Posts Tagged ‘intelligence’

Someone made a rather plaintive comment in this Google+ conversation, and it’s been stuck in my mind ever since: “So, again, what is the point of being smart if it does nothing for you? If you really are so smart, why can’t you get what you want?”

There are so many myths floating around about being smart and what that might mean. Even defining “smart” is full of pitfalls. I realized when I tackled the subject of intelligence a few weeks ago that it was a bit taboo, but I didn’t realize the full extent of it until I was reading other people’s reactions. So of course I had to write a follow-up.

A Few Intelligence Myths Exploded:

1. What is the point of being smart? There is no intrinsic point. It is not something you choose for yourself, just as you can’t choose to be naturally athletic or flexible or have perfect pitch (although I keep hearing rumors there are ways to train this) or be gifted with languages. There are things you can do to take advantage of any of these things (hard work and training), but not everyone will choose to use these skills or have the opportunities to do so. In the same vein, recent studies suggest it is quite possible to train yourself to be smarter if you are interested in doing so.

2. Smart people can get what they want. Ha! I wish. I don’t know if any studies have been done on this subject, but I haven’t read anything about how smart people are so much more happy than less smart people. Plus, what if a smart person wants something that requires additional skills besides just being smart (and most accomplishments do require additional skills)? And what if said smart person doesn’t have the right additional skills and fails (for whatever reason) to develop them? Or what if the smart person in question is on track to get what she wants and then is deterred by any of a host of reasons, including ill health (either hers or a loved one’s), economic realities, or her background? Or what if the smart person does get what she wants and it just doesn’t look like the societal norm?

3. Smart people look down on those who they perceive as less smart. First off, I mentioned before that many genius-level people (and perhaps particularly women) suffer from impostor syndrome, meaning they don’t believe they are as smart as they are. Secondly, I also mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect  and the false consensus effect back in March: the idea that people who are above average (including having above average intelligence) tend to assume everyone is just the same as they are unless presented with quite explicit proof to the contrary, thereby often underestimating their own intelligence. How all these people who don’t even realize how intelligent they really are can be looking down on everyone else is beyond me.

Secondly, even if they do realize they are intelligent, that still doesn’t mean they feel superior. Sure, there are a few people who do, but just because you are smart does not mean you are automatically arrogant and non-appreciative of other people’s abilities. Which leads me to my next point…

4. A specific kind of intelligence is more important than anything else. Um, no. There are many kinds of intelligence, and basic IQ test-measured smarts are no more useful than a host of other mental attributes. These include emotional intelligence, charisma, experience, wisdom, empathy and insight, kindness, courage, determination, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills. For example, if a very intelligent person wants to complete a difficult project but is not willing to work hard to do so, they probably won’t do as well as someone who isn’t quite as intelligent but is willing to work her ass off. Ultimately what matters about our lives is what we choose to do with them, not whatever set of attributes we start out with. Intelligent people who realize the truth of this aren’t likely to be very arrogant at all.

Any other intelligence myths you can think of? (Besides the whole “women aren’t as intelligent” thing we already talked about.) I’d love to hear from you.

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On Tuesday I read a blog post in which a female blogger made a list of people in her acquaintance she’d put in charge of governing society if she was a monarch. All the people on her list were male. When called on this fact in the comments, she mentioned one woman she knew who she felt was “awesome,” but then proceeded to say she’d listed people she knew who were “wicked smart” and that offhand, she couldn’t think of any other women she’d put in that category.

Typing that just now makes me want to yell and scream and possibly hurt my foot by kicking something unexpectedly hard.

As a woman who is “wicked smart,” let me explain something to those of you who haven’t thought about such things. High-IQ women often do not present in the same way as high-IQ men. That doesn’t mean they’re not just as smart; they just behave differently, in ways that are not typically identified with high intelligence.

For starters, smart women often work very hard to fit in. We blend. We spend a lot of time listening to other people talk. We don’t always put ourselves forward, even when we have expertise or insight about a certain topic. We are not as likely to offer or even form opinions, since we are supposed to be nice and agreeable. We are not as likely to argue. We deliberately choose topics of conversation that don’t show off our intelligence, partly because being an intelligent woman is somewhat fraught in our society and partly because if we want to have a real conversation instead of expound, it often works better to choose a topic in which intelligence doesn’t matter as much. We do much of this unconsciously because it tends to get us better social results, ie people like us more.

Women in general are also not encouraged to be as ambitious as men. We get more flak about being ambitious. People patronize us and tell us we have delusions of grandeur. In many professional arenas, we have to adopt masculine behaviors in order to realize our ambitions, not to mention deal with sexism. We also have to do better than men at the same positions in order to be recognized. And then people will minimize our accomplishments and say catty things about our appearances and personalities. Not to mention, women who want to have kids know they’ll end up with more of the work involved, even if they have full-time careers as well. So high-IQ men are often very “successful;” they might be wealthy or have a fast-track career or a top-notch reputation in academia. High-IQ women don’t always have any of these things because we either chose not to follow ambition in the classic sense or because we felt we should not.

Finally, our society privileges the sciences over the humanities and the arts, and factual knowledge over both raw intelligence (which is more about speed and ability to learn, understand, and synthesize) and emotional/social intelligence. And yet, women are less likely to go into the sciences, less likely to offer up their knowledge in conversation, and more likely to be encouraged to focus on emotional intelligence. And for those of us who have focused  on synthesis as opposed to factual memorization, our talents are often entirely overlooked.

The secret land of intelligent women?

My husband and I are a great example of this. By both our assessments, we are more or less equally intelligent. He has a PhD in physics, an important job at Google, and impressive amounts of knowledge on a variety of intellectual subjects. I’ve spent most my time pursuing music and writing and focusing on personal growth and interpersonal issues. It is not uncommon for people to tell me my husband is one of the most intelligent people they’ve ever met. No one ever tells him the same thing about me. He presents himself very differently in social situations, has many of the expected achievements, and studied string theory instead of music, so this doesn’t come as a big surprise.

I didn’t want to talk about this subject because we as a society seem to have a deep discomfort with intelligent women, and talking about it leaves an opening to be personally attacked or categorized as stuck up. I can hear it now: “She’s not as intelligent as she thinks she is, and her husband is just playing up to her big ego.” Admitting to intelligence, at least here in the United States, is not the best way for a woman to gain friends and influence people. And ironically, gifted people tend to be more sensitive, more likely to be perfectionists, and more likely to hold themselves to impossibly high standards…all while suffering from impostor syndrome. But I’m so tired of the misconceptions that abound, and I don’t hear enough women speaking out on this subject, so I felt I had to say something.

There are plenty of very smart women in the world. You might just not realize who they are. So the next time you are listing off smart people you know, think again and consider whether you can add some women to your list.

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