Sexy. Smarts matter in attracting a mate, according to new research.

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Revenge of the Nerds

Brainiacs, rejoice! The most sophisticated study on the subject so far suggests that, when it comes to choosing a mate, females value intelligence and creativity independent of a guy's looks.

Just what makes men and women attractive to the opposite sex? We don't need science to tell us that a nice body and good personality help. But when it comes to traits such as intelligence and creativity, an experiment or two is useful. Until now, however, most data have come from surveys, often asking abstract questions such as, "How important to you is a man's intelligence?" To gauge how smarts can affect women's mate choices in real-life situations, evolutionary psychologist Mark Prokosch of Elon University in North Carolina and researchers at the University of California, Davis, brought romance back to the laboratory.

The team recruited 15 men with a median age of 19 to take the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, a standard intelligence test. The volunteers were then filmed in three separate scenarios designed to reveal intelligence and creativity. They included reading headlines from news agencies such as the BBC, answering an open-ended question such as how the discovery of life on Mars might change their perspective of life on Earth, and responding to queries about why they would make a good date. These tasks might seem random, but previous studies have shown that whether someone stumbles over unfamiliar text or whether he can provide a pithy response to an unexpected question gives clues to his overall intelligence and creativity. The researchers also filmed the men playing Frisbee, so viewers could get a sense of their physical attractiveness.

So what did women think? The team showed the men's video profiles to 204 female undergraduates and asked them to rate the guys on criteria such as intelligence, creativity, overall attractiveness, appeal as a long-term versus a short-term mate, and potential dependability. The researchers used statistical tools to tease out how much a man's rating on any particular measure, such as intelligence, affected his scores on overall desirability as a long-term mate. As expected, physical attractiveness had the biggest impact, accounting for almost 40% of a man's appeal as a long-term mate. But when the researchers factored out the effect of looks, they found that intelligence and creativity made small but significant contributions to a guy's desirability as a short-term or long-term partner. The researchers report their results next month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Finding an intelligent and creative mate matters, because smart guys may contribute better genes and themselves be better providers for children, Prokosch says. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who has done extensive research on intelligence and partner selection, agrees and praises the researchers for using the videos--physical observations of how men might act in the real world. "This is a much more realistic study of attraction to intelligence than we've done before."