings lies in the differences between the fat stored in the hips and legs, and that stored in the belly. The fat surrounding fuller hips and thighs, they said, holds higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which foster brain growth.
They go on to say that fat around the waist tends to have higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which counter this advantage.
But how seriously can we take the idea that the curvier a woman is, the sharper her mind?
The answer: not very. The differences in cognitive ability that the researchers found were small -- on average between 3.6 percent and 7 percent in women with different waist-to-hip ratios, depending on the measure being used.
Because of this, even scientists who call the study intriguing say it would be a mistake to overinterpret the findings to mean that just because a woman has a curvy figure, she's smarter.
"As you get older, your WHR gets worse; that does not mean you become less intelligent over time," says Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London and co-author of the book "The Psychology of Physical Attraction."
"To suggest that a 40-year-old, because her WHR is not good, is not intelligent is a misinterpretation of the data," he says. "One has to be cautious with what these things mean."
Evolutionary biology studies like this have never lacked interesting associations between contemporary culture, ancient behaviors and biological influences.
Consider a July article from the same journal titled "Morbid jealousy From an Evolutionary Psychological Perspective."
Or a September article with the title "Ovulatory Cycle Effects on Tip Earnings by Lap Dancers: Economic Evidence for Human Estrus?"
Still, for those in the field, the curvy findings represent yet another element of the relationship between physical measures and possible impacts on health.
"I thought it was a good study," Furnham notes. "Nobody's ever looked at it like that."
And even though waist size may not be a surefire indicator of intelligence, the results could change the way some evolutionary biologists look at mate selection.
Previous research in the field has most often tied a low waist-to-hip ratio to fertility in women; in short, a small waist and big hips has been thought to be tied to a better ability to carry and bear healthy children. Others have suggested that this hourglass shape may simply point to better health in general -- a sign of a healthy mate.
But the idea that intelligence may be a part of the mate-seeking equation is an intriguing one.
"Interestingly, the literature says what women look for in a man is partially fecundity but partially social intelligence," Furnham says.
"It is, of course, ideal if the babies survive and are successful. Then to have a fertile and clever woman is certainly desired."