Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Correlation Between Intellect and Pulchritude

I have spent much of my life teaching at reasonably good schools. The students who succeed in getting admitted to such schools tend to be well above average, intellectually speaking (in “intellect” I include not only intelligence but also characteristics such as organization and willingness to work that affect academic success).

In my possibly biased observation, the female students at such schools are not only smarter than average, they are better looking as well. That raises an interesting question. Assuming my observation is correct, why would there be a positive correlation between intellect and pulchritude?

One possible answer is that intellect is an input to pulchritude. The abilities that make a woman academically successful might also make her successful in improving her appearance, whether by diet and exercise, choice of clothing, or in a variety of other ways.

Another possibility is that intellect and looks are both affected by some common cause. Poor nutrition, for instance, might affect both. So might genetic factors or environmental ones, pre or post-natal. Something goes right or wrong with the process that builds a human being, and it goes right or wrong with both intellect and whatever determines physical appearance.

Another and perhaps more intriguing possibility is that the correlation is due to selective pressure in past societies. Consider a society where male status is in part dependent on intellectual ability; Imperial China would be one example, since positions in the Imperial civil service were high status and were obtained by success in competitive exams. But the same pattern could be expected in any context where individuals compete for status and success depends in part in intellect.

Further, assume that the society is polygenous—high status males are able to mate with multiple females, whether as wives, concubines, or mistresses. Men prefer attractive women, so men with unusually high intellect will be mating with women with unusually good looks, producing children with both.

There is one other possible explanation for my observation. I am attracted to smart women. Women I am attracted to appear better looking—to me—than women I am not attracted to, whether or not they actually are in some more objective sense. The phenomenon I am trying to explain may not exist; the observation may reflect characteristics of the observer, not the observed.

41 Comments:

At 4:51 PM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous kebko said...

It may be even more simple. You are attracted to women affiliated with or accepted by high status institutions. I wonder if anyone has done research where the same people are rated for attractiveness, once with a college affiliation and once without one.

 
At 5:28 PM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous kebko said...

I would expect also that if the same woman attended community college on Tuesday and Princeton on Thursday, she would put a considerably different amount of effort into her appearance on each day.

 
At 5:37 PM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a known tight negative correlation between IQ and time preference.

I imagine time preference helps explain most "maintenance" aspects (diet, nutrition, hygiene...) of beauty.

 
At 6:49 PM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recall someone once asserting that IQ, height, attractiveness, wealth, creativity, and so on, are all correlated. I think it was from a web-comic which wanted to give a cynical response to the "everyone is special" attitude which we are usually taught.

Perhaps it isn't researched well because it one of those facts about reality which we'd prefer not to be true.

I am curious why David chose to use the word "pulchritude" over "beauty".

 
At 6:52 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger wtanksley said...

College is an interesting place to collect a sample. Question, though: is it possible that you're seeing a higher-class cross-section rather than a higher-IQ cross-section?

We might be able to distinguish the variables a little bit by comparing schools with different emphases. UCSD is very much a high-IQ upper middle class place; your local community college is lower middle-class; and Hahvahd is upper-crust. I speculate that family social class is much more a predictor for feminine beauty than intellect is.

 
At 8:33 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Nancy Lebovitz said...

Another possibility is that good-looking girls get more support from their families and are more likely to pass college interviews.

 
At 8:40 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Mike Hammock said...

To add to Nancy Lebovitz's point, my first reaction to this entry was the thought that more attractive people might get more support from everybody, possibly including their family. Everyone might be more inclined to spend more time helping people who are more attractive, ceteris paribus.

 
At 9:17 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Gordon said...

David writes: "The phenomenon I am trying to explain may not exist; the observation may reflect characteristics of the observer, not the observed."

Have you asked yourself if the women you would pick if trying to match what you think most men would find most attractive are different from your own picks?

 
At 10:36 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Gordon:

The answer to your question is that they clearly are. But I expect the same would be true for most people. There is some correlation across men of what women they find attractive, but far from perfect.

And I presume the same is true in the other direction.

 
At 1:41 AM, August 25, 2013, Anonymous Martin said...

David,

you might be interested in this article on IQ and physical attractiveness.

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289610001315

 
At 3:36 AM, August 25, 2013, Blogger Old Odd Jobs said...

I wouldn't be surprised if there were a correlation between intellect and beauty. A dozen speculative explanations come to mind, none of them entirely convincing.

 
At 6:40 AM, August 25, 2013, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Robert H. Frank in The Economic Naturalist posits many questions. One of those is that one. I believe the answer he comes up is yours .. "Men prefer attractive women, so men with unusually high intellect will be mating with women with unusually good looks, producing children with both."

 
At 6:45 AM, August 25, 2013, Blogger Ricardo Cruz said...

Wrt feeling attracted to smarter women. This study suggests that non-physical factors contribute to perceived beauty. But that females are much more affected by that than are males.

 
At 7:06 AM, August 25, 2013, Anonymous Laird said...

A similar, and possibly related, issue is the attractiveness of Walmart shoppers compared to those at high-end department stores. There is clearly a difference, and not in Walmart's favor. Of course, that might be a second-order result of the correlation you posit in this essay: if higher-intellect women tend to be more attractive, and higher-intellect (and better-educated) women earn more, they might be more prone to shopping at more expensive stores (whether for reasons of prestige, or the quality of the merchandise), whereas their less-intelligent and less-attractive sisters are forced by economic circumstances to shop at discount stores. There is clearly correlation, but not necessarily causation. Thoughts?

 
At 11:02 AM, August 25, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

I don't think the phenomenon does not exist at all, but I do believe there is a substantial subjective part on the observation. I know that when I saw Tal Wilkenfeld play the bass with Jeff Beck for the first time and she is a brilliant bass player, I thought "my god, she is gorgeous". Now, if I only see her on picture and try tu put aside the fact how great a musician she is, I think "she looks pretty good, yeah". A similar example with a female musician is Sophie Hunger (a Swiss song writer). When I saw her for the first time (I had no idea who that was) at the stage at one music festival, my reaction was similar to that to Tal. But when I saw her on the cover of her CD I thought "she actually is not very good looking at all". I suppose men pay more attention to physical attractiveness than women do, but it is not as if they paid no attention to anything else. Same as women are generally attracted to succesful and smart men, so are women attracted to women who are special in some way - not just physically good looking. And all of that can actually make you think that that woman is prettier than the same woman would be if she were not intelligent or exceptionally skilled in something.

A funny thing is that I just thought about the same "puzzle" yesterday. And my conclusion was basically the paragraph above.

For anyone interested, here is a fragment of that Jeff Beck concert (Tal's bass solo starts at 01:30). You can judge by yourself if that unbelieveable musicality makes her more attractive for you or not :)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLmCLYojNGI

 
At 2:56 PM, August 25, 2013, Anonymous Rebecca Friedman said...

For whatever it's worth, I don't think it's just observer bias, as -being- a young woman at college, I noticed that most of the other young women were prettier than I was used to. And I wasn't attracted to them. I actually wondered if it was an effect of age - youth and beauty traditionally go together, after all, and college consists of a high concentration of young women at an age when young women tend (I gather) to be most beautiful. Just to toss another explanation out there.

 
At 5:12 PM, August 25, 2013, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

A good song says, "I want a woman just as tacky as me." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf459-JiIcI Your last explanation is part of the answer, I think, but it isn't subjective exatly. It's that high-IQ people (even, or maybe even especially, women, cf. Rebecca) like a certain look, so there would be selection for that combined with high IQ. Low-IQ people might prefer a different look. I'd like to say that high IQ people have better taste, but we do run into de gustibus non est disputandum. It could also be that low-IQ people are simply less perceptive and hence care less about appearance. A man with low IQ might just notice chest size and not complexion. SOmeitmes I wonder if some low IQ men even are fussy about sex or species.

 
At 11:26 PM, August 25, 2013, Anonymous Patrick said...

Anonymous,

I suspect the webcomic you are referring to is Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, #2070 (The one featuring Uncomfortable Truthasaurus.) Only the correlation between height and IQ was explicitly stated, though it implied some of the others by example: "Feynman was attractive, gregarious, and a Nobel Laureate."

 
At 1:07 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect David might just be talking about his fetish for Asian women.

 
At 1:18 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Eric: I'm a bit sceptical about the statement that intelligent people prefer different physical looks (that is on average) than less intelligent people. And for the female beauty, the hourglass figure is pretty much universally considered good looks throughout any culture and social class (more specifically it is the breast/waist/hip ratio that is universal, not any absolute numbers). It seems to be hard-wired in us. Other aspects are probably more subjective, but I don't see a reason to expect intelligent people to have on average different tastes about physical beauty than other people.

 
At 2:50 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger affenkopf said...

The webcomic Anonymous is referring to is this:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2079#comic

 
At 7:26 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger wtanksley said...

One speculation I think we should eliminate is that high IQ, as such, is correlated with sexual success. I don't see this playing out in the real world.

This is why I proposed high-class as being a stronger correlate.

Someone said "SOmeitmes I wonder if some low IQ men even are fussy about sex or species."[sic] Um... my study of history hints that crosses IQ and class barriers fairly uniformly, but higher-power people can more commonly afford to be public about it. Contrariwise, marrying an ugly spouse loses you status (but "ugly" is defined a little differently for men and women).

 
At 7:44 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was riding my bicycle thru the Penn Campus yesterday as many of the students were moving into the dorms.

In my opinion David's observation holds true.

Wow!

 
At 9:43 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous RKN said...

Hang out at the hard sciences corner of campus and I think you'll see the pretty/smart correlation disappears.

 
At 9:45 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sapiosexual

 
At 10:14 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous astrolabio said...

small children get good grades because of their beauty (halo effect), their self-exteem raise and a self-fulfilling profecy starts (pygmalion effect).

 
At 11:05 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger wtanksley said...

astrolabio, self-esteem is not correlated with good grades, except to the extent that good grades feed into self-esteem (bad grades almost never do). People are REALLY bad at knowing how bad they're doing.

 
At 11:16 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger August said...

Girls of a certain socio-economic class go to college, whether it be a good idea for them to or not. You, the observer, exist largely within this world and don't have a control group, but generally speaking, it is safe to assume girls from this particular socio-economic class will look better than other girls whether they are really smart or not because their parents can get them braces when they are kids, as well as various other things, like better nutrition, than the kids with parents who drink malt liquor get.
None of this is really indicative of being really intelligent, because if they were, it might dawn on them college is a scam at this point. They are mildly intelligent, and follow the herd, so to speak.

 
At 11:28 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

astrolabio: I don't know if I'm good looking or not (that is for others to judge), but I had a 4 (on the scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is the best and 5 is failure) from maths in the 4th year of my grammar school and I had straight As in my master's degree study at the faculty of mathematics and physics (where I studied mathematics)...so I think your hypothesis is not very consistent ast least with my experience. But maybe I just grew prettier :D Also, as far as I can tell that 4 did not lower my self-esteem...it just made me hate maths and the teacher who taught it there for a while (before I realized that what I was taught there had not much to do with maths).

I guess a teacher can give better or worse grades based on sympathies and that can involve someone looking similar to someone the teacher likes or dislikes, but that is different than basing grades on "beauty".

 
At 7:06 AM, August 27, 2013, Anonymous Simon said...

Contrarian claim: Smart people are uglier
Evidence: Walk the Stanford campus and the campus of the San Jose State University... aren't the girls prettier at SJSU?

Here's a theory: The environmental factors that give you intelligence moderately above the average (and gets you into SJSU) are mostly things that broadly benefits the organism, like occasionally getting fed and talked to. The factors that gets somebody past that level (and into Stanford math classes) are things that may sacrifice other aspects of development, such as staying indoors and reading books, which may be bad for your eyes and muscular development. Maybe something similar is true for genetic factors.

So if you plot intelligence (x) and beauty (y), the curve would peak somewhere to the right of average intelligence (say, at IQ = 125), then bend down.

Of course there are people who are both brilliant and good looking. The readers of this blog are, I have no doubt, all in this group.

 
At 7:22 AM, August 27, 2013, Anonymous Simon said...

'I am curious why David chose to use the word "pulchritude" over "beauty".'

I am also inexplicably fond of the word 'pulchritude'.

 
At 11:10 AM, August 27, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

Simon:

Interesting claim. As it happens I've taught at both schools, but I didn't think to make that comparison.

Here's an alternative explanation. Women at SJSU are planning on marriage as a career, so want to look good in order to hook a high quality husband. Women at Stanford intend to become professionals, so looking good is a lower priority.

On the other hand ... . I believe the m/f ratio at elite schools currently is below .5, putting the males in a relatively strong market position in the dating market, which might be a reason for the women to compete for them by looking better.

 
At 10:33 PM, August 27, 2013, Blogger Eric Rasmusen said...

One aspect of this is whether the man likes a woman with make-up or not. Most men like make-up, and more skin showing. High IQ men put less value on those things, I also submit. Hence, women at SJSU rationally dress immodestly and use lots of make-up than they would if they were at Stanford and similarly aiming at marriage. Make-up does require time, which career-oriented women would prefer to spend studying, an alternative explanation, so I guess skin exposure would be the better test.

 
At 3:19 PM, August 28, 2013, Anonymous R. Jones said...

The subjective feeling of attractiveness occurs when one agent perceives another agent to be of high (primarily genetic) quality. Fewer mutations entails a more symmetrical face, healthier features and attributes, as well as a better assembled brain. Using fancy words like pulchritude is a way to show off an mind that can retain obscure but meaningful information, functioning much like the peacock's tail. See the Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller.

 
At 2:23 AM, August 29, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

There may be some tendency for intelligent women to be more attractive; and it's also true I find intelligence in itself attractive.

But does it work the other way? Successful actresses, female singers, and I suppose probably prostitutes tend to be attractive; has anyone measured their average intelligence?

 
At 4:23 AM, August 29, 2013, Anonymous Rebecca Friedman said...

Johnathan,

Clever idea, but one problem. I would expect most successful professionals to have at least somewhat above average intelligence just because it's one of the things that helps with being a successful professional. So if the correlation wasn't there it would say a lot, but...

 
At 11:53 PM, August 29, 2013, Anonymous astrolabio said...

@wtanksley: watherver happens in the mind of a child subjected to a pygmalion effect, I don't know exactly, I used the word self exteem, but other factors could be involved, the subject could face higher expectations due to the percivied intelligence and strive to fullfill those expectations, getting increased intelligence as a side effect. I'm not a psychologist, so I really don't know, but pygmalion effect is a well known effect, as well as the halo effect.

@tibormatch: "Also, as far as I can tell that 4 did not lower my self-esteem...it just made me hate maths and the teacher who taught it there for a while "

can't we call it a reverse pygmalion effect?

 
At 9:13 PM, September 01, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Miller's Iron Law of Iniquity

In principle, there is an evolutionary trade-off between any two positive traits. But in practice, every good trait correlates positively with every other good trait.

by Geoffrey Miller of NYU

 
At 10:55 AM, September 02, 2013, Anonymous Simon said...

Should that be 'iniquity' or 'inequity'?

According to the Free Dictionary

inequity, iniquity - Inequity is "injustice, unfairness"; iniquity refers to "immorality, sin, wickedness."

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/iniquity

 
At 6:49 PM, September 14, 2013, Anonymous Martin-2 said...

Have you checked if the men are equally attractive?

 
At 4:13 PM, March 10, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually there is... http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/200903/beautiful-people-are-more-intelligent-i

 

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