Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions (Ep. 127)

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Our latest podcast is called “Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good? And Other FREAK-quently Asked Questions.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

In this episode Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner field questions from podcast listeners and blog readers. (You can listen to earlier FAQ episodes here, here, here, here and here.) In this installment, they talk about circadian rhythms (no, not cicada rhythms) and whether modern life is killing us; the incentives for curing cancer; if you can be too smart for your own good — which leads to a discussion of marriage markets and autism; whether legalizing gay marriage would affect the economy; and why people can be trusted to pay for bagels but not for music.

Once again, thanks for all of the great questions. As Levitt has said before, he really loves doing these FAQs, because …

LEVITT: The questions we get are so strange that you never could have made them up. 

Keep ’em coming!


Three more things with regard to the title question I have noticed. People tend to understand others according to the framework of their own personality so if you are very rational for example you can have a hard time coming to grips with how less rational people think. This makes social interaction difficult and I think it's the source of the 'smart people have poor social skills' stereotype. It isn't so much smart people as very rational people who have this problem.

The second thing is what we call intelligence is really no more than some expression of capability or a cluster of capabilities and it seems to have no correlation with emotional balance. Since human intelligence seems to serve rather than direct our emotions it doesn't do much for you to be an intelligent neurotic, it likely only makes your neurosis more of a problem. Good judgement, what is meant by wisdom is the product of emotional balance, enough intelligence is also required to understand the problem about which you must decide but emotional balance is the vital part. Intelligence without emotional balance is like giving a gun to a monkey, no matter how trustworthy he seems, never give your gun to a monkey.

The other thing is part of what we call intelligence is simply having a very sensitive brain, one that picks up and retains information and relations quickly and easily. It strikes me this may have something to do with why so many very intelligent people (at least intelligent in the aspect described) seem to be a bit unbalanced.



" no matter how trustworthy he seems, never give your gun to a monkey. " This is my new favorite quote. Thank you. It can be used in so many situations.


Words to live by. My favorite is: "When you sit down to a hand of cards and you don't see anyone who looks like a sucker then it's you".

Enter your name...

> Look, all of us would rather be sleeping when it’s dark and be waking up to the sun and the roosters and stuff like that.

I don't think that's what he was asking about, because shift work doesn't affect enough people to cause the major differences he's talking about.

I think he was asking about average people staying up a couple of hours past sunset in the evening because they want to watch television shows or read a book or clean house after supper, rather than going to bed. Most people with daytime jobs (or no job—42% of American adults are retired or otherwise not employed at all) have a realistic choice between getting up at 5:45 a.m. (current sunrise in my area) and cleaning house so that they head for bed shortly after 8:15 p.m. (current sunset), or getting up later in the morning and going to bed later in the evening. Most of them choose sleeping later in the morning and going to bed later in the evening.



I don't think the "average people staying up later" really flies, either. Not everyone is constrained by the tyranny of the alarm clock. Me, for one. I'm self-employed, work from home, and can work whatever hours I want. So my typical spring/summer pattern is to get up about 8:30 (a couple hours after sunrise), start doing actual work about 10, take off in the afternoon, and work again 'till around midnight.

My biorhythms just don't seem to deal well with early mornings. Even though I love them, the only times I've been able to experience being fully awake at that time is the few weeks after I've returned from extended stays in Europe, before my internal clock readjusts to local time.

Enter your name...

I think there is an interesting parallel in the LGBT question and the cure-for-cancer question. The Keynesian response to same-sex marriage (legalization will enhance the economy by supporting demand for wedding-related purchases) overlooks the broader context: if you can't spend your money on a big wedding bash, that doesn't mean you won't spend your money. Skipping the wedding because of legal issues means that you can spend your money on something else, like a car or expensive artwork or eating dinner out for a year, just like obviating the need for spending money on polio or cancer treatments means you can spend your money on something else.

Ryan N

Wasn't a study done BY the record companies that showed that the people who pirated the most music on average also spent the most on music?

John Rybock

I was a little taken aback at the comment that if a worker could make a hundred wallets in 8 hours, and can now make them in 4 hours, they've bought themselves 4 hours of leisure time, and that's a good thing. I don't often think this listening to Levitt, but this seems to be the disconnect between economists and the actual economy. If I'm a person working out of my home, sure that works. But people work for companies. And if the past 30 years have shown us anything, this is how it works - The Wallet Company makes a change so a worker makes wallets twice as fast. So now, the workers don't get to work half as long, they get to make twice as many wallets. Productivity has doubled! And the people at the top who make the financial decisions reward themselves with bonuses and raises over how smart they were to double productivity, and the worker will work just as many hours for pretty much the same pay.

We've seen productivity, which Levitt mentioned being the key to driving an economy, shoot up in the past 30 years. And wages for the average worker have been stagnant, while upper management's compensation in comparison matches the productivity increase, not their worker's pay.



Either that, or half the workers get 100% leisure time (laid off).


the discussion of online music piracy missed a group of individuals. i'm 40, so i'm in the so-called generarion x. people of this age range remember what it was like to pay for music and of course in the pre internet days we did. what we also experience was several format changes in that span. what this meant for a lot of people was buying the same music over and over gain when the current format became obsolete. as you may remember, converting your music to the new format was never very easy until we moved from cds to mp3s. this was very expensive.

i believe that it also alienated people. rightly or wrongly, people began to feel abused by the music industry. take this with the fragility of previous formats (you may remember how vigilant you had to be with vinyl and cassette tapes to avoid damage) and you have perfect storm for creating disgruntled customers. so, many of these music lovers feel like they've already paid many times over for this music and don't feel the record companies deserve any more of their money.



Dear Levitt and Dubner,

In your podcast from 5/23, titled "Can You Be Too Smart for Your Own Good", you said something that was quite revealing about your view of women. You said something like:

In the 1960's the marriage rate of the highly educated women was shockingly low.
Of all people in society these women were least likely to get married.
Women paid the price for being too smart and too successful. Women were penalized for being smart.

Did it ever occur to you that the reason these smart women in the 60's didn't get married is because they chose not to get married, and not because it was a put-off to men?
I believe these women saw the new possibilities available for women, and being a wife was not as appealing.
Only later, as men grew to be more accepting of this change in women, is when smart women didn't consider it degrading to get married.

I'm happy to expand on that if you're interested, but I think you get what I'm saying.



Thomas Romer

this show is MESSED up on Stitcher. The file is corrupted and skips all over the place in the Cancer section.


It plays for us just fine on Stitcher, Thomas. Sorry you are having trouble. Perhaps update your App?


I'm surprised you didn't mention the important differences between bagels and music. Bagels are rivalrous and excludable, while digital files are neither. Most people aren't familiar with these terms, but they understand that making a copy of a song doesn't actually take anything away from anyone, while taking a bagel without paying for it means the bagel seller now can't sell that bagel to someone else. If I had a handheld bagel duplicator, I might be willing to make a copy of a bagel without paying for it, but I certainly wouldn't just take one without paying.


Autism is very probably not an extreme form of "mathyness". Autism stems from an inability to process sensory inputs. If autism were just "thinking about things too logically" or some such, then autistic people would not have problems with flashing lights or loud noises, they wouldn't stim, they wouldn't have intense interests in trivial, non-scientific things.
I see how a neurotypical would come to that conclusion though, as to an observer, autism seems to primarily be a social issue. Although don't get me wrong, the social issues are a major symptom.

The supposed increase in autism is probably down to improved recognition of autism, particularly how it manifests in females, and high functioning autism, as well as the social stigma being decreased (in the past, autism was called "childhood schizophrenia" and was even less desirable than today). There isn't actually an increase in autism, just an increase in diagnosis.



Ted Kazinsky was too smart for his own good. He was textbook definition of smart. His madness stemmed from his intelligence and morphed into sheer insanity. The question at hand would be if the unabomber wasnt so intelligent would he have the insight or aspirations to create bombs and kill? Case and point for being too smart for your own good.