Kirsty Matthews discusses perceived intelligence

Credit to Mellissa Audrey on Flickr

There are a number common characteristics we look for when seeking a partner; humour, kindness and friendliness to name a few. Ultimately we seek traits which suggest our partner has good genes which we would want passed on to our offspring. A highly beneficial trait is intelligence, as high levels are known to correlate with greater physical health, good semen quality and a greater life expectancy. While it may seem that intelligence is an abstract trait which cannot be determined by physical appearance, research suggests that those who are perceived as being intelligent based on information displayed in the face, are also considered more attractive. There is little evidence to support a link between facial attractiveness and underlying cognitive abilities, however there is a suggestion that facial attractiveness can create an ‘attractiveness halo’ which leads to attractive individuals having positive personality characteristics attributed.

A recent study carried out by psychologists Fhionna Moore, Dimitra Filippou and our own David Perrett examined whether cues to intelligence exist in the face beyond an attractiveness halo effect and explored relationships between residual cues to intelligence and personality attributes in both male and female faces.

In their first study the faces were manipulated to look high in intelligence while attractiveness was controlled for. They found that manipulating the perceived intelligence did have an effect and that the attractiveness halo effect could not explain the accuracy of judgements made on intelligence, from the image of the face.

Interestingly the intelligence transform of the male faces had a greater effect on the attractiveness ratings than in female faces, with the attractiveness ratings higher among intelligent males but no different between females. Furthermore the male faces which had been transformed to look more intelligent were rated as being significantly more attractive than those which had been transformed to look less intelligent, regardless of attempts made to match the attractiveness components in the faces.

The second study examined how perceptions of characteristics which are associated with intelligence might give cues to its presence. The characteristics included; impressionable, funny, dominant, alert and friendly, and they found that high perceived intelligence was associated with higher ratings of friendliness and humour in both male and female faces and a lower perceived dominance in female faces.

Cues to intelligence, such as friendliness and humour are attractive in themselves as they give indication that a potential mate may be desirable and possess the important trait of intelligence which would allow them to pass on heritable intelligence to their offspring, providing them with an improved capacity for finding and using resources.

While they only tested for perceived intelligence, the results indicate that there are visual cues to intelligence in the face which are picked up on and found to be attractive. These cues to intelligence and attractiveness in the face are closely linked and associated with personality characteristics that result in positive social interactions and relationships.

Ultimately, having ‘intelligent’ genes will improve the survival of your offspring as they are better able to provide resources and work within a social group. It seems evolution has provided us with subtle indications of intelligence in potential mates, helping us to make a more informed decision of who we mix our genes with.


Kirsty Matthews

Moore, F. R., Filipou, D. & Perrett, D. I. In press. Attractiveness and perceived intelligence in the face. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

Image credit – Melissa Audrey