Oct. 6, 2008 -- Lonely men ought to flaunt their copies of New Scientist. Women looking for both one-night stands and long-term relationships go for geniuses over dumb jocks, according to a new study of hundreds of university students.
"Women want the best of both worlds. Not only a physically attractive man, but somebody in the long term who can provide for them," says Mark Prokosch, an evolutionary psychologist at Elon University in North Carolina, who led the study.
To many women, a smart man will appeal because he is likely to be clever enough to keep his family afloat. But he may also pass on "good" genes to his children, say Prokosch and his colleagues at the University of California, Davis.
Rather than ask women to rate qualities they seek in men, as other studies had done, Prokosch's team asked 15 college men to perform a series of tasks on camera.
The volunteers read news reports, explained why they would be a good date, and what would be the ramifications of the discovery of life on Mars. They also threw and caught a Frisbee to parade their physical appeal. Each potential suitor also took a quantitative test of verbal intelligence.
Smart is sexy More than 200 women watched a series of these videos before rating each man's intelligence, attractiveness, creativity and appeal for a short-term or long-term relationship.
While the difference between short- and long-term mates may amount to a boozy decision students face each weekend, it has some evolutionary significance, Prokosch says. In potential husbands, women look for signs that a man might be a good provider and father. In one-night stands, women are on the prowl for little more than good genes, not to mention a good time.
Women proved to be decent judges of intelligence, with their scores generally matching each man's intelligence test results.
As for picking a bed-mate, the men's actual smartness proved a reliable indicator of their appeal for both brief hook-ups and serious relationships – which came as something of a surprise. Other studies have suggested that, for women anticipating short-term relationships, a man's braininess isn't foremost in their minds.
The disparate results may be due to women's lack of awareness that intelligence also affects the attractiveness of candidates for quick flings – how intelligent women perceived a man to be influenced his desirability as a long-term mate much more than his appeal for a one-night stand.
Bright and beautiful Martie Haselton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, also notes that although women were good judges of intelligence, they weren't perfect. In many cases, women rated good hook-ups as dunces, when their intelligence scores indicated otherwise.
"There could be aspects of intelligence that we pick up on when we interact with a person and that affect our assessment of them, even if we wouldn't label it as intelligence," she says.
But some things never change. Looks were still a much more powerful predictor of sex appeal than brains. "Women are still going for the hunk," Prokosch says. "If you had an option to pick from five different people, you would pick the most attractive one."
So in a perfect world, women want a Nobel prize winner with movie-star looks. Creativity also proved to be a sought-after trait, and Prokosch's team is currently working on an objective measure of creativity, similar to the intelligence test they used.
However, in a world of limited resources, not every woman gets what she wants, and some are bound to fall for ugly, unintelligent and uncreative men. "There's always other people out there that find everything attractive," Prokosch says.