We have all heard the term “Nutty Professor,” which brings to mind the highly intelligent yet socially inept individual; excelling in the academic world, yet failing miserably in the realm of common sense. Is there an evolutionary explanation for why this phenomenon exists?
Bruce Charlton, editor-in-chief of the journal Medical Hypotheses, says “yes”. He calls these people ‘Clever Sillies’ in his article, “Clever Sillies—Why the High IQ Lack Common Sense.” Charlton proposes that high IQ is not just a cognitive ability, but also a cognitive disposition. He says:
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.
Charlton suggests that a tendency to rely on analytic ability to problem-solve everyday situations results in inappropriate behaviors and ideas. I agree that an over-use of analytical problem-solving in situations that don’t require it is inappropriate. He goes on to suggest that the reason for their strange or inappropriate responses and behaviors in these social situations stems from their personality trait of Openness to Experience, one of the big five traits of the Five Factor Model of Personality defined by Costa and McCrae. Openness is one of the only personality traits that is highly correlated with IQ; it is characterized by a preference for novelty, experiencing new things and ideas, and appreciation for art and aesthetics.
He goes on to explain why he feels this trait explains ‘clever silliness’:
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.
Initially, this makes some sense. But I feel that while he is touching on a very important issue, he is missing the application of this logic completely.
A person with high IQ who overuses analytical ability to problem-solve in social situations is much like the 170 IQ person who can’t find their way out of a paper bag, such as I described in my article “What Makes a Genius?” There is definitely a “personality type” that can be found in this range of IQs. However, where I think he misses the point is when he says that Openness is the cause for this phenomenon.
Charlton claims that by the high IQ person generating many novel ideas using analytical methods, they appear as foolish and silly to the rest of the population, and thus are maladaptive behaviors. But I only see this as problematic if the person is not only high in the Analytic component of intelligence, but also deficient in another facet of intelligence, the part that correlates with common sense.
Openness is characterized by not only novelty-seeking behaviors, but also creative thinking. Not all people who are high IQ are also highly creative, as I already discussed in my previous article. But people who are high IQ, plus high in Openness, and also high in Practical Intelligence (the third facet of Intelligence described by Sternberg in his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence), are the ones who are able to have many novel, strange ideas, but also able to appropriately apply them to social situations. The practical application of novel ideas to situations which result in appropriate, beneficial outcomes is the definition of creativity. Just because someone has a novel idea does not mean it will be “strange” or “silly”; it depends on the context and application of those novel ideas, and that is where the person who is high in Practical Intelligence as well as high in Analytical Intelligence differentiates himself from the “Nutty Professor.”
It is not the presence of novel or seemingly foolish ideas that makes one silly, it is the absence of the ability to appropriately apply those novel ideas to the social situation at hand—what we call using common sense. So while the author of this article was correct in saying that high IQ people do indeed often fall in the category of “Clever Sillies,” many others do not. The reason for this socially inept personality type alluded to by Charlton is not the presence of the trait of Openness, but rather the inability see the value of the generated novel ideas and know when and where they are best put to use.
So, do all high IQ people lack common sense? No, but the person with high IQ and high common sense, or Practical Intelligence, is definitely a rarer breed of genius.
Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.
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