Men are more renown for displaying sound and bluster than women. This is probably a carryover from ancestry, when competition for females in the past favoured a display of physical attributes. (Or, at least, so we’re led to believe.)
The representation of men in film and television – dependable bastions of enlightenment to be sure – has, over the years, seemed to reinforce this archetype. The entertainment media has frequently embellished this with layers of male naiveté, such as in family situation comedies.
An article in the June issue of Psychology Today delves into the relationship between men and women insofar as the role superior female intelligence plays. The much discussed ‘male ego’ once again is the fragile lynchpin.
While males agree to the concept of being attracted to smart women, there is an issue with females who are smarter: they may say it doesn’t matter, but male behaviour suggests otherwise. In a test conducted at the University of New York at Buffalo, when a man’s test score was higher than a woman’s, he reacted in a manner expressing physical closeness and romantic interest. However, when the woman’s score was higher, “he was likely to feel less attracted to her, less masculine himself, and less interested in getting her contact information”, as well as increasing his physical distance. While previous tests have confirmed male attraction to female intelligence, when the male is concerned about ‘being outperformed’, real life gets ‘tricky’. (We can see the male to male version of this in many fields, especially in sports.) The notion of outperformance also applies to ambition. So much for ‘equality of the sexes’.
If a male does develop a dating relationship with a female, being confronted with the latter’s superior intelligence may result in a male’s negative gut reaction, and lower self-esteem. Even if the ego blow is self-inflicted, a male may see the relationship differently. Reactions can include distancing and a lower likelihood of the relationship lasting. If the shoe is on the other foot (as it were), a male’s esteem may well increase, deeming their relationship more likely to last. However, a female’s self-esteem is likely to be ‘unaffected by a partner’s success’.
“Men often feel they have to defend their status as competent and competitive…being outperformed is a threat.” Recognizing the impact of traditional gender roles and evolution, favouring ‘aggression and rivalry’, a man may well be concerned an outperforming woman is beyond his reach; she may abandon him ‘for a sharper go-getter’.
Interestingly, chances are good that the male’s reaction to a female’s perceived superiority is not cognitive. People are not great at objective introspection. Reasons for ending a relationship may be cognitively attributed to other factors such as being cold or pretentious. If we could see into our unconscious, “we’d see that we pick partners and stay with them based not on lofty, abstract ideals, but on how they make us feel”.
There is a relationship scenario, happily, in which the male/female relationship can survive and prosper. A study at the University of Toronto found that, with couples who were close before learning the news of the other’s (be it male or female) higher intellect, the results “appeared to actually activate feelings of connectedness and an affirmation of the relationship’s value”. The male self-esteem was safe.
This indicates that the concept of a ‘team’ in a relationship is pivotal. Taking pride and demonstrating empathy, or thinking of the partner’s skills as complementary, or even how one might benefit – perhaps financially – from the other’s attributes, can all be perceived positively. “The bottom line…is the perception of a shared fate, an overlapping of identities”.
For those men who actually prefer to be with women smarter than themselves, they may actually do better, if thinking romantically. They are motivated, wanting ‘to impress an impressive woman’, and so may ‘rise to the occasion’.
In short, if a man can set predispositions and ego aside, ‘we’ can be better than ‘he’.