IEET > Rights > HealthLongevity > CognitiveLiberty > Contributors > Andrea Kuszewski
Does Super-High IQ = Super-Low Common Sense?
Andrea Kuszewski   Oct 16, 2009   The Rogue Neuron  

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.


Interesting article. It brings to mind a piece i had read a while back, about this woman’s experience when she attended an evening gathering of mensa people. One of her comments was that she was surprised to see many nerdy braniac slobs there….

As with many things in life, too much of something can be bad. Such may be the case for IQ’s as well. A person with an IQ of let’s say, 170 or more, may indeed have handicaps that stunt other abilities, and relegates them to the eccentric, socially challenged and over-analytical snack bracket.

Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind. He certainly preferred his own company where he could explore concepts that were both creative and analytical, than to be distracted among the regular folks who were basically ignorant and full of misconceived notions.

So the ideal smarts may be in the 130-170 category, give or take. Very intelligent but lot’s to learn. The smarter you get, the more you realize how ignorant you are, like eating some humble pie.

“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.”

Thanks for the compliment smile

Isaac Newton, inferably a high-IQ person, impressed his contemporaries as socially retarded. Despite his handicap, however,  he apparently displayed good practical intelligence in running the Royal Mint. I suspect some of the recent high tech hecto-millionaires and billionaires display a similar combination of high IQ and enough practical intelligence to launch new businesses.

When discussing problems associated with high IQ, I always tend to recommend this classic article:

Not a flawless treatment of the topic, in my opinion, but has a substantial amount of good stuff (including statistics) very useful in trying to understand this stuff.

If your college professor was an engineer, mathematician, or worked in the hard sciences, I think you’re safe. However, if he/she worked in liberal arts or the soft sciences—- based on this article, I’d start to worry and do some self-analysis!

I have gained the right IQ level for mensa entry but have a high level of common sense. Over my life have been fed with people who assume that I have no common sense (cause I have a degree), do they just say this to make themselves feel better?

Especially when you consider that studying a degree is just gaining knowledge, there will be a cross over between IQ and uni I know…but a lot of them at uni were not that clever..just head down sort of people, worried they weren’t going to do well for their parents.

My a level/uni grades are a poor reflection of success due to family problems of my own, losing my focus straight after school, I haven’t even applied myself since. Hence why I have a high IQ and I am not successful in my career..I am back at college, I can’t throw the towel in until I have worked with my potential.

Your brains have to be applied. Sometimes life gets in the way but the drive I have pushes me forward. I have heard of stories of people having a high IQ and being happy not using using it, that just seems impossible and I can’t believe it? I haven’t been happy for years until I went back to college to try again, hopefully in the correct field too this time! Brains would scrabble in on themselves if I didn’t use them smile

I was searching the current related story I heard in the NPR or BBC news yesterday over the radio. July 25th 2010

I am sure you are going to get allot of response on this subject as it is a wide perspective study that has been a subject of controversy for many years. Also reference should be made to left handed people actually biologically born to be shown with laterally larger right side brains- ie; Isaac Newton, Einstein, Richard Feynman, Linus Pauling, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, most of the greatest leaders in the world, greatest scientists, artists, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, M.C Escher, etc, are all of the higher IQ traits, yet many of these people as left handed geniuses (and I am left handed as an astronomer and award winning and published artist,) enjoy great socializing and relationships.

Please feel free to google my name if you site does not accept a URL >

by definition of yours on creativity we have paradox in social sciences:
“The practical application of novel ideas to situations which result in appropriate, beneficial outcomes is the definition of creativity”

So if society sees some ideas as novel&good; and later it turns out that society collapses? was that idea after all then novel&good; ?

As society were kinda bound for social circles we do lots of social work thats completly irrelevant except for power, and those people tend to be praised until social system collapses.

What he explicitly shows most non-hardsciences smarties, are in this social domain doing what appears smart now, but maybe not tomorrow.

thus in hardsciences your novel ideas can be misunderstood even past inventors death, but does it make him silly? no we call em genius when his work becomes understood widely. Often this requires new techniques invented so we can present those ideas to more “common folk” :D


Self-deception ought to be mentioned in passing though it is slightly off-topic—not directly connected to social skills.
Since we are so susceptible to illusory memes (both socially and otherwise) the greater the intelligence, the greater can the illusions be.

Why would someone with an uncommon IQ have common sense? Surely an uncommon sense should go with an uncommon IQ. Where uncommon sense = low common sense.

Common sense is an illusion of the common mind- Those with higher IQ’s need not bother with the lower “common senses”.  -M 2011

Sorry I have to run to set up a large telescope to teach some astronomy to the public tonight- see the crescent moon with Saturn tonight in the southwest sky after sunset- enhance the seeign with a good telescope- contact your local astronomy clubs to engage and enlighten the minds eyes. Be well . .  M

I apologize for my rushed misspelling of ‘seeing’ as I was hurried to leave earlier. Is that uncommon sense or the nutty professor in me? As I read others posts here, I thought of my ‘happy even medium’ of being both sensible and extremely creative with my award winning art but not so much in math- so much for too-high IQ but rather just smart enough and good looking to appeal to others. Is part of this also lending to those who appear as attractive, taller people with better genetics as an innate quality? Some of us cannot help being smart, good looking, etc. as we are just born that way. So there is a smaller percentage of us on the planet. As Abe Lincoln said, ‘God must have liked average people because he sure made allot of them.”

“the greater the intelligence, the greater can the illusions be.”

Here’s a real example: Nixon lacked the social adaptability he needed for such a high position as POTUS. That, plus the illusions in his mind, i.e. illusions that his enemies were everywhere and needed to ‘twist slowly in the wind’,
conspired inside him to greater awkwardness and mistakes..

Common sense is the biggest illusion because it is a collective illusion. It includes most people. Most things that people say cannot be proved or disproved. Often when we can prove something logically it goes against common sense and/or can be socially arkward.

An example. The boss at work puts up a note to say ‘No more than two staff members can be given annual leave at the same time’. It was easy to prove mathematically that it was impossible for every staff member to get their annual leave. To produce the mathematical evidence to the boss with proof that he is being unreasonable would be social suicide.


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