I once knew a man who mentioned that he was in Mensa as soon as he was introduced. He died a couple of years later while hiking alone. Apparently, he ignored the signs warning to stay on the path, and fell over a cliff, the victim of his conviction that he was always right.
He was only the most extreme example of something I’ve observed dozens of times: people so pleased with their own intelligence that they make trouble for themselves. Usually, the trouble falls into at least one of these seven fallacies:
Thinking themselves the smartest person in the room
Intelligent people often receive so much praise in childhood that they grow used to under-estimating others. They become confident that their opinions are the most accurate, and perhaps even that they can manipulate those around them. The trouble with this outlook, as a psychologist friend remarked, there’s always another room – and another, and another. Sooner or later the intelligent will meet someone smarter, or at least with greater expertise. However, with this attitude, they often fail to notice, which often leads to results that are embarrassing at best and disastrous at worst.
Thinking themselves superior to other people
The Duke of Wellington could get away with his conceit because he was born an aristocrat at a time when that social status meant something. An intelligent person today of any class has no such support for their assumptions of superiority. Unless they outgrow their assumptions or learn to conceal them, they make needless enemies. They leave a trail of resentment that can blow up like a powder train.
Thinking can make you stupid
Early computer programmers used the expression “GIGO” (Garbage In, Garbage Out”), meaning that a solution is only as good as the information it is based on. The same is true of human thought. Intellectual pride encourages leaping to conclusions, the overlooking of data, relying on incomplete data, and worse. Your intelligence doesn’t matter if you use it to think about faulty information.
Thinking they can do what they like
Remember eugenics? That was the pseudo-science that wanted to breed humanity to weed out the unfit. Until Hitler’s Germany showed where eugenics could lead, it was a popular idea among intellectuals across the political spectrum. Strangely, however, no one ever considered themselves unfit, nor questioned their right to make decisions for those who were supposed to be. Today, intellectuals may not go so far, but they still fall into the trap of thinking they can make decisions for others without consultation or permission. Then they’re surprised when they receive anger instead of gratitude.
Thinking they can ignore advice
The logic is obvious: if you’re the most intelligent person in the room, why bother with other opinions? The answer, of course, is that even without other skills, another perspective is often valuable. That’s why science is peer-reviewed, and even the most acclaimed writers often credit a discerning editor as a major reason for their success.
Thinking intelligence makes them experts outside their expertise
Some types of intelligence include the ability to learn quickly and to ask intelligent questions. However, even these types do not make you an instant expert. You need to know the limits of your competence, and to respect the fact that some people will be competent in ways that you are not. Otherwise, over-reaching becomes inevitable.
Thinking intelligence is the most important trait
Any time that you become too proud of your smarts, consider Marilyn vos Savant. Vos Savant has the highest recorded I.Q. of 228. However, all she has done with her intelligence is to write a newspaper column – a worthy enough accomplishment, but a modest one, compared with what you might expect from her intelligence. Hundreds of people have done far more with less intelligence but plenty of imagination, determination, observation, and charisma in various combinations.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to meet a number of artists and computer programmers who have gained world wide recognition for their accomplishments. Most have struck me as intelligent, but almost all of them also show what can only be called humbleness or a sense of their limits. They have learned what my Mensa acquaintance never lived long enough to learn: Yes, intelligent matters, but it is rarely enough in itself.