Magazine article Psychology Today

Acting a Fool

Magazine article Psychology Today

Acting a Fool

Article excerpt

TWO WOMEN ÍN their late 20s walk into a Manhattan bar. One, an energetic blonde named Jayne, is the cofounder of a financial technology start-up. Her friend, Tina, is a computer programmer with a tattoo and an Ivy League degree. Both single, they instinctively know not to talk about their jobs with any men who approach them. "Guys shut down," Tina says.

Ask a straight man if he's attracted to smart women and in all likelihood he'll say yes. Ask him if he'd go for someone smarter than he is and, again, he'd likely say yes, as was discovered in a recent study led by psychologist Lora Park at the State University of New York at Buffalo. When male volunteers were told that a hypothetical female classmate outscored them on a math or verbal test, the majority said they would prefer her as a romantic partner over a woman with a lower score.

Sounds enlightened. But Park and her colleagues-psychologist Paul Eastwick and Ariana Young, a doctoral student-pressed on. They asked their subjects to take a math test, then manipulated each man's result to make it higher or lower than that of an actual woman sitting next to him. When the man's score was higher than the woman's, he was more likely to put his seat nearer to her and express romantic interest. But when his score was lower than hers, the study showed, he was likely to feel less attracted to her, less masculine himself, and less interested in getting her contact information or going on a date with her. He also set his chair farther away from her.

Park is quick to clarify that previous research has shown that men are attracted to female intelligence; in fact, it's one of the strongest predictors of romantic interest. It's when men have the sense of being outperformed, she says, that "things get tricky in real life." The finding jibes with previous research, including a Columbia University speed-dating experiment in which single guys valued female smarts- but only up to a point. If a woman they met seemed smarter or more ambitious than they believed themselves to be, they dialed down their romantic interest.

If such a pair actually go out, the man's mindset isn't guaranteed to be very different. Kate Ratliff, a psychologist at the University of Florida, led a recent study in which men in a dating relationship were asked to reflect on a ti me when their partner was successful in an intellectual or academic domain.The task led toa drop in men's implicit self-esteem, as did news that thei r girlfriend outscored them on a social-intelligence test. "It's more of a gut reaction of negativity, not a thoughtout response," Ratliffexplains. "Without realizing it, men reframe 'Wow, my partner is successful' as 'Wow, my partner is successfu 1 and 1 am unsuccessful.'"

The blow to the ego, however selfinflicted, appears to hurt how men see their relationship. In Ratliff's study, they distanced themselves from their partner and were less optimistic about their future together. Asked to reflect on a girlfriend's failures, however, their selfesteem increased, as did their perceived odds of being together in the longterm. (Female self-esteem, meanwhile, was unaffected by a partner's success.)

Not every fellow has the confidence of actor George Clooney, who calls his wife Amal, an accomplished international lawyer, his intellectual superiorand himself her "arm candy." Men often feel they need to defend their status as competent and competitive, Park explains, and being outperformed is a threat. We can attribute this to traditional gender roles, biology, and evolutionary biases that favor aggression and rivalry. …

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