More smart people problems

Vox Day finds an article by a high-IQ woman lamenting the terrible loneliness and unhappiness endured by intelligent people because of their inability to communicate with ordinary people.  Like Vox, I’m skeptical.  Communication, and the related arts of rhetoric and pedagogy, are intellectual challenges like any other:  how to get a person of given capacities from prior understanding A to subsequent understanding B.  There’s no reason high IQ should not be an asset in solving this problem, if a high IQ person is willing to apply his or her intellect to it.  If you’re not willing to make the effort to imagine yourself in the other person’s mental place and think through how to get an idea across, then the failure of communication is your fault.

Anyway, I don’t buy this idea of a “communication range”.  True, most of us are in the middle of the IQ distribution and ex hypothesi would seldom encounter our either edge of such a range.  However, even not knowing my IQ, I can know that I’ve successfully communicated with people across a more than 4SD range.  Data point #1:  I have often communicated verbally with children between the ages of 2 and 7, successfully exchanging information on a wide range of topics and having enjoyable social interactions.  If an adult had the mental capacities of a child in this age range, that person would have a low IQ.  Data point #2:  I have read, and (so far as anyone can tell) successfully comprehended, essays, public addresses, or books by several undoubtedly highly intelligent people:  Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, Richard Feynman, Roger Penrose, etc.  So, no matter what my IQ is, the hypothesis of a communication range is disproved.

Everyone’s entitled to gripe about their problems from time to time, so why do I bring this up?  Because self-pity by the intelligent is a dangerous indulgence in our time.  In fact, high IQ people have no right to feel put upon by society at large.  It is not true that people are treated badly for being smart.  Dumb kids are just as bored in school as smart kids.  Nerds are unpopular not for being smart but for being socially awkward and physically weak.  An intelligent person can always choose not to draw attention to his or her intellect.  On the other hand, people are teased for being unintelligent.  “Stupid” is an insult, one with real sting.  And it is generally much harder to hide stupidity than to hide intelligence.  I doubt any high-IQ person would trade his social isolation from those he regards as inferiors (an isolation ultimately of his choosing) for the humiliation a low-IQ person endures for not being able to keep up with everyone else.  Even if this humiliation weren’t worse, the low-IQ person will often have unemployment or poverty added to it.

In today’s world, moral status comes from victimization.  I’m afraid high-IQ people have convinced themselves that they are somehow a persecuted minority, and thus entitled to behave toward the mass of mankind not as an aristocracy with a sense of noblesse oblige but as a victorious conquerer enacting righteous punishment.  Please, if you are smart, don’t feel sorry for yourself about it.

19 Responses

  1. I certainly have no direct knowledge of the travails of an extremely intelligent person, but I think you are right to call B.S. on this. At the very most, what we have is a failure of sympathy, not communication. She finds these people boring, not unintelligible. No doubt boredom will set in sooner or later in any conversation, and no doubt sooner in a conversation with a dimwit, but the bright one in the conversation should be able to use his or her intelligence to keep it lively for as long as possible. As I seem to recall Vox saying, this woman is really complaining that no one finds her brain sexy.

  2. Perhaps just another new (or maybe recycled) floating Academy meme instituted to subtly promote that long, slow marching agenda of eugenics.

  3. Fair point, and self pity is an ugly vice however I’m not going to let that stop me.

    I felt like a near total social alien until I went to college. I was surrounded by people who could have real conversations about things that weren’t sports or ” I got soooo drunk, broh”. When I went back into the world I had the social skills to deal with everybody at that point, but I greatly treasure it whenever I can have a real conversation.

    That being said, you’re right in that it’s a quality problem, but loneliness has a real sting to it and being surrounded by those who basically frustrate you constantly is a real study in charity in action.

  4. I suspect such a phenomenon as complained about does exist, but it’s primarily cultural rather than strictly related to intelligence. There’s a new lack of proper condescension that tends to interfere with relations between associative bands of people all over the West these days due to our prizing democratic spiritualism.

    As a side-note, there’s a vast difference in the character of intelligence between a child whose adult IQ will be something else but is currently depressed due to his tender age, and an adult whose IQ putatively matches that of the child. I know you know this, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in your argument.

  5. I think you are mostly on point. In my experience it’s not IQ that makes people boring but their style of communication. I can talk to most people about things they are interested in but some people’s communication style makes it difficult to do this. If you can’t manage to get a person to talk about something they love then your problem is likely cultural. Some people need and expect certain social cues (usually belonging either to the under class or other poorly socialised subcultures). I’ve seen smart people who have learned to speak underclass and they did well communicating with said people. They don’t talk completely like the underclass but they adopt a minimal amount of cues to communicate effectively. There are similar problems with communicating with true believer progs who similarly expect certain social cues which others find strange or abhorrent. To sum up fluent communication requires shares culture the west has lost any one shared culture.

  6. @greenmantlehoyos

    I’m very interested in this experience that smart people apparently have. What sort of conversations were you not able to have with ordinary people?

  7. @Bonald it’s all a question of “ordinary”, really. The best way forward is establishing some of my experience working with the public.

    I had a few jobs where I worked with the public alongside a real mix, retail sales work is genuinely the most diverse working population because it’s a real mix of people in transition, some intelligent, some not, some felons, lot of alcoholics. Staggering array of people, people from excellent backgrounds on the way down, people from horrifying backgrounds on the way up.

    Amongst the “ordinary”, most people aren’t generally interested in anything I found interesting or important, or at least not in a thoughtful way. Just sex, relationships, sports, drinking stories that aren’t particularly exciting, frightening drug stories, talking about nothing. No politics, no philosophy, no history, no religion. Very occasionally trying to talk them out of some reasonably bad idea; infidelity, interest in the new age, petty crimes. And just so much sports and some staggering levels of pride in ignorance from time to time, the evils of “books” and such.

    Not to mention that hiding intelligence is harder than you think. I may sound like a just a proud jerk, but objectively tested, I’m significantly smarter than average. If others pick up on it too much who are not as intelligent you frequently get treated as a curiousity. Just as well I suppose. Paradoxically it’s often considered a handicap on your part.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad to deal with people on this level, I think it was incredibly instructive. It’s just that it was more a way for me to serve others or more often fail to than anything else.

    That being said, it may have less to do with intelligence than character. Christians and veterans were great, the Christians could follow reasoning from the Bible (I think the average pastor grossly underestimates the bandwidth of the average Christian) and veterans had sadly been forced by tragic circumstances to do real thinking about character, religion, and philosophy, even if they didn’t put it in those terms. Real practitioners of the world of ideas, where getting a correct estimation of changing circumstances is life or death.

    Sorry for writing such a lengthy post, but if you have any further questions let me know.

  8. My own opinion is that what greenmantlehoyos is referring to is really just a people problem masquerading as a smart people problem. In modern society, there just is a lack of will to think about things even on a very basic level. Finding people to talk with you about things that matter to you isn’t a search for people who are as smart as you, it is a search for people who are willing to put effort into being interested in what you have to say. This is an effort which, as a social courtesy, must also be reciprocated.

    Communicating your ideas will obviously occur in different ways and at different levels depending on who your audience is; Bonald won’t talk to his children about physics at the level that he discusses it with his colleagues, but that doesn’t mean he can’t discuss physics with his children; its just a matter of if his children are willing to put in the effort it takes to understand what Bonald is saying (and if Bonald puts in the effort to make what he is saying understandable to his children).

    All in all though, I think the problem is not that the intelligence people have is insufficient, but it is that people just aren’t willing to put in the effort it takes to use the intelligence they do have. Intelligent people might feel this more acutely because what they want to talk about takes more effort to understand, but I don’t think it is essentially a smart people problem, just a people problem.

  9. I’m actually grateful for the detailed response. I would be one of these people who you’d fail to engage in conversation. For a long time, I’ve been aware of and embarrassed by my own slow-wittedness, which is much harder to hide in speaking rather than written correspondence, and also that my beliefs offend most people, so I avoid in-person discussions on “deep” subjects whenever possible. I much prefer that conversations stick to movies and local traffic conditions. Some of the people you’ve failed to converse with may have similar inhibitions.

  10. “And it is generally much harder to hide stupidity than to hide intelligence.”

    But possible. I remember a piece of advice from my Oxford tutor: “It doesn’t matter if you’re not particularly cleaver, you can still be learned. A lot of people here have cut a very respectable figure that way.” And so I have found it.

  11. I’ve run across people in high-IQ jobs who are impossible to talk to, for reasons having nothing to do with being clever. First, they might be arrogant; physicist Murray Gell-Mann is infamously said to have corrected a man regarding the pronunciation of the man’s own name. Second, what they ‘know’ about a particular subject might be drastically misinformed, or insane. Third, they might have no interest in the topic of conversation. Fourth, what you ‘know’ about a particular subject might strike them as drastically misinformed, or insane. Fifth, they are shy. Sixth, you smell bad. Seventh, they smell bad.

    In general, unstated-but-assumed relevant background knowledge must be shared by both speakers (or by writers and readers), for communication to occur. Absent that, communication falters, or is even impossible. For a quick summary see:

    http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104017/chapters/The-Importance-of-Background-Knowledge.aspx

    Indeed, given the amount of unstated-but-assumed relevant background knowledge that must be shared among two speakers to have a fluid and fluent conversation, it is almost an every day miracle that people can converse at all.

    Bonald can converse with his children, for example, only because he has a pretty good idea of what relevant shared background knowledge he can appeal to when he speaks to them, and he modifies his speech appropriately to that end. But even conversation with another neighborhood child of the same age might be appreciably less easy; for Bonald may not have such a clear idea of what background knowledge he can assume is shared with that other child.

    The this-ness of our bodies at very least sets limits that we all unconsciously take for granted: to take a mundane example, our size, the heft of our muscles, how we take food, circumscribe how small or big or weighty or delicate a knife or fork can be.

    Similarly, the way our brains work, and don’t work, sets limits on how human communication can occur. The scientific literature on the importance of shared relevant background knowledge to fluent communication is broad, consistent, and deep, and reaches back into the 1980s, at least (I would say, the 1970s, or even the 1950s). Already by 1960, research psychologist Jerome Bruner had written that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.”

    The study that Vox Day refers to ought to be read (critiqued) in the light of what we already know scientifically about how human communication occurs and is achieved.

  12. […] without pity for More smart people problems, drinks high-IQ […]

  13. I agree with most of the points you’ve made here, but question: would you be so confident in all these hypotheses if we were contrasting a homogenous, white society (or elementary school…) with a diverse or mostly non-white one?

  14. Bonald:

    If you’re not willing to make the effort to imagine yourself in the other person’s mental place and think through how to get an idea across, then the failure of communication is your fault.

    For someone like Gellman, trying to imagine how a normal person thinks is probably on the same order of trying to imagine how a dog thinks.

    However, even not knowing my IQ, I can know that I’ve successfully communicated with people across a more than 4SD range. Data point #1: I have often communicated verbally with children between the ages of 2 and 7, successfully exchanging information

    I’m assuming that that high IQ woman did not mean by ‘meaningful communication’ mere information exchange.

    Data point #2: I have read, and (so far as anyone can tell) successfully comprehended, essays, public addresses, or books by several undoubtedly highly intelligent people

    Taking the reasonable assumptions that you are +2SD, and that they are at best +4SD, that doesn’t at all refute the hypothesis.

  15. And where is all that alleged ‘self-pity’ in the article, and all that stuff in the last paragraph?

  16. Here’s a sample of the self-pity in the original article:

    “The stereotype of a lonely genius does not come from empty air. It is cruel reality. And each and every human being with IQ of 135+ has experienced such unhappiness and misery the mediocre IQ people can not even imagine in their nightmares. I have cried my cubic metre of tears.”

    It’s utterly obscene.

  17. Her article is actually a rather balanced answer to the question posed. Your description of it couldn’t be more off the mark.

    Regarding that specific extract you quote, as far as I can tell, it’s a description of certain periods of her life, with possible exaggeration of their negative quality and their generality to other high-IQ people’s experience.

    As she concludes with great balance in the last paragraph, “It is a cliche to say “all high IQ people are generally unhappy”. No, they aren’t. IQ is a great enabler, nothing more. But I would say all high IQ people have experienced such terrible unhappiness which is utterly uncommon amongst lesser brainy.”

    You complain about high IQ people feeling ‘put upon by society at large’, but she explains why this is a natural occurrence, and also that such exclusion in general is necessary for the group cohesion, i.e. necessity to keep society healthy. She gives a short but excellent guide to any high-IQ readers mired in loneliness and depression, encouraging them that it is possible to leave these behind, and also that ‘no, it’s not that the average person is terrible because of how he treats you, but he is just doing what is natural and healthy in general – basic biology, maintaining the integrity of his group’.

    If anything, she is indirectly explaining why high-IQ people should not</em feel entitled "to behave toward the mass of mankind not as an aristocracy with a sense of noblesse oblige but as a victorious conquerer enacting righteous punishment."

  18. I can’t imagine what you would regard as unhinged self-pity if this doesn’t qualify. The claim that low-IQ people don’t feel emotions such as sadness as deeply as high-IQ people is particularly outrageous. I am, naturally, offended by it, but my offense admittedly has no epistemic value. More significantly, no evidence is produced for such a remarkable claim. Contrary arguments are much easier to make. For example, would not a low-IQ person be as distraught by the illness or death of a family member or friend as a high-IQ person? Many people have more serious reasons to be unhappy than not fitting in with people they despise.

  19. I can’t imagine what you would regard as unhinged self-pity if this doesn’t qualify

    I would expect a wallowing uncomprehending existential cry of ‘Why meeeeee?”

    Instead, I see a cogent explanation with good understanding of why her peers for a time behaved towards her in highly negative ways, a story of how the speaker has moved past that period and has finally found happiness and acceptance.

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