The Downsides of Being Smart

A podcast listener named Amy Young writes in with interesting comments about our recent “Can You Be Too Smart For Your Own Good?” episode:

As I hold a Ph.D., I too feel well qualified to speak on topics I know nothing about.  Actually, the Ph.D. is in psychology, I am somewhat qualified to speak about the topic; however, most of my info comes from having a very bright son and having to do a lot of research to try to figure out how to raise him.

One downfall of being particularly bright is that you are often lonely.  You see and think of stuff that most other people don’t see or understand, so it can be hard to feel a genuine connection with most others.  What is really exciting to you goes right over the heads of most others.  As you get older this gets to be easier to solve by finding your flock, but I think loneliness in the formative years always sticks to you.  

Another downfall is that exceptionally bright people have a high drop-out rate from school, particularly high school. It seems counterintuitive until you spend a day in our public school system.  Bright kids see school as not providing any useful information and find it creates a lot of boring busy work.  On that note, a really great topic for you to explore is the economic impact of the teacher’s union’s stronghold on the American public education system. 

Also, in terms of gender and smarts, a downfall of being bright is social exclusion, which can be devastating for most girls.  As for the low marriage rates among bright women, I think most bright women avoided marriage in the past as it often meant staying home to perfect souffles and iron underwear.  I would imagine that to be torturous for bright women and could possibly be the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper.”


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  1. Nick says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • James says:

      Obviously written by someone who never spent time being a smart kid.

      I am familiar with the emotional intelligence theory, but I also realized that if you rate humans’ emotional intelligence on a scale of 0-100, the average dog would score about 250.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 26 Thumb down 25
    • Francesco L. says:

      As a matter of fact, neither Maslow’s hierarch of needs nor the “emotional intelligence theory” have nothing to do with the content of what Amy Young said.

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    • Linch says:

      I think what Nick was trying to get at(albeit not very well) was that different types of intelligence correlate well with one another. Simply put, somebody with high analytical (stereotypical) intelligence will also have a better than even chance of having higher than average emotional intelligence. This appears to contradict our stereotype of the socially awkward and lonely nerd.

      That said, I don’t think this contradicts with much, if any, of what Amy said. Though it’s becoming slightly better for my generation, traditionally, the sheer amount of effort needs to be “popular” in high school is quite staggering, especially for girls. Just because I’m more capable of analyzing emotions from a textbook case or that i have a slightly greater proclivity to develop social skills doesn’t mean I actually desire to develop them. Further, even if I do have social skills, I may not be as inclined to use them to my ut,ost with people whose interests or methods of communication I perceive to be blase and trivial. And if you believe intelligence is at least partially based on what you focus on and hard work, not just genetics, then it stands to reason that kids who enjoy rocket science or postmodern poetry or programming or whatever simply don’t have the time to be as popular or develop their social circle as much, especially in the jungle of superficiality and pointlessness that is our memetic image of a “stereotypical” high school.

      There is an overall positive correlation between intelligence and happiness for adults though, presumably at least in part because of the greater freedom to choose your own social circle (obviously the earnings difference and improved health outcomes can’t hurt)

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      • Kimberly says:

        I just happened to “freakishly” stumble upon your post while looking into something both similar and yet slightly unrelated. So I am curious (previous psych student) what part of the country you both grew up in & where you generally call home now & also how old you are.

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  2. Robert McGimpsey Jr says:

    Thank You…….

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  3. David Tschanz says:

    As a person with several degrees I can relate to the above comment. The real problems ARE an intellectual loneliness (which does improve over time simply because you find friends in the same boat) and social exclusion.

    Another factor, unmentioned above, is the sheer frustration of getting it while other people don’t – as if you’re idling while they try to figure out the ignition switch. This also improves over time and I honestly think a big change in your life comes when you realize they’re not getting it because they can’t, not because they are trying to drive you nuts :)

    I was fortunate that I didn’t have a negative high school experience – I went to a Jesuit high school in CT where excellence was expected and intellectual arrogance not allowed to develop. Especially since Jesuit education implies everyone excels in something, its simply a matter of finding it.

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    • too smart says:

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  4. JohnnyPeps says:

    I think a lot of smart people use intelligence to explain away negative things that would more accurately be attributed to arrogance.

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    • dink says:

      Or maybe you might just not get it because you haven’t experienced it and aren’t seeing that what looks to you like arrogance may, at times, be something else entirely that you are misjudging. Sometimes it really just “takes one to know one” after all.

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    • Kimberly says:

      I’m sure you do.

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  5. David W. says:

    While I understand Amy Young’s perspective, she uses the term “bright” in a narrow, divisive context; as though there are no “bright” children who are capable of normal social interaction. It is easy to believe that when your child has trouble connecting with people it is because other kids can’t keep up, but there are likely concept and connections those children make that your “bright” child wouldn’t be able to. I am sure there are bright women who would love to be mothers, and it’s perfectly obvious that there are plenty of “bright” kids who get a lot out of schoolwork.

    Most people are “bright” in one way or another, and while our society/educational system could be better at making it easy for people to interact with each other, and giving more support to children who do not learn well in its current structure, I find her implied distinction between “bright” and average to be short-sighted.

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    • Ani says:

      I respectfully disagree with the view that the OP uses the term “bright” as too narrow and divisive. I identify with every word she wrote, and that’s because I was a “bright” child who grew into a normal socially adjusted adult. I was very lucky to have a supportive school environment, and a sense of self-worth that was high enough to not allow the temporary social exclusion (especially during adolescence) to impact my life. I follow all the rules of normal social interaction, which allows me to easily interface with people of all intelligences and quite varied socio-economic groups.

      But you don’t want to ever be inside my head, because the levels of boredom and impatience I’ve had to overcome and still experience are enormous. Yes, we all find our own flocks – I was exceptionally lucky in that way – but it’s hard work, made that much harder by the rules of our society, especially if you are female.

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      • David W. says:

        Hi Ani,

        I didn’t mean to say that these issues aren’t very real to some people. Intellectual loneliness, social exclusion, boredom in school, etc. are all common and unfortunate barriers that people of “above average intellect” must encounter and hopefully overcome. However, our society views intelligence in a limited light, and in my experience many of the people who are deemed average in academia are not given the credit they deserve…conversely, people who experience the symptoms of intellectual superiority described above are quick to dismiss those who do not experience said issues. Most people are much “brighter” than we give them credit for and have not been given the appropriate resources, or simply don’t work within the established system well enough to be recognized. There are plenty of ways not to fit into society, and I find it frustrating that the OP, with her PhD in Psychology, has no trouble conforming to the labels of “bright” and average.

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    • Ryan says:

      I agree with David. In today’s society we define intelligence in a very specific way. In my experience, most really talented hockey players I’ve met would not be called intelligent in a traditional way. However, they’re brains are just focused on a different task. Think of the cognitive load required to skate around a hockey rink at break-neck speeds with 11 others all while trying to simultaneously hit a small puck through a goal and prevent certain others from hitting it through your goal. If your brain has been trained to solve that problem, why would expect it to succeed at solving differential equations?

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      • James says:

        Well, my dogs can both catch tennis balls in their mouth, which I can’t do. Does that mean they’re more intelligent than I am? (OK, I admit that I’m not too sure about the Border Collie myself, but for sure I’m smarter than the pitbullish mutt.)

        OTOH, while I’ve never played hockey (nor wanted to), I do many other physical activities that would seem to require similar levels of physical/mental activity, and do them at a reasonable amateur level of competence. So if I, like many other “smart kids”, can do these things AND solve differential equations as well, what does that say?

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      • @kirkisThinking says:

        James / Ryan – Being able to use understanding to see perspectives of intersecting intelligences is what is my understanding of true balanced intelligent person and would include the ability to see the physics/socio/primal aspects (to name a few) of hockey at a far greater level. This “knowledge” creates the ability. Or the reverse. One intelligence is the same as the other, just different. :)

        Amy – you bring up a good point on sexism with regard to intelligence. The most intelligent women I think are more likely to be shy, most likely due to sociological pressures from the perception of strong intelligent women.

        Thanks for your incites Amy !
        Nice find Stephen !

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    • Bright Loner says:

      …complained the “bright” kid.

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    • Pshrnk says:

      Are you from Lake Woebegone?

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      • Cory says:

        Maybe or maybe not, but it appears most of the commentators are. Seems like everyone has an IQ of about 140, kids who are in the top 10% (if not top 5%) of academic performance, and understand the apparent deep loneliness Ms. Young reports.

        Seems to me that asking people about their (or their kids’) IQs is like asking people about their driving skills. 80% think they are way above average. I know there’s some self-selection bias in who is reading and commenting, but color me skeptical.

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    • Kimberly says:


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  6. Brian says:

    Speaking to the “loneliness” of other people not understanding the same topics…one of the greatest skills is the ability to take complex subjects and make them accessible to the masses.

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    • Sven P says:

      While that is true, you can’t reason about complex subjects in their simplified and toned down form.
      In order to have interesting conversations about complex subjects (and in order to gain more understanding about them), you’d need to be able to reason about them in all their complexity.

      Think about it this way: you can only make complex subjects accessible to the masses if you have a profound understanding of these subjects, otherwise you wouldn’t know which parts can be simplified, which parts can be skipped over and which parts can be “translated” in analogies that are broadly understood by said masses.
      That profound understanding is only possible when you can discuss the topics with people who understand the topics at least on the same level.

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    • James says:

      Agreed, but the problem is that even when subjects – not necessarily complex ones, just those that are out of everyday routine – are made accessible to the masses, the majority of those masses have little interest in accessing them, and absolutely none in actually understanding them.

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    • Farquart Niedenbaum says:

      The challenge is to have enough patience and emotional acuity to know when to stop explaining. After a while it can be grating on people who may not feel you passion for the subject. I had to learn this the hard way many times. Being older now it is easier to know what is appropiate for each audience. As saddening as it may seem I think that in modern society and pop-culture there is a certain passion for remaining ignorant. The fool is idolized and the genius is pitied.

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      • Chibinium says:

        “Answer, don’t enlighten.” Unsolicited enlightenment breeds resentment and wastes your time. Being smart doesn’t mean one can grow things out of nowhere; we are only human, and even the best hydroponic techniques require fertilizer to preexist. But if there is the fertilizer of motivation, your crops will be much taller!

        But is it wrong to seek fertile fields, and leave the others to dust? Depends if you think noblesse oblige comes with being bright.

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    • tmeier says:

      Certainly the ability to present something so that it is just a bit challenging/intriguing but not confusing is very well rewarded. Panders have always made a good living and you can’t go wrong with flattering the masses.

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    • woof says:

      It gets tiring to explain. The similar individuals who get things without lengthy explanations are few and far between…

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  7. Wendy says:

    Being dumb is pretty lonely also.

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  8. Enter your name... says:

    A few years back, I dealt with a school that only accepted young children in the top 5% of academic ability. It was interesting to notice the differences between children who started there at age 5 and those who transferred in at age 10 from the (pretty good) local public schools. You could watch a class for a day and pick them out once you’d been around for a while.

    The main differences that have stuck with me were that the kids who had always been around bright kids (there or at a similar school) had more normal peer relationships and had a more nuanced understanding of their skills (“I’m one of the best at reading, but not at math or music”). The ones who had five years in a typical mixed-ability classroom were more likely to seek out adults during recess instead of peers and more likely to see academic achievement as an all-or-nothing issue (“I’m supposed to be the best at everything”).

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I’ll add this: In dealing with teens and college students who were equally bright, but who never escaped the mixed-ability classrooms, I’d say that the quickest screening question to identify them is this: “Do you like it when your teacher gives group assignments?”

      Bright and motivated kids are usually disgusted by group projects, which leave them a choice between them doing (or re-doing) most of the work to protect their grades, or risking their grades so that the group’s grade reflects the average contribution to the project.

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      • Violent Violet says:

        THIS… with the added bonus of being declared “bossy” if you see someone doing something inefficiently or wrong, and try to help them do it smarter.

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