Modern society idealizes intelligence. The idea of being a genius is more popular now than at any time in history, largely because the connection between intelligence and success. The smarter you are, the faster you can think and learn and the more you can produce. Our dependence on technology makes it seem as though the world is more or less created by an elite group of engineers whose massive IQs continue to invent all of the cool gadgets of our era, reports Medium.
In short, the smarter you are, the easier it is for you to succeed, right?
A closer look at this assumption shows that intelligence is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is true that having a higher IQ does help an individual in a number of cognitively demanding tasks. However, IQ is not necessarily linked to ability to manage stress, emotional intelligence or social savvy.
The study of gifted children show that many kids who are highly intelligent struggle to adapt to “normal” life. Kids who are smart beyond their years are bored in class, are able to succeed with little effort and are otherwise not engaged in education. By the time they are in college or graduate school and actually have to try in order to succeed, they have not yet learned the valuable skills necessary to study and practice to persistently to acquire a skill.
In short, being naturally talented sometimes robs an individual of opportunities to learn the meta-skill of persistence, determination or charisma.
When we measure intelligence, we are typically only measuring the speed and reliability of the “computing power” of the brain. We are not, however, measuring its “validity”. In other words, we are measuring how quickly someone can learn something, or come to an answer to a question, not whether their answer is correct.
This is not an issue when a persons work with programming, math equations of spreadsheets has very clear and boundaries rules. While theoretical physics is certain not easy, it at least functions in ways that are predictable. Intelligent people thrive in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields because the rules of the game are often consistent and date reliant.
But what about more complex games? Human behavior, for example, has countless rules, many of which are paradoxical or counter intuitive. We can predict the behavior of large sample sizes of people, but we cannot predict the behavior of a single person at any one time. Humans are complicated. As are many of the systems that humans have created. Religion, Politics, Relationships. They don’t have cut-and-dry equations and the rules are unclear.
The pitfall of highly intelligent people are twofold:
First, attempts at trying to completely understand something which is complex is often unproductive and leads to rumination and overthinking.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, a highly intelligent person likely has the brain-power to convince themselves of just about anything, regardless of how “true” that thing is.
Remember, intelligence is about speed and reliability, not validity. This means that individuals who are intelligent are better at forming rational arguments, even if the conclusion of said arguments are fundamentally biased or false.
In this way, intelligence can create an intellectual blind spot. The stronger an argument that we can make to explain a phenomenon, the more rigid our conclusion become. It will also be more difficult for others to convince us otherwise. In short, smarter people are better at being wrong.
Being wrong isn’t directly a problem, nor is it necessarily malicious. Most people are innocently ignorant to things which they have not spent a great deal of time developing expertise in understanding; and that’s okay! What is problematic is when our false or biased beliefs become the ground by which we make decisions that could negatively impact our lived or the lives of others. Intelligent folks may be able to hold and propagate ideas that are very persuasive, but whose outcome is disastrous.
What happens when intelligent people use that intelligence to create systems or inventions under a false of idealistic premise?
In the past century, many countries adopted and communist policies after the impressively persuasive arguments of Karl Marx and his contemporaries. The ideas were profound and idealistic, and the arguments were sufficiently compelling that entire governments considered Marxism to be a manifesto worth following. Unfortunately, while the ideas were good in theory, their practice lead to disasters like Stalin’s Soviet Russia and Mao’s China. These are ideas that are put together by intelligent, well-intentioned people.
As we continue to progress as a species we will need to assess difficult questions surrounding technological advancement, Artificial Intelligence, Genetic modification and other complex problems. These problems and more will likely continue to be driven by the decisions of highly intelligent people.
Avoiding the Trap of High Intelligence
Most people, regardless of their intelligence, live life under the assumption that whatever they believe is mostly reflective of reality. When we become aware that we are wrong about something, it is psychologically distressing to the degree that we are compelled to update our understanding. Most people will agree that they “don’t know everything”, and thus leave the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they could be wrong.
The surprisingly simple trick is to merely assume that, in all cases when faced with contradictory information, that we are wrong. This won’t feel good, and may lead to a more than a few situations where we must swallow our pride and go back to the drawing board, but it also prevents us from the opposite impulse of doubling-down on our existing beliefs and becoming rigid in our point of view.
When we are wrong, we are met with a number of questions as to how and why we are wrong. These questions become the basis for new hypothesis which we can then go out into the world and test. This testing process allows for us to refine our understanding of the world not through out own computing power, but by appealing to the scientific method itself. Instead of allowing self-serving biases to confound our understanding of the world, we make a concerted effort to develop knowledge through participation with the world itself.
This takes longer and is not nearly as efficient as concocting evidence within the theatre of our own mind, but it does help to avoid the trap of creating a compelling argument to prove something which is not true. If you are indeed correct, then the evidence will be reflected in the outcomes of your research.
When it comes to ideologies, this means making earnest attempts to understand those id diametric opposition to your point of view. When it comes to religious and spiritual beliefs, this means exploring other ways in which people have come to define and answer the myriad of unknown questions of the human experience.
This is a skill that highly intelligent people absolutely should use, but is also valuable wisdom that anyone can put into practice. It is also far from being “new”. The father of philosophy himself, Socrates, is famed with the Socratic Wisdom in which he states, “I only know that I know nothing”. Assuming that we are wrong, no matter how convincing our argument, gives us the opportunity to re-evaluate refine, or if necessary, change our beliefs such that we not just reliable, but also, closer to being “right”.
In the case of the highly intelligent person, their powerful minds can be used both to create ideas and arguments, but also to check their work for biases and blind spots. As we continue into an era of bright ideas, weird new technologies and innovative social projects, it will become increasingly important that we remind ourselves of how much we don’t know.
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