Research suggests that when men are psychologically distant from women — which was tested by reading and responding to a hypothetical scenario — they show greater attraction toward women who are smarter than them. But in face to face interactions where both the man and woman took an intelligence test, men show less attraction toward women who outsmarted them. The researchers suggest that “feelings of diminished masculinity accounted for men’s decreased attraction”.1 How do we grapple with this novel and somewhat unsettling finding?

“Preliminary evidence suggested that feelings of diminished masculinity accounted for men’s decreased attraction toward women who outperformed them in the live interaction context…”

Park et al., 2015

On the one hand, people look for very different traits in their partners. And, generally, we all have a right to our own mate preferences no matter how unorthodox. But on the other hand, a preference for someone less intelligent than you seems to establish an inherent power dynamic. Not to mention, this desire for power and control over another person could lead to other negative behaviors — which I will turn to now in some more detail.

Researchers Kunstman and Maner (2010) used a power and control condition in their study — either telling their participants they were the most qualified to lead their team on a task (power condition) or telling participants to work together equally on a task (control condition). Among several key findings, they found that power led participants to overperceive subordinate’s level of sexual interest which also increased their sexualized behaviors during social interaction.2 In other words, when either a man or woman was given power, they thought their subordinate was more interested in them than they really were — and sometimes even acted on this (e.g. sat closer, made more eye contact, or smiled more).

This ties directly back to Park et al. because men are attracted to and feel more powerful around women who are less intelligent than them — just like the participants in the study who were told they “were the most qualified to lead their team.” In turn, one might overperceive sexual interest, which could lead to miscommunication and even sexual harassment. These are some of the dangers that come with seeking power in a relationship.

Another group of researchers explored the concept of power but with a different experimental manipulation unrelated to romantic relationships. Participants in a high power condition were asked to write about a time they had power over someone, whereas participants in a low power condition were asked to write about a time that someone else had power over them. Participants in the high power condition were less accurate in detecting the emotional states of other people and less likely to adopt another person’s perspective.3 In other words, holding power made perspective taking less likely — another drawback of a power dynamic in a relationship. It appears that they would be more focused on themselves than their partners, which could very easily damage both a person and a relationship.

“We found that power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how other individuals see the world, think about the world, and feel about the world.”

Galinsky et al., 2006

Altogether, seeking power in a relationship — like men seeking less intelligent women in Park et al. (2015) — seems to have a few dangerous implications. Holding power can lead to overperceptions of sexual interest, unwanted sexual advances, decreased perspective taking, and other mostly negative behaviors. So, although we are all entitled to our own unique preferences in a relationship, it seems that seeking power might cause more harm than good.

  1. Park, L. E., Young, A. F., & Eastwick, P. W. (2015). (Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women. Personality & social psychology bulletin41(11), 1459–1473. ↩︎
  2. Kunstman, J. W., & Maner, J. K. (2011). Sexual overperception: power, mating motives, and biases in social judgment. Journal of personality and social psychology100(2), 282–294.
  3. Galinsky, A. D., Magee, J. C., Inesi, M. E., & Gruenfeld, D. H. (2006). Power and Perspectives Not Taken. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1068–1074.

One Reply to “The Role of Power in Romantic Relationships”

  1. This was a really interesting post to read! I’m really glad you took this angle of investigating how power perceptions play a role in attraction, because I think this is really important to for people understand on both ends of the power and gender spectrum, so that they can be better equipped to handle situations in which someone is trying to exert power over them. I also like how you highlighted the potentially dangerous consequences of trying to gain that sort of upper-hand in a relationship, it reminds me of this idea that people with power tend to exhibit more “approach” behaviors (as opposed to “inhibit” behaviors) and be less empathetic towards others, especially those with less power. Thanks for this insightful post!

Leave a Reply