So You Think You Are Smart

Maybe you don’t think you are terribly clever and for that I congratulate you for seeing the truth so clearly. By that I mean that none of us are terribly good at this thinking business and a little humility about the matter is on point. This isn’t to say that I think humans are dumb, quite the opposite, but usually when we think of people being smart or not so smart, we are thinking in relation to other people. This skews that scale and messes with our perception of intelligence.

The sorts of things that a clever person can do, with which others struggle, are things like having a bit better of a memory, being a bit better at mental calculations, superior pattern recognition, being quicker on the draw, or being able to conceptualize imaginary things. All these skills pale in comparison to the base requirements of human existence that we all take for granted.

Nearly all humans, save those with severe disabilities, can manage tasks like talking, facial recognition, Navigating a 3-D environment, undertaking complex social cues, applying complex moral frameworks, and generally applying sophisticated reasoning to survive in a frighteningly dynamic social and physical world where simple miscalculations could result in death. All of these tasks are so incredibly complex that massive computers fail hilariously at them. Yet, even people we consider simple manage them on about one LED bulb worth of power.

By contrast many of the tasks that we regard as the purview of “smart” people can be trivially accomplished by a 1970’s pocket calculator. True, many things that require creativity are still beyond computers of any ability, but those things are layering on top of abilities that we all share. For instance visualizing new architecture builds on the visuospatial skills innate in humans. The ability to be an architect is just a small improvement to abstract reasoning.

We baseline our expectations of intelligence at the level necessary to function in society. We set that to zero. More accurately we set it to about 85 which represents an IQ one standard deviation below the norm. A person above this level can reasonably be expected to navigate life. But 85 is still a number that is artificially close to 0. It makes the difference between 100 and 160 seem like a monumental gap. In some sense it is, we’ll get to that, but in absolute terms both a person with an IQ of 100 and another with an IQ of 160 are indistinguishable geniuses to the rest of the animal kingdom.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that the difference between a genius and an idiot is slight, it is time to discuss how big a difference that slight advantage makes. We continually make society just complex enough that 95% of the population can get along in it. This means that no matter how intelligent the average person is they will always be using all that they have just to survive. A person with just more than is socially required, has some brain power to spare in getting ahead. This is what make the difference seem so vast. None to spare versus a bit to spare looks like a division by zero. The difference can seem almost infinite.

Thus, some people seem to just cruise through life with all manner of opportunities afforded them, while others struggle. If, however, the average IQ was 200 society would add complexity and a person that we consider a genius today would struggle to perform what would be considered basic tasks. Small intellectual gifts turn into huge societal advantages.

We should appreciate those advantages for those that have them, but also keep in mind that a certain humility is due. Sure you are smart, but not really that much smarter than the simplest person you know. It is a small accident of birth that has had an out-sized effect on the opportunities available to you. It could easily have gone the other way.

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