Devil’s Advocate.

Like you, probably, all of my feeds exploded with this article from the Wall Street Journal yesterday morning.

To begin with, I did find it poorly-phrased, condescending, and clothed in old-lady language (for the lack of a better term). But I didn’t find it offensive, demeaning, or illogical in the same way many of my contemporaries have been expressing. In fact, I found the logic really similar to Meg Jay’s “Why 30 is not the new 20” TED talk and the prologue of this This American Life story that have been lauded or laughed at by people with the same values as those so fervently deriding this piece. I’d like to explain why.

To begin with, the article is speaking to a very, very narrow subset of the population. As far as I can gather, there are six constraints imposed. For the advice to be prescriptive, as intended by the author, you need to be:

  1. Female
  2. Attending, or a recent graduate of, an elite university
  3. Heterosexual or bisexual
  4. Interested in getting married (someday)
  5. Interested in having biological children (someday, ideally before you reach an age where fertility problems increase and birth complications begin to rise)
  6. In possession of a deep-seated preference for a mate you feel is on your level in terms of intelligence/cleverness/wit/love of learning/whatever je ne sais quoi term you prefer.

That’s a lot of “AND” statements. As it so happens, these six conditions apply to me, so I think I might be in a decent position to play defense.

Some methods work to begin. Let’s try to come up with a rough percentage using a slice of the population, assuming the % of those with condition #2 stay constant over time:
–  There are 30,672,088 18 to 24 year olds in the United States (from the ’10 census)
–  162,059 are enrolled in top-20 undergraduate institutions (as ranked by Princeton Review – not condoning rankings, using a proxy)
– 81,039 of those are female, assuming equal enrollment.
–  An estimated 76,573 are heterosexual (using the mean of the 3-8% population rate provided by the NGLTF)

It’s difficult to quantify the population-level rates of women who aspire to marriage, who are voluntarily child-free, and who want a smarter mate. But we’re dealing in decimal points here, so, making the wildly inaccurate assumption that those conditions apply to anywhere from 70-90% of women in this subcategory, we are still dealing with 0.2% of the population. So, while the article makes a great many assumptions, it might be best to assess the accuracy of these assumptions as they might apply (or not) to this extremely narrow slice of America.

So, now that that’s done, let’s move on to the actual meat of the article. The primary argument is that it may be to the advantage of women who fit the criteria described above to seek out mates, or to at least identify potential suitors for later on, while in college. (Edit: Jason makes a good point about selecting for other types of intelligence in the comments, and for the purpose of this post I’m using the terms “smart” and “intelligent” in reference to the type of intelligence elite universities select for.)

To begin with, I wouldn’t begin to claim that IQ represents the end-all, be-all of intelligence – not even close. But it is a normally-distributed tool that correlates with vaguer definitions of intelligence, and that allows us to us reflect the notions of scarcity mathematically by using IQ as a decent proxy measure. That looks like this:


For those without stats background: the center of the bell curve is 100. 68% of IQ test-takers will score between 85 and 115, 95% between 70 and 130, 99.7% between 55 and 145, and so forth. Three separate articles, two of which were published on Psychological Science – one of the leading psychology journals – and all of which are cited on page two here (PDF warning), estimate that “elite colleges” (nonspecifically) select for mean SAT scores associated with 99th percentile IQ scores. Again, I’m not trying to speak to the appropriateness of these measures – for the purposes of my argument, this is a proxy selected to mesh with the argument in the article. Let’s play fast and loose with IQ as a metric and assume people are fine with that.

At one standard deviation above the norm, or IQ=115, 16% – 1,600 out of every 10,000 people – will score equal to or higher than you. At the second standard deviation, it’s 2.5%. For a woman with this as the sole requirement, that’s 125 eligible men (x number of whom are married or weird or whatever other constraints you’d like to impose) – and, of course, vice versa for a man who is interested in a mate of similar intelligence.

Looking for those 125 people out of the 10,000 you may run across in your day-to-day life over the course of a year is, to put it bluntly, fucking hard. And most of them might not have a personality that jives with that of the hypothetical woman in question. But whatever your preference, people who who score a bit less than you on this proxy-measure we’re using are just so much more available. They are more common, easier to find, less difficult to identify. And if equal-ish intelligence isn’t a huge romantic necessity for you, you won’t necessarily notice or care. And that is just fine.

But, for whatever reason, the drop-off rates differ by gender. A 2005 study (n=900) found that marriage rates decreased by 35% for every 16-point increase in IQ score in men, but by 40% for every 16-point increase in IQ score for women.  A longer-running survey found that the odds of marrying were increased by 1.35 for men for every standard deviation increase in IQ, but decreased by 0.42 for every standard deviation increase for women. You can claim that that is sexist and awful and demeaning to women as much as you please. But I don’t make it my business to disagree with the practical implications of large population-level studies without reason.

Okay, so, back to the article. The premise is that straight women at elite universities who would like to get married and who are interested in men who are as intelligent as they are should try to identify or date those men during college, assuming the type of intelligence they’re interested in is selected for here. Guess what: it is WAY EASIER to find men who fit those standards in a location where they are in abundance. This is not a sexist or demeaning thing. It is an issue of population density. If you are, by whatever measure you goddamn please, more intelligent than 99 people out of 100 and would like to date someone similarly endowed, then it makes sense in terms of scarcity to identify potential mates in a realm where half of your classmates and hallmates and screw-your-roommates (/Rice) likely meet that standard. I’ve been trying to for ages, but I just do not see how this argument is demeaning or impractical.

Now, to address questions that arose when talking about this with friends*:

“Casual sex is irresistible to men, but the smart move is not to give it away’ – this is, like, five assumptions in one goddamn statement.”
I’m not going to defend this one because I don’t think it’s universal enough to fit: generalization, antiquated language, absolutely turns off her target audience.

“That argument undersells the workforce as a place to find prospective mates, especially in jobs where employees are required to have advanced degrees.”
Yes, this is true. That’s fine, assuming you’re comfortable dating people you work with. Lots of people aren’t (or “aren’t” until…), but you’re right – this is becoming less of an issue as people tend to stay at specific jobs for shorter periods of time and network with individuals outside of their specific organizations. And lots of people are comfortable dating colleagues (or even people in the same field field). Have fun in if you’re living in DC or SF or Boston. But not everyone is, or does.

“Tons of people are not ready for commitment in college.”
I agree with you! I totally wasn’t (and probably still am not) so this really resonates with me. I think Susan Patton provides for this option by noting the option of keeping in touch with people you might potentially be interested in past the point of graduation.

“I just get the sense that she isn’t REALLY talking about intelligence. She’s really talking about money.”
Now that is super offensive and demeaning to me. I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable to assume that people can want partners who jive with their off-cuff wordplay and laugh at their jokes and debate whatever specific abstractions please them regardless of whether that partner chooses to spend his or her days as an investment banker or a bookseller or a geneticist or an urban farmer. When Susan Patton recommends to keep in touch “with the super smart ones – they’ll probably do well to themselves” I took that to mean that smart dudes have interesting and fulfilling life experiences that might make them awesome and engaging romantic partners, especially once they’re not doing kegstands on a nightly basis. It absolutely did not cross my mind that this might be meant in terms of financial output and I find it offensive that that is the assumption.

“’Your biological clock will be ticking loud enough to ward off any potential suitors.’ – Please don’t tell me you don’t find that awful.”
This is a bad phrase. I think the tone is derisive, negative, makes assumptions about wanting children, and not necessarily only applicable to one gender. But the term “biological clock” itself is evolutionarily sound. Guess what – I have a genetic risk factors for autism (as per 23andme deep data), so I would really prefer to have kids before my partner hits 35 to avoid the drastic rise in autism rates that follows. I don’t understand how it’s somehow considered sexist for men to prefer similar constraints in women re: other risk factors, not to mention the absolute drop-off in viable fertility. I do think it’s worth noting that this really shouldn’t be so gender-particular, though a hard wall for women (vs a softer climb in risk factors for men) obviously modulates that in practice.

“Partners are not animals to be tagged and released and tracked on natgeo studies. Nor are they like cars, where you compare attributes and make decisions about which one has the best values. They are life partners. There are feels involved!”
Right! I think anyone who actually tries to assess whether or not their romantic interest is smart enough for them is super weird and needs better priorities. But I don’t think that micro-level assessment is enough to dissuade me from evidence of macro-level tendencies.

“I just hate the way she talks about this stuff.”
Yeah, so do I, but that doesn’t invalidate the underlying reasoning. Obviously, it hurts the credibility of that argument – which is why I’m writing this.

In conclusion: with all of these (very rough) numbers in mind, I simply don’t see what’s absurd about implying that people interested in romantic partners as described above should consider seeking out those partners when they are concentrated in greatest abundance. That makes sense from a scarcity standpoint. I’m open to alternative arguments. Come at me, Jezebel.

* By friends I obviously mean a certain Graham Fowler West, who I think may have finally been turned to the dark side.

Devil’s Advocate.

4 thoughts on “Devil’s Advocate.

  1. Jason says:

    While I do agree with the “spirit” of the post, there are a couple things that need to be addressed (that would make the argument a little tenuous otherwise)-

    1) elite university = smart people? first of all, the psychological science study that is cited in the blog is hotly disputed in academia, to say the least. also, there are different kinds of smarts out there. and i’m not just talking about “street smart” versus “book smart”. an elite university graduate may be able to talk about chomsky, but that person may not be able to budget appropriately. an elite university graduate may be able to have a dinner conversation about French wine, but not necessarily about NBA drafts. you can say that the people who go to elite university are more likely to find the people that elite university tends to produce more attractive, but you can’t say that the people who go to elite university are just “smarter” period.

    2) again, i do agree with the spirit of the statistical inference that it is harder to meet people once you graduate from college, but at the same time you are not meeting people at random from the normal distribution of population. you go to gatherings that are self-selective and selective in other criteria, you go to a workplace that is self-selective and selective in other criteria (when you’re a lawyer and work in a law firm, is the probability of meeting someone with a law degree as low as described above?), you go to a friend’s house that has self-selective group of people who are likely to share your demographic and educational traits. to say that your probability of meeting somebody is close to the tail end of the normal distribution is a conclusion that does not take into any selection into account.

    3) so, the premise is that if you meet someone in college (given you have those preferences as listed above and you have gone to an elite university), you are more likely to have a spouse who is more satisfactory AND able to follow your career passion (if the latter was not part of the argument, this point is irrelevant, so apologies). The big caveat is the “AND”. When a couple relocates (versus two single people relocate), the couple is more likely to relocate together, understandably, than two single people. When a couple relocates, women are more likely to lose out from relocating (in terms of income) than men do (and more so for a married couple). Actually, men gain from relocation while women lose (most recently, and it’s not even that the net income for the couple is larger, so women’s loss is made up by men’s gain.

    Again, I do agree with the overall spirit of the blog, but there are at least these caveats that need to be added to support that argument. it may be just a difference in nuance, yet an important one.

    1. You bring up a lot of good points, many of which I agree with.

      1. This was something I struggled with phrasing in a nuanced manner, and you did it much more clearly. Yes, I definitely meant that I think elite universities are a good place to find mates if you’re interested in the specific type of intelligence that elite universities select for. I think these measures correlate well enough with the colloquial use of “intelligence” people use most of the time, which is why I felt comfortable using that term here. At the same time, I don’t think other types of intelligence are under the same rigid spatial and temporal constraints that the type discussed here might be. If someone wants a partner who has great intuition about NBA drafts, they can chill out at sports bars and join fantasy leagues and debate on local message boards outside of the narrow four-year age range (and, let’s be real, they probably won’t make much progress in that at Harvard outside of the sports medicine department). Same goes for emotional intelligence, street smarts, etc. But I do think moving into temportal constraints feeds into your #2…

      2. Which is a really great point. You’re definitely right in that social networks tend to self-select for certain qualities, so yes, the distribution wouldn’t necessarily be normally distributed. I tried to address the workplace issue in point two of potential counterarguments, and I think it’s valid in so far as people are comfortable dating in that sphere. This also got me thinking about other tools (online dating apps where you can pre-select traits, especially) that might make the university argument even more irrelevant. So, yeah, +1.

      3. That’s interesting. I didn’t necessarily mean to extend my argument past the point of selection, but I didn’t know that about relocation tendencies. I do, however, think that it might be a little outside the scope of the original article, UNLESS relocation in favor of the man is more likely to relocate a family in his favor in the specific circumstances described. Would be interested to see how that shifts across different education and income levels.

      1. Jason says:

        On 3: yea, all the studies (to my knowledge) that talk about relocation for a family/couple deals with people of blue-collar or lower white-collar jobs, which are less for elite university graduates. And (in agreeing with your objection) I can think of many reasons why relocation decisions would differ (not just because the elite university couples are more egalitarian necessarily, but because the higher status jobs (lawyer, e.g.) tend to be concentrated in certain areas (you wouldn’t find that many law firms in Fargo, ND, compared to NYC, even controlling for population. No offense to Fargo :P) or because they consider more diverse things when considering jobs besides income (probability of promotion, status of the job/firm, etc.). Finding out about this, as you said, would be interesting.

        Thank you for taking my stupid comments so seriously! 🙂 your blog is awesome, btw 🙂

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