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. Liz Busby says:

    The severity of all these things–the social isolation, the school boredom, the lack of suitable marriage partners–depends on how far along you are on the IQ normal curve. 120 on the IQ scale (between 1 and 2 standard deviations) has often been claimed as “optimal intellect”: high enough to give you an advantage over average IQ individuals, but not so high as to result in social isolation.

    Many “bright” kids fall into the 120-130 range, where they can cruise along through life easily. It is the highly gifted, profoundly gifted, and genius level children who have the most trouble. School isn’t just easy, it’s mind-numbing; people aren’t just a little slower, they don’t even come close to understanding your interests. These are kids who begin spontaneously reading and doing arithmetic long before they can use a toilet–long before their parents think to even try to teach them. How can a child who reads novels in preschool not be profoundly bored and isolated when other kids are struggling to learn ABCs?

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    • Adam says:

      While I generally agree with your comment I would argue a few points. I didn’t have any social troubles in primary school, middle school or high school. My IQ is 136. While kids didn’t really understand my interests, it was very easy for me to understand a wide variety of theirs. I could almost become a quasi expert in what they liked. I think social awkwardness is a failure on the parents’ part, not a school or society’s. My mother always taught me that human interaction was one of the most important parts of life.

      However, I struggled endlessly with busywork. Like you said, I became bored with the work very quickly. My grades in middle school and beyond were terrible. I always passed tests with flying colors and was placed in AP courses. I was in the Gifted and Talented Enrichment program and Future Problem Solvers but I just could not complete homework assignment after homework assignment.

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      • momosgarage says:

        I had the same problem with passing tests but just couldn’t stop myself from ignoring homeowrk. However, now that I am a working adult and have been doing so for quite sometime, I feel that “homework” is a form of social conditioning and not an actual academic tool. Essentially, you’re supposed to “get used to doing busy work” because for most people regardless of how financially successful they are, busy work induced by bureaucracy will always be forced upon EVERYONE, except those luck enough to be born into multi-generational wealth or those who fall into the entertainment business as an actor, pro athlete, etc.

        I do agree, it is on the parents to make sure the kid has social skills, so as to survive the social jungles that we all, wage slave, peons must travel through in life without recourse: elementary school, junior high school, undergrad, grad school, first job, subsequent job, last job , nursing home.

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  2. Programmer at Arms says:

    I have known many idiots who held doctorate degrees. I have known many truly bright people who never felt lonely.

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  3. Neil says:

    I have a PhD in Psych too. However, I am always in awe at how smart everyone around me is.
    Was I lonely in high school? Sure, but who wasn’t? There were plenty of people in band and on chess team. They are still good friends.
    I married the first-chair band geek and we are wonderfully happy together (18 years later).
    We moved to a suburban community made of similar nerdy parents. We brag whose kids understand less about basketball and football while attending swim meets, recitals, and cub scout meetings. Our kids play well, are well-adjusted, and should be able to contribute to the world well.
    We did not hold our kids back when entering school because we don’t want them to be engaged, not bored. Yeah, it’s a downside, but there are often outlets for learning that are better than sitting in a boring class. One just has to seek them out.
    I’m yet to see a downside to having aesthetic understandings of as many domains as possible (and isn’t that the goal of the goofy construct we call “intelligence?”). The world just keeps getting more interesting.

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  4. Ryan N says:

    If you have never felt loneliness, persecution or frustration from being too smart, odds are you’re just not THAT smart.

    Using a blunt instrument like IQ just for brevity’s sake, 130 IQ people are quite smart. 2 standard deviations smarter than average, by definition. These people tend to think of themselves as pretty smart, do very well in school, and usually are extremely effective at whatever their jobs and hobbies are. They have every reason to consider themselves very smart.

    That said, they don’t have a whole lot in common with the experiences of the 145+ IQ people. People in this group tend to view the world quite differently, and conversely, are viewed by the world quite different.

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  5. Caleb B says:

    I was a smart kid that hated elementary. One day in third grade, my teacher gave us a word search. I refused to do it and proceeded to doodle on back. She asked me why I wasn’t doing my work and I said, “because it is busy work. You just want us quite for 10 minutes.” She told me I would get a zero if I didn’t do the work and I said, “I’m not learning anything with this assignment. I don’t care what grade I get on it.”

    Yeah, I didn’t get along with the other kids either.

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    • momosgarage says:

      The world is getting more interesting, but accessing it is not free. It all cost money and that cost is increasing beyond wage increases

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  6. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) says:

    I was identified as “gifted” and now I’m going through the same thing with my child. “Giftedness” isn’t a complete gift – there are ups and downs, and social isolation is definitely part of it. Of course, we know from Howard Gardner’s work that there are many different intelligences. We also know that traditional schools only recognize a couple of them. So observations such as this may be specific to the traditional educational system (and I do agree with Amy’s points). That said, I’m happy to feel that I’ve found my way after all, and I work hard with my child to help create a better path.

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  7. K Goodman says:

    I can attest to this phenomenon. I have extremely bright (gifted) children (3 ages 16, 14 and 12) and they have had a very hard time with finding friends that are like them. Fortunately we live in Lee County Florida where we have school choice so they have had more opportunities than most. My 16 year old son has already completed about 40 hours of college and my 14 year old is on track for similar achievements since we have a Collegiate charter high school. My 12 year old is a straight A student and is bored with the busy work just like the older two.

    One of the best things we did was get them involved with the Duke Tip program which offered them the opportunity to meet other kids like them. It opened a whole new world to them. I do think bright girls and women are frowned upon and discouraged frequently. Smart women are considered aggressive and pushed down often. Men with the same intellect and abilities are encouraged to achieve. We have a lot of work to do to improve the achievement of both sexes in this country and most of it has to do with attitude. We need to open doors for bright kids (and adults) rather then holding them back till everyone else catches up.

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  8. Bob says:

    I’m of the opinion that if you’re exceptionally smart, then social conventions won’t be that hard to figure out, and you can solve the loneliness problem. The problem is that parents/teachers neglect social conventions to focus on maximizing academic knowledge. Keeping up the geek/nerd stereotype doesn’t help either. For me, yes, high school created a lot of boring busy work, but I figured out early that to make the experience worthwhile I had to relate to students who couldn’t recite lots of information that would be useless to the average high school student. Since I wasn’t learning much new academically, I just paid attention to how people interacted with each other and learned that.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I know some (extremely) bright people who have set out to learn human social interactions exactly like a xenoanthropologist might study Martian social interactions. The result was successful in the sense that they became adept at the “language”—hold head at this angle to indicate that you’re listening, keep eye contact for this long to indicate interest, speak for this much of the conversation—but that’s not the same thing as them enjoying these social interactions or receiving the emotional benefits that come from truly relating to someone and understanding their experiences.

      (There are benefits to studying this: Not only can you “pass” for being average if you want, one of them became very, very good at sales work, and, if they had been burdened with fewer ethical constraints, they would have made fantastic con artists.)

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    • Nil says:

      Social conventions aren’t the cause of the loneliness problem as much as lack of close personal connections. As an extremely high IQ teen I could easily sit down with any clique at lunch, go hang out or party with any group of popular kids, jocks, nerds, music geeks, punks, goths, etc.

      The issue was finding a best friend or close friend who was an equal. Being awesome at social interaction can make you a casual friend to almost everyone, but I think it is still more lonely being everyone ~25th favorite person to spend time with than it is to be the outcast who has 1-2 really close friends.

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