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.”


Nick

If Amy is so smart, she would probably know Maslow and the Emotional Intelligence theory, especially after a PHD in psychology.
Contrary to what she wrote, all the studies show that none of the issues reported by Amy regarding smart people are true.

James

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.

Robert McGimpsey Jr

Thank You.......

David Tschanz

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.

JohnnyPeps

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

David W.

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

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.

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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Brian

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.

Wendy

Being dumb is pretty lonely also.

Enter your name...

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...

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.

Violent Violet

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.

Liz Busby

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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Programmer at Arms

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

Neil

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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Ryan N

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.