The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.