Why do some men run a mile from intelligent women? Gentlemen might say they prefer brains to blondes but it seems that, when faced with a romantic evening of oysters with a woman who might have far superior brain power, many would rather pass.

For a new study, psychologists at the University of Buffalo, California Lutheran University and University of Texas tested 105 men with a series of experiments and discovered that smart women made them feel less masculine. They found that even though most men like the idea of dating an intelligent woman, put them in front of one and that attraction suddenly withers. Put bluntly, they feel threatened.

Amal Clooney's status is threatening to some men, but not her husband, George Clooney. Photo / Getty Images
Amal Clooney's status is threatening to some men, but not her husband, George Clooney. Photo / Getty Images

As a neuroscientist - and a woman to boot! - I was especially interested by this research, which supports that age-old spectre of a man saying one thing and doing another. If, in theory, men fancy the thought of a partner with a successful career, perhaps it plays to their inner George Clooney. When the Hollywood actor married human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, he made all the right noises: "It's good to surround yourself with anyone who is smarter than you," he said, "and for me the bar's pretty low, anyway. Amal is way up there."

But for those specimens not quite in the Clooney league, the prospect of being overshadowed by a partner is intolerable. Many men are only comfortable when they can have the last word. These alpha types might avoid partners who compete with them intellectually, looking instead for someone to bolster their ego.


Some might say that I'm one of those women who put off men with my achievements: I've published books on the theory of consciousness and the future of the brain. I've authored some 200 research papers on Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and novel mechanisms underlying brain function. I'm the founder of a bio?tech company that researches new approaches to neurodegenerative disorders. As well as the Legion d'Honneur, a CBE and honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Physicians, I have 32 honorary degrees.

I can't think of anything worse than hiding my intellect for fear of making a man feel threatened. It's very silly to play the dumb blonde if you are not. How long can that illusion last? The truth always comes out in the end.

My 88-year-old mother, Dorice, gave me some advice as a young girl that I still live by. "Be yourself and you are magnificent," she told me. "Be someone else and you are second-rate." It is probably thanks to her and my father that I've achieved what I have.

Growing up, I was never bullied or ostracised for being smart and a girl. My father was Jewish and I thrived in a community where scholarship was encouraged. I attended Godolphin and Latymer school, a selective, all-girls establishment in Hammersmith, so everyone was bright and we were taught to pursue our own talents. I was lucky to be in an environment where you never felt like you were asking the wrong question.

However, I had little experience of boys. I remember my first teenage party, when I was 14, and worrying what they might make of me. Boys are strange creatures when all you know is books. Again, my mother stepped in, saying that rather than worry about how I am perceived, I should worry about what I think of them.

Sexism was something I encountered later on in my career. Most of it was subtle, but I despised being called "dear". I also always noticed that male colleagues would often call me by my first name, but address male scientists as "Dr So-and-So". Words such as "strident", "hysterical" and "neurotic" are never used about men, but applied to women.

Human nature is such that we are only hostile, defensive or competitive towards people who threaten us. In the romantic arena, as in the workplace, men lash out or avoid intelligent women if they feel undermined by them or that they threaten the natural order. I'd be interested to see how such men might handle an intelligent daughter, who has gained a first-class degree. In my experience, no father thinks their daughter is too clever.

At 65, I'm older than many of the men I work with. Sexism in my own lab is no longer an issue, and I think that is largely because there is a clear generational difference. But in the wider world, I would never wittingly dumb myself down in conversations to appeal to male friends or colleagues.


For those wonderful bright women out there who feel their talents may prove a problem, I have two pieces of advice: first, speak and act from your own instinct. If not, you will be miserable in the long term. And if a man is threatened by your intellect, ask yourself whether he is really worth cultivating a relationship with. The most likely answer is: probably not.

A male perspective, by Nick Curtis

As a reasonably red-blooded man who reached sexual maturity in the Eighties, there have undoubtedly been times when I have checked out a girl's legs before I tested her IQ. But I've always been happiest with women who are smarter than me.

This has its drawbacks. Dating a clever woman opens you up to a world of hurt male pride, and constant reminders of your own woefully slow cognitive ability. Marrying a smart girl makes it worse. If that smart girl is also more physically attractive, more gracious and a better person, then you'd better have a pretty solid sense of self-esteem, fella. Or be too damn dumb to notice.

My clever, beautiful wife was out in the world of work while I was fannying around drinking cider and failing to get laid at university. Because of this, she is sharper, quicker and more streetwise than I am (plus the older I get, the less my knowledge of the experimental novels of BS Johnson seems to matter).

Let me count the humiliations. There was the time she realised I thought Majorca and Mallorca were different places. The time she learnt how gullible I was and hid in cupboards to startle me. The time she realised I skirted the room when using the microwave because I was scared of it.

Our marriage has involved a steady ceding of intellectual territory, by me, to her. My wife is an instinctive and enthusiastic early adopter of technology, so she has set up all our computers, iPads and phones, organised our TV screening services, music downloads and social media accounts, and taken all our banking, bills and calendars online. I can no longer remember how to program the heating.

When we met, neither of us could boil an egg but, once she set her mind to it, she became a brilliant, innovative cook: I plod in her sage-scented wake. She reads faster than me and will recommend three books while I am still wading through one. She realised we needed to cut back on the wine and do more exercise while I was still giggling like a drunk simpleton on the sofa, watching Strictly.

So there is shame and a regular reminder of your own shortcomings when you live with a smart woman. But any man who doesn't realise he is lucky if his partner is smarter than him - well, he's an idiot.