For men, apparently, having an intelligent girlfriend is like having a pet wolf — cool in theory, but not something you’d want in real life. At least that’s the conclusion of a recent study (minus the wolf), which found that while men might say they look for intelligence in potential partners, most of them are actually too intimidated by the idea of being with a woman who is smarter than them to ever ask one out on a date.

Time and again men report that intelligence is one of the top qualities they look for in a woman. From a biological standpoint, this makes sense; smarter women would be better able to look after a man’s children and more likely to pass along these smart genes to offspring. But recently, a team of researchers from the University of Buffalo, California Lutheran University, and the University of Texas discovered that, despite this biological advantage, if given the choice, most men would rather not date a woman who was smarter than them.

For their research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the psychologists conducted various studies on male undergraduate students. They asked 105 men to read a hypothetical scenario about women who had either scored higher or lower than them on a recent exam, and then rank their attractiveness. In addition to rating the women, the men were asked to fill out a survey to measure how much they personally related to various stereotypical male qualities.

Results revealed that, in general, men “formed favorable impressions and showed greater interest” in the women who had performed better than them, rather than those who performed worse. Eighty-six percent of these men also said that they would feel comfortable dating someone smarter than themselves, and none exhibited an effect on the way they evaluated their masculine qualities.

For the second part of the study, the researchers created scenarios in which the intelligent women were not abstract hypothetical examples, but rather present in the flesh. This time, 151 men were asked to take an intelligence test and were subsequently informed they would meet with the women who had performed better and worse than them. Just like before, the men were asked to gauge their initial impressions of the women and rate how attractive or desirable they found the women to be. Suddenly, the men’s opinion toward the more intelligent women had changed. Now, the majority of men rated the more intelligent women less attractive and showed less desire to exchange contact information or plan a date.

Men and women were paired off in a final scenario in which they took an intelligence test in the same room. Once done, their scores were read aloud, and the men were asked to move their chairs closer to the women they were paired with. The researchers found that men whose partners performed better tended to put more distance between their chairs and their partners’, which suggested a desire to be further away. The men were once again asked to rate how closely they identified with stereotypical male quantities, and this time, many of them reported feeling less masculine — a departure from the results of the first experiment, in which only a hypothetical woman was involved.

Altogether, the studies concluded that for some men, superior intelligence is only an attractive trait in theory. When men actually meet women who are smarter than them, this once attractive trait instead becomes a turnoff. According to the researchers, the mere presence of a more intelligent woman was enough to make the men feel threatened, and "feelings of diminished masculinity accounted for men’s decreased attraction toward women who outperformed them in the live interaction context."

While these results do not necessarily mean that all men are threatened by more intelligent women, they do shed an interesting light on the dynamic between what we say we want and what we really want. They also suggest that a date’s body language, rather than how they converse, may be the best indicator of their level of interest.

Source: Park LE, Young AF, Eastwick PW. (Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2015.