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Do the smartest people lack common sense?

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Doesn’t seem like there’s hard evidence, but there is some interesting discussion here:

In previous editorials I have written about the absent-minded and socially-inept ‘nutty professor’ stereotype in science, and the phenomenon of ‘psychological neoteny’ whereby intelligent modern people (including scientists) decline to grow-up and instead remain in a state of perpetual novelty-seeking adolescence. These can be seen as specific examples of the general phenomenon of ‘clever sillies’ whereby intelligent people with high levels of technical ability are seen (by the majority of the rest of the population) as having foolish ideas and behaviours outside the realm of their professional expertise. In short, it has often been observed that high IQ types are lacking in ‘common sense’ – and especially when it comes to dealing with other human beings. General intelligence is not just a cognitive ability; it is also a cognitive disposition. So, the greater cognitive abilities of higher IQ tend also to be accompanied by a distinctive high IQ personality type including the trait of ‘Openness to experience’, ‘enlightened’ or progressive left-wing political values, and atheism. Drawing on the ideas of Kanazawa, my suggested explanation for this association between intelligence and personality is that an increasing relative level of IQ brings with it a tendency differentially to over-use general intelligence in problem-solving, and to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense. Preferential use of abstract analysis is often useful when dealing with the many evolutionary novelties to be found in modernizing societies; but is not usually useful for dealing with social and psychological problems for which humans have evolved ‘domain-specific’ adaptive behaviours. And since evolved common sense usually produces the right answers in the social domain; this implies that, when it comes to solving social problems, the most intelligent people are more likely than those of average intelligence to have novel but silly ideas, and therefore to believe and behave maladaptively. I further suggest that this random silliness of the most intelligent people may be amplified to generate systematic wrongness when intellectuals are in addition ‘advertising’ their own high intelligence in the evolutionarily novel context of a modern IQ meritocracy. The cognitively-stratified context of communicating almost-exclusively with others of similar intelligence, generates opinions and behaviours among the highest IQ people which are not just lacking in common sense but perversely wrong. Hence the phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ (PC); whereby false and foolish ideas have come to dominate, and moralistically be enforced upon, the ruling elites of whole nations.

Source: “Clever sillies: Why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense” from Medical Hypotheses, Volume 73, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages 867-870


A controversial hypothesis [Charlton (2009). Clever sillies: Why high-IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense. Medical Hypotheses, 73, 867–870] has recently been proposed to account for why individuals of high-IQ and high social status tend to hold counter-intuitive views on social phenomena. It is claimed that these ‘clever sillies’ use their high general intelligence and Openness to Experience to overanalyze social problems for which socially intelligent/common sense responses would seemingly be more appropriate. The first three sections of this review will consider i) the relationship between general and social intelligence; ii) the role of situational effects on the direction of the correlation between IQ and political attitudes; iii) the behavioral ecology of competitive altruism. While there is no hard evidence for Charlton’s hypothesis, sophisticated although ultimately non-rational subjective analyses of social phenomena (i.e. ones that are disconfirmed by data, or reject empiricism) do seem to be favored by individuals in certain high-IQ knowledge work sectors. It is suggested that these function as costly signals of altruism, and that their popularity can best be understood in light of the theory that social attitudes are fundamentally influenced by perceptions of dominance and counter-dominance, with the latter playing an especially significant role in influencing the values systems of contemporary societies where the degree of conspicuous inequality is significantly evolutionarily novel.

Source: “Are high-IQ individuals deficient in common sense? A critical examination of the ‘clever sillies’ hypothesis” from Intelligence, Volume 38, Issue 5, September-October 2010, Pages 471-480

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About Eric Barker