The Clooney Effect

Helen Fisher's latest study on American singles flips stereotypical relationship dynamics and introduces the age of the trophy husband.

This post has been updated to clarify the findings of the study and more accurately represent the interpretation of the author.

If you're a guy who swipes right on Tinder or sheepishly grins at the pretty stranger across the bar, it's unlikely you'll have more than a cursory, fleeting interest ... unless the woman you're checking out is smarter than you.

That's one surprising finding in Helen Fisher's fifth annual study on American singles for, which surveyed 5,600 singletons across the country for what they desired in a potential partner.

Fisher's findings offer a solution to a classic problem in economic mating theory: Are men afraid of "over-educated" women?

Fisher offers a resounding "no" to that question, using an anecdote from pop culture as validation. In what she amusingly calls the Clooney Effect, Fisher describes the phenomenon of men wanting to marry women who were independent and self-reliant in relationships. "When even a lifelong bachelor like George Clooney settles down, you know things are changing," writes Fisher of her tongue-in-cheek term, which recalls the actor's marriage to Amal Alamuddin, an accomplished human-rights barrister.

That men might prefer women who are more educated than they are flies in the face of an argument put forward by the late economist Gary Becker. In a chapter he wrote for a volume on family economics, Becker hypothesized that men and women are more likely to be in relationships with their physical and intellectual peers, at least in theory.* He believed that it's economically advantageous for us to find our intellectual equal as opposed to a mismatched marriage: The benefits are a long, healthy, satisfying partnership; the cost is a partnership that falls apart, separation, maybe divorce.

But, according to Fisher's findings, many men aren't just looking for their equals but perhaps their superiors. The vast majority—87 percent—said they would date a woman who makes more money, is more intellectual, and is better educated than they are.

Women, for their part, seem to be looking for their equals: 86 percent want a partner who is as intelligent as they are. Additionally, 55 percent aren't willing to support their partner financially, and 61 percent claim not being as intelligent as them is an automatic deal-killer, according to the findings.

Why is it that men are more willing to have a smarter woman by their side and women won't settle for someone less than intellectually ideal? In short, women can demand more, and know it. The apocalyptic threats by old-school mothers of shortages of men as women crept towards their 30s have become less threatening. Men don't desire damsels in distress, and women don't want breadwinners. Modern marriage is a partnership, and both men and women expect their partners to be at least their equal intellectually and personally.

That's not to say that Fisher's Clooney Effect is a fully explanatory theory. Any psychologist will state that appearance is still the number one factor in bringing two people together, and that it takes more than a singular trait (in this case, intelligence) to create a strong, long-lasting bond. And it's important to note that these statistics are heteronormative, applying purely to straight couples and not addressing gays and lesbians at all.

For millennia, a woman's value in a marriage was largely limited to birthing children and caring for a household. That's changed now, and men's desires have changed accordingly. Men want their wives—partners, really—to be much more independent, with lives and careers outside of the home.

As the Clooney Effect's name suggests, it's George who gained from marrying the beautiful, smart, independent Amal. One commenter at Time summed it up nicely after the couple made their first post-marriage appearance at this year's Golden Globes, "We always thought that she was the woman who finally snared George Clooney, but it’s the other way around. And we’re all better off for it."

* This post originally stated that Gary Becker is the author of the book, Economics of the Family. Becker actually wrote a chapter for the book. We regret the error.