Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Foolishness about Smart People and Dating

Smart kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Are smart people romantically impaired? If you believe Alex Benzer's new HuffPost piece, "Why the Smartest People Have the Toughest Time Dating," you'd think that anyone who went to an Ivy League or equivalent college was doomed to watch their genes go extinct. His basic argument is that smart people invest too much time and energy into achievement with the result that their dating and mating skills are at best vestigial, at worst nonexistent.**

I think he's full of crap. I went to two of the schools he mentions. I'll leave grad school out of this, because that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish; the demands of an academic career skew the picture. But going back to my undergrad years at Stanford, virtually everyone I know is partnered. Very, very few people I know from my college years are divorced. (I can actually only think of two examples - a couple from band who were young, neurotic, and doomed from the start, and who filed upon returning from their honeymoon - and a former housemate who was always a free spirit.) I'm willing to use my college friends' low divorce rate as a proxy for happiness in love; it's at least as scientific as Benzer's method, which is to provide no real evidence at all, only assertions about what "smart people" are like.

Now, it's possible that my friends and I killed enough brain cells to collectively reduce our IQs by 30 points, opening the way to luck in love. Maybe being in California for my undergrad years, in the mid-1980s when admissions weren't yet so cutthroat, made my experience radically different from Benzer's time at Harvard. I'm willing to grant that Harvard may be more dysfunctional than my alma maters just by virtue of its mystique, so possibly Benzer's points apply to that much smaller pool. But funny thing: I know a few Harvard grads, too, and they're no more likely than my college friends to be single or unhappily partnered. Besides, someone has to be spawning all of those legacy admissions!

So I think Benzer is just plain wrong. But parts of his argument hold just enough truth to get under my skin, and so I can't resist dissecting it piece by piece, even though it might be, uh, smarter to just ignore, ignore. (His main points are in bold and taken verbatim from his own list.)

1. Smart people spent more time on achievements than on relationships when growing up.

This is one argument that resonated with me. I wasn't achievement-oriented, per se, and I was totally clueless about the college admissions game. But I didn't spend my whole adolescence pining after boys. Most of my energy went into music because I loved it and it often gave me an excuse to skip boring, slow-paced academic classes. And so I spent most of my teenage years with my lips attached to a French horn or my fingers glued to a piano keyboard. Although that didn't stop me from being interested in boys, it did keep some crucial body parts happily busy. Sublimation is not a bad thing when you're a 15-year-old girl; it can keep you from diving deep into sex before you're emotionally ready.

But here's the thing. Just because I wasn't cultivating intense romances doesn't mean I was neglecting relationships. I had plenty of friends, boys and girls alike. Most of them were not precocious daters, either; they played in band and/or they were part of what a high school friend dubbed the "smart and chaste crowd." (That sounds more prissy than it really was; we'd had a few drinks when she said it.) While many of us weren't world-class flirts, we definitely did learn social skills. Who says sex has to be thrown into the mix at a young age in order to learn to relate to a future partner?

It's true that there wasn't much of a dating scene in college. As one friend of mine said, "No one dates at Stanford. We just sleep together." We pioneered the "hookup culture," I suppose, for good or ill. People were busy (as Benzer rightly observes), the campus was isolated from the town by large swaths of land, and most of us didn't have cars. Oddly enough, people did find romantic partners, even without much formal dating and without the elaborate bar culture that dominates social life at the university where I now teach.

2. Smart people feel that they're entitled to love because of their achievements.

This is rank bullshit. I saw plenty of entitlement during my undergrad years. I'd say 99% of it was economic. I knew a handful of rich kids who thought they were above the rules (and a few of them got busted - unsurprisingly - for plagiarism). Maybe a few of them felt entitled to love, since they already believed that Daddy's money could buy anything. More prevalent were kids who weren't rich but figured their cleverness and work ethic predestined them for wealth. It was the height of the Reagan era, after all.

But entitled to love? My college friends were just as unsure about that as any other group of people I've known. If anything, because the dating scene was so rudimentary, most of us wondered how we'd ever find love. We spent many late nights eating ramen and commiserating about our lack of prospects. Almost no one ended up single in the long run, but my friends and I couldn't envision that back in 1983.

3. You don't feel like a fully-realized sexual being, and therefore don't act like one.

Here's where Benzer gets downright retrograde. Just see what it takes to be sexual!

Now you could be absolutely stunning (in which case you're both smart AND pretty and everyone hates you except for me -- call me, like, immediately), but your identity is still bound up in being The Smart One. So maybe you dress frumpy and don't pay a lot of attention to your appearance. Or never bothered to cultivate your sensuality as a woman. Or your sexual aggression as a male.

Attracting a partner is all about the dance of polarity. Energy flows between positive and negative electrodes, anode and cathode, magnetic north and south. Unless you actually convey femininity as a woman or masculinity as a man, you're not going to attract a suitable companion of the opposite sex.

Part of the issue is this: when all of your personal energy is concentrated in the head, it never gets a chance to trickle down to the heart, or, god forbid, the groin. By virtue of being born of the union of male and female, yang and yin, you are a sexual being. Deal with it. Now do what you need to do to perpetuate the race already. Use what mama amoeba gave you.

For starters, if you're not 100% heterosexual, you're apparently SOL and Benzer can't help you. Sorry, kthx bai.

If you're straight, then you're just not trying hard enough to live up to gender stereotypes. Smart girls let themselves go! A boy will never notice you if you wear sweats to class! And smart boys aren't aggressive enough! (How this squares with a sense of sexual entitlement remains a mystery.)

In other words, smart girls had better look hot. Smart boys had better act butch.

We just need to retreat into rigid, clichéd gender roles, in Benzer's scheme, and romantic fulfillment will be ours. There's no place for female sexual initiative in this vision. Nor does he imagine men can be sensual. Heaven forbid you've got any yang mixed with your yin - or vice versa.

I can't help but think that Benzer's ideas have some kinship to that silly pseudo-survey last spring that claimed smart girls have lousy sex. On the surface, he appears to be an equal-opportunity critic of men and women, since he says men need to adjust their habits, too. Dig a little deeper, though, and his views on sexuality are equally sexist. There's nothing new at all about telling women to act more feminine and men to be more aggressive.

4. You're exceptionally talented at getting in the way of your own romantic success.

Sure. Smart people routinely overthink things. That's not limited to love.

But Benzer claims we overthink love and lust to such an extreme that we've tuned out the most basic biological wisdom:
To put it plainly, you are programmed to reproduce. Now quit thinking you're smarter than the 3 billion base pairs in your genome and 4 billion years of evolution. Actually, just stop thinking altogether. Let the program do its work.
Evidence, please?

Or is this just a backdoor way of invoking the most cartoonish principles ev psych - man hunter, woman hunted? (Nostalgia for yin/yang gender stereotypes) + (vague appeals to evolution) = (pop ev psych)!

I'm always skeptical when someone tells me to stop thinking.

5. By virtue (or vice) of being smart, you eliminate most of the planet's inhabitants as a dating prospect.

Benzer exhorts us to "loosen up" - to stop expecting to pair off with a partner who's comparably smart. The penalty for not doing so? Celibacy - or exile to Germany's fashion capital!
Do a very thorough search all over the planet and be prepared to move to Duesseldorf.
I didn't actually move to Duesseldorf. Berlin was more fun (especially for a frump: Duesseldorf is way too stylish). It's also where I conveniently met my husband while using a truly revolutionary technique for man-hunting: doing the things that already made me happy. (I met him while standing in line for symphony tickets, but that's another story.)

Benzer has a legitimate point: If you're smart and want intelligence in a partner, you do narrow your potential pool. Sometimes dramatically. It's important to be aware of the trade-offs entailed by high expectations.

What Benzer doesn't mention: Yes, holding out for someone who's a kindred spirit may mean many youthful Saturday nights spent hanging out platonically with pals. In the long run, though, being picky and knowing what you want just might increase the chances of finding a happy match. My Saturday nights are usually still just spent hanging out, now with my husband. Seventeen years after chatting him up in the ticket line, I'm nowhere close to bored with our conversation. Of course that's not due to his intelligence alone - he's kind and funny and a bunch of other good stuff - but I can't imagine being nearly as beguiled if he weren't bright enough to still surprise and challenge and delight me.

**Benzer conflates "smart" with "people who attend 'elite' schools" and I recognize how problematic this is. I had two real dates while at Stanford, and one of them was with a guy who was so dull it hurt. Conversely, oodles of brilliant people go to less fancy-pants schools or drop out altogether. (I married a high-school dropout who eventually earned a Ph.D.) Obviously, there are lots of other forms of intelligence that don't depend on being bookish, as well. So even though this post discusses academically bright high achievers who went to Ivy-ish schools, I don't for a minute think that Benzer is right when it comes to that much larger universe of smart folks, either.


Reg said...

Incisive and funny. Excellent. thank you.


Sungold said...

Thanks, Reg! It's dicey to write about smart people and (presumptuously?) include oneself among them. In fact, it's almost a guarantee for saying something boneheaded. I'm glad if you think I dodged that trap. This time, anyway. :-)

Reg said...

It's not dicey when it's self-evidently true. I'm very preoccupied by the line between a proper appreciation of one's own talents, and egomania. Having done pop music and jazz for a living since 1971, I know whereof I speak.

This will make a post for me on Tangentville rather than irrelevantly burbling further about it here.

May we all "dodge that trap", or at least have friends honest enough to point out when we fall into it.


Reg said...

And I forgot to say that what you said about your husband was one of the most heart-warming things I've heard recently. If someone I valued felt able to appraise me in such terms after a long time together, I would feel it all counted for something.

The value of waiting, QED.


Sungold said...

Hi again, Reg. The line you mention is important. Women, especially, have historically hid their intelligence - but men do it sometimes, too. My hope is that with the election of Obama, my country is moving into a less anti-intellectual era. We shall see!

I meant it's dicey because we *all* are subject to brain farts. And it's probably a good thing, if it keeps us from becoming too self-impressed. :-)

As for my husband? Yeah, he was definitely worth the wait.

DaisyDeadhead said...

What I've noticed: Smart people love to write stuff about being smart. Then they get to remind everyone how smart they are, and drop the names of their hoity-toity schools.

(note: don't mean you)

I often think that's the real reason for these articles.

Sungold said...

Hi Daisy! I think the old advice "show, don't tell," is probably awfully sound when it comes to intelligence.

And yeah - I don't feel comfortable name-dropping because I see how loose the connection is to merit. I managed not to parlay a fancy-pants diploma into a well-paid job (this year is the first time I've had a full-time job that paid health insurance since 1988! not a typo). I had a really rewarding experience in college - lots of fun, great friends, and somehow I learned quite a bit, too - but there's so much luck that goes into the education lottery. All of it - supportive parents who've been to college themselves, decent schools, books at home, caring teachers, a safe neighborhood and a full belly, even one's own native intelligence - is the luck of the draw, *not* some sign of moral superiority.

Personally? I kind of think Alex Benzer was hoping to attract a date, and mentioning Hahvahd was part of the bait. I realize he's trying to be cute when he writes: "Now you could be absolutely stunning (in which case you're both smart AND pretty and everyone hates you except for me -- call me, like, immediately)" - but who says he can't be serious, and desperate, too? Then again, maybe he's just hawking his books.