Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

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.

Not realizing  that 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.


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Last spring, a friend suggested that I consider joining MENSA, the group for highly intelligent people. Without any false humility, I’m reasonably sure that I’d qualify, but I don’t think I’ll bother, even though joining might extend my circle of acquaintances. Groucho Marx’s comment about not wanting to belong to a club that would invite him to join aside, I dislike the thought of being evaluated before I can join. I also suspect that a club based on intelligence is a false sort of elitism, with misplaced criteria for membership.

Part of my reluctance is a deep-seated dislike of being evaluated. When I was in Grade One, I needed speech therapy to pronounce a hard “c” properly, and was shunted into the slow readers’ group solely on that basis. The appropriateness of that assessment is indicated by the fact that, by the end of the year, I was reading at a Grade 7 level, but the unfairness has left me with a lifelong detestation of tests and evaluations. Report cards, job performances – anything of the sort sets off an alarm and a sense of injustice in me. So, right from the start, the idea of writing an intelligence test in order to belong to a group unsettles me. Although I usually do well on tests, I don’t exactly seek them out.

At any rate, I don’t approve of self-appointed elitism. I’ve always believed that, if you have any talents, you should be self-deprecating about them, and people will appreciate them without you having to trumpet them (how I actually worked in marketing for a couple of years with that attitude escapes me now). In fact, if you have to trumpet your abilities, then either you over-rate them or you need to work on your insecurities (don’t we all). And if you don’t have them — well, better to stay silent in that case, too.

Besides, the elitism of MENSA has always seem misplaced to me. The first MENSA member I ever knew usually found a way to mention his membership within ten minutes of meeting a new person, and I don’t remember a single conversation in which he didn’t boast about his affiliation. He was fond of hiking solo, and despite repeated warnings and having been lost on several occasions, insisted on continuing the practice. He died in his early twenties because he fell off a cliff while taking a short cut on a trail. I don’t know, but I’ve always imagined him thinking that he knew better than the posted warnings because he was supposed to be intelligent. That would have been just like him.

To be fair, other MENSA members I’ve met since haven’t been so conceited. Yet, at the same time, most of them haven’t been extraordinary people, either, although they all had something of the same sense that they were special that the young hiker had. So, with all respect, I suspect that intelligence alone is an insufficient criteria for being an interesting or accomplished person.

Personally, I’d rather hang out with people who have done something. I’m really far less interested in people who are quick with a pun or able to cite knowingly the latest geeky reference than in people who are experts in their chosen fields. When I hear a writer talk about her latest work, a free software developer enthusing about the new features in his upcoming release or executives talking about expanding their business, I don’t care about their intelligence. What I respond to is their obvious love of what they’re doing. Imagination and enthusiasm are what make these people worth spending time with; their intelligence is interesting only so far as it supports these traits.

Nor, in my experience, do you find many such impassioned people who are fixtures in their local MENSA chapter. The reason, I suspect, is that they don’t need the validation of hanging around a self-proclaimed elite. They’re too busy with what they love – and they’re all the more interesting for their preoccupation.

I could mention, too, the shortcomings of all existing measures of intelligence, but that’s a topic for another day. The real point is, by demeanor, temperament, and preferences, I’m just not likely to fit in an organization like MENSA. I’m sure that, for some people, especially when young, MENSA can be a much-needed refuge, but, for me, belonging to the group would be looking for companionship in the wrong place. I simply don’t value intelligence as an isolated quality – or myself – as much as most MENSA members apparently do.

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