Clever sillies: Why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2009;73: 867-870.
In previous editorials I have written about the absent-minded and socially-inept ‘nutty professor’ stereotype in science, and the phenomenon of ‘psychological neoteny’ whereby intelligent modern people (including scientists) decline to grow-up and instead remain in a state of perpetual novelty-seeking adolescence. These can be seen as specific examples of the general phenomenon of ‘clever sillies’ whereby intelligent people with high levels of technical ability are seen (by the majority of the rest of the population) as having foolish ideas and behaviours outside the realm of their professional expertise. In short, it has often been observed that high IQ types are lacking in ‘common sense’ – and especially when it comes to dealing with other human beings. General intelligence is not just a cognitive ability; it is also a cognitive disposition. So, the greater cognitive abilities of higher IQ tend also to be accompanied by a distinctive high IQ personality type including the trait of ‘Openness to experience’, ‘enlightened’ or progressive left-wing political values, and atheism. Drawing on the ideas of Kanazawa, 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. 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. I further suggest that this random silliness of the most intelligent people may be amplified to generate systematic wrongness when intellectuals are in addition ‘advertising’ their own high intelligence in the evolutionarily novel context of a modern IQ meritocracy. The cognitively-stratified context of communicating almost-exclusively with others of similar intelligence, generates opinions and behaviours among the highest IQ people which are not just lacking in common sense but perversely wrong. Hence the phenomenon of ‘political correctness’ (PC); whereby false and foolish ideas have come to dominate, and moralistically be enforced upon, the ruling elites of whole nations.
IQ and evolved problem-solving
On the whole, and all else being equal, in modern societies the higher a person’s general intelligence (as measured by the intelligence quotient or IQ), the better will be life for that person; since higher intelligence leads (among other benefits) to higher social status and salary, longer life expectancy and better health , , ,  and . However, at the same time, it has been recognized for more than a century that increasing IQ is biologically-maladaptive because there is an inverse relationship between IQ and fertility ,  and . Under modern conditions, therefore, high intelligence is fitness-reducing.
In the course of exploring this modern divergence between social-adaptation and biological-adaptation, Satoshi Kanazawa has made the insightful observation that a high level of general intelligence is mainly useful in dealing with life problems which are an evolutionary novelty. By contrast, performance in solving problems which were a normal part of human life in the ancestral hunter–gatherer era may not be helped (or may indeed be hindered) by higher IQ  and .
(This statement requires a qualification. When a person has suffered some form of brain damage, or a pathology affecting brain function, then this might well produce generalized impairment of cognition: reducing both general intelligence and other forms of evolved cognitive functioning, depending on the site and extent of the brain pathology. Since a population with low IQ would include some whose IQ had been lowered by brain pathology, the average level of social intelligence or common sense would probably also be lower in this population. This confounding effect of brain pathology would be expected to create a weak and non-causal statistical correlation between IQ and social intelligence/common sense, a correlation that would mainly be apparent at low levels of IQ.)
As examples of how IQ may help with evolutionary novelties, it has been abundantly-demonstrated that increasing measures of IQ are strongly and positively correlated with a wide range of abilities which require abstract reasoning and rapid learning of new knowledge and skills; such as educational outcomes, and abilities at most complex modern jobs , , , ,  and . Science and mathematics are classic examples of problem-solving activities that arose only recently in human evolutionary history and in which differential ability is very strongly predicted by relative general intelligence .
However, there are also many human tasks which our human ancestors did encounter repeatedly and over manifold generations, and natural selection has often produced ‘instinctive’, spontaneous ways of dealing with these. Since humans are social primates, one major such category is social problems, which have to do with understanding, predicting and manipulating the behaviours of other human beings , ,  and . Being able to behave adaptively in dealing with these basic human situations is what I will term having ‘common sense’.
Kanazawa’s idea is that there is therefore a contrast between recurring, mainly social problems which affected fitness for our ancestors and for which all normal humans have evolved behavioural responses; and problems which are an evolutionary novelty but which have a major impact on individual functioning in the context of modern societies  and . When a problem is an evolutionary novelty, individual differences in general intelligence make a big difference to each individual’s abilities to analyze the problem, and learn to how solve it. So, the idea is that having a high IQ would predict a better ability in understanding and dealing with new problems; but higher IQ would not increase the level of a person’s common sense ability to deal with social situations.
IQ not just an ability, but also a disposition
Although general intelligence is usually conceptualized as differences in cognitive ability, IQ is not just about ability but also has personality implications .
For example, in some populations there is a positive correlation between IQ and the personality trait of Openness to experience (‘Openness’)  and ; a positive correlation with ‘enlightened’ or progressive values of a broadly socialist and libertarian type ; and a negative correlation with religiousness .
So, the greater cognitive ability of higher IQ is also accompanied by a somewhat distinctive high IQ personality type. My suggested explanation for this association is that an increasing level of IQ brings with it an increased tendency to use general intelligence in problem-solving; i.e. to over-ride those instinctive and spontaneous forms of evolved behaviour which could be termed common sense.
The over-use of abstract reasoning may be most obvious in the social domain, where normal humans are richly equipped with evolved psychological mechanisms both for here-and-now interactions (e.g. rapidly reading emotions from facial expression, gesture and posture, and speech intonation) and for ‘strategic’ modelling of social interactions to understand predict and manipulate the behaviour of others . Social strategies deploy inferred knowledge about the dispositions, motivations and intentions of others. When the most intelligent people over-ride the social intelligence systems and apply generic, abstract and systematic reasoning of the kind which is enhanced among higher IQ people, they are ignoring an ‘expert system’ in favour of a non-expert system.
In suggesting that the most intelligent people tend to use IQ to over-ride common sense I am unsure of the extent to which this is due to a deficit in the social reasoning ability, perhaps due to a trade-off between cognitive abilities – as suggested by Baron-Cohen’s conceptualization of Asperger’s syndrome, including the male- versus female-type of systematizing/empathizing brain . Or alternatively it could be more of an habitual tendency to over-use abstract analysis, that might (in principle) be overcome by effort or with training. Observing the apparent universality of ‘Silly Clevers’ in modernizing societies, I suspect that a higher IQ bias towards over-utilizing abstract reasoning would probably turn-out to be innate and relatively stable.
Indeed, I suggest that higher levels of the personality trait of Openness in higher IQ people may the flip-side of this over-use of abstraction. I regard Openness as the result of deploying abstract analysis for social problems to yield unstable and unpredictable results, when innate social intelligence would tend to yield predictable and stable results. This might plausibly underlie the tendency of the most intelligent people in modernizing societies to hold ‘left-wing’ political views  and .
I would argue that neophilia (or novelty-seeking) is a driving attribute of the personality trait of Openness; and a disposition common in adolescents and immature adults who display what I have termed ‘psychological neoteny’  and . When problems are analyzed using common sense ‘instincts’ the evaluative process would be expected to lead to the same answers in all normal humans, and these answers are likely to be stable over time. But when higher IQ people ignore or over-ride common sense, they generate a variety of uncommon ideas. Since these ideas are only feebly-, or wholly un-, supported by emotions; they are held more weakly than common sense ideas, and so are more likely to change over time.
For instance, a group of less intelligent people using instinctive social intelligence to analyze a social situation will presumably reach the same traditional conclusion as everyone else and this conclusion will not change with time; while a more intelligent group might by contrast use abstract analysis and generate a wider range of novel and less-compelling solutions. This behaviour appears as if motivated by novelty-seeking.
Applying abstract analysis to social situations might be seen as ‘creative’, and indeed Openness has been put forward as the major personality trait which supports creativity  and . This is reasonable in the sense that an intellectual high in Openness would be likely to disregard common sense, and to generate multiple, unpredictable and unfamiliar answers to evolutionarily-familiar problems which would only yield a single ‘obvious’ solution to those who deployed evolved modes of intelligence. However, I would instead argue that a high IQ person applying abstract systemizing intelligence to activities which are more usually done by instinctive intelligence is not a truly ‘creative’ process.
Instead, following Eysenck, I would regard true psychological creativity as primarily an associative activity which Eysenck includes as part of the trait Psychoticism; cognitively akin to the ‘primary process’ thinking of sleep, delirium and psychotic illness  and . A major difference between these two concepts of creativity is that while ‘Openness creativity’ is abstract, coolly-impartial and as if driven by novelty-seeking (neophilia); ‘Psychoticism creativity’ is validated by emotions: such that the high-Psychoticism creative person is guided by their emotional responses to their own creative production.
Clever sillies in the IQ meritocracy
It therefore seems plausible that the folklore or stereotypical idea of the eccentric, unworldly, absent-minded or obtuse scientist – who is brilliant at their job while being fatuous and incompetent in terms of their everyday life , might be the result of this psychological tendency to over-use abstract intelligence and use it in inappropriate situations.
However, there is a further aspect of this phenomenon. Modern societies are characterized by large population, extensive division of labour, and a ‘meritocratic’ form of social organization in which social roles (jobs, occupations) tend to be filled on the basis of educational credentials and job performance rather than on an hereditary basis (as was the case in most societies of the past). This means that in modern societies there is an unprecedented degree of cognitive stratification . Cognitive stratification is the layering of social organization by IQ; such that residence, schooling and occupations are characterized by narrow bands of intelligence. Large modern countries are therefore ruled by concentrations of highly intelligent people in the major social systems such as politics, civil administration, law, science and technology, the mass media and education. Communication in these elites is almost-exclusively among the highly intelligent.
In such an evolutionarily-unprecedented, artificial ‘hothouse’ environment, it is plausible that any IQ-related behaviours are amplified: partly because there is little counter-pressure from the less intelligent people with less neophiliac personalities, and perhaps mainly because there is a great deal of IQ-advertisement. Indeed, it looks very much as if the elites of modern societies are characterized by considerable IQ-signalling . Sometimes this is direct advertisement (e.g. when boasting about intellectual attainments or attendance at highly-selective colleges) and more often the signalling is subtly-indirect when people display the attitudes, beliefs, fashions, manners and hobbies associated with high intelligence. This advertising is probably based on sexual selection , if IQ has been a measure of general fitness during human evolutionary history, and was associated with a wide range of adaptive traits .
My hunch is that it is this kind of IQ-advertisement which has led to the most intelligent people in modern societies having ideas about social phenomena that are not just randomly incorrect (due to inappropriately misapplying abstract analysis) but are systematically wrong. I am talking of the phenomenon known as political correctness (PC) in which foolish and false ideas have become moralistically-enforced among the ruling intellectual elite. And these ideas have invaded academic, political and social discourse. Because while the stereotypical nutty professor in the hard sciences is a brilliant scientist but silly about everything else; the stereotypical nutty professor social scientist or humanities professor is not just silly about ‘everything else’, but also silly in their professional work.
Getting answers to problems relating to hard science is extremely intellectually-difficult and (because the subject is an evolutionary novelty) necessarily requires abstract reasoning  and . Therefore the hard scientist is invariably vastly more competent at their science than the average member of the public, and he has no need to be novelty-seeking in order to advertise his intelligence.
But getting answers to problems in science involving human social behaviour is something which is already done very well by evolved human psychological mechanisms , ,  and . In this situation it is difficult to improve on common sense, and – even without being taught – normal people already have a pretty good understanding of human motivations, incentives and deterrents, and the basic cause and effect processes of society. Because psychological and social intelligence expertise is so widespread and adaptive; in order to advertise his intelligence the social scientist must produce something systematically-different from common sense, something novel and (necessarily) counter-intuitive. And because it goes against evolved psychology, in this instance something different is likely to be something wrong. So, the social scientist professional deploying abstract reasoning on social problems is often less likely to generate a correct answer than the average member of the public who is using the common sense of evolved, spontaneous social intelligence.
In the human and social sciences there is therefore a professional incentive to be perversely wrong – to be silly, in other words. And this is indeed what we see. The more that the subject matter of an academic field requires, or depends on, common sense; the sillier it will be.
The results of cognitive stratification and IQ-advertising are therefore bad enough to have destroyed the value of whole domains of the arts and academia, and in the domain of public policy the results have been simply disastrous. Over the past four decades the dishonest fantasy-world discourse of non-biological political correctness has evolved to dominate the intellectual arena of whole nations – perhaps the whole developed world – such that wrong and ridiculous ideas have become not just mainstream, but compulsory.
Because clever silliness is not just one of several competing ideas in the elite arena – it is both intellectually- and moralistically-enforced with such zeal as utterly to exclude alternatives . The first level of defence is that denying a PC assertion is taken as proof of dumbness or derangement; such that flat-denial without refutation is regarded as sufficient response. But the toughest enforcement is moral: anyone smart and sane who disbelieves the silly clever falsehoods and asserts something different is not just denounced as dumb but actually pilloried as evil .
I infer that the motivation behind the moralizing venom of political correctness is the fact that spontaneous human instincts are universal and more powerfully-felt than the absurd abstractions of PC; plus the fact that common sense is basically correct while PC is perversely wrong. Hence, at all costs a fair debate must be prevented if the PC consensus is to be protected. Common sense requires to be stigmatized in order that it is neutralized.
Ultimately these manoeuvres serve to defend the power, status and distinctiveness of the intellectual elite . They are socially-adaptive over the short-term, even as they are biologically-maladaptive over the longer-term.
Because evolved ‘common sense’ usually produces the right answers in the social domain, yet the most intelligent people have personalities which over-use abstract analysis in the social domain  and , this implies that the most intelligent people are predisposed to have silly ideas and to behave maladaptively when it comes to solving social problems.
Ever since the development of cognitive stratification in modernizing societies , the clever sillies have been almost monopolistically ‘in charge’. They really are both clever and silly – but the cleverness is abstract while the silliness is focused on the psychological and social domains. Consequently, the fatal flaw of modern ruling elites lies in their lack of common sense – especially the misinterpretations of human psychology and socio-political affairs. My guess is that this lack of common sense is intrinsic and incorrigible – and perhaps biologically-linked with the evolution of high intelligence and the rise of modernity .
Stanovich has also described the over-riding of the ‘Darwinian brain’ of autonomous systems by the analytic system, and has identified the phenomenon as underlying modern non-adaptive ethical reasoning . Stanovich has also noted that IQ accounts for much (but not all) of the inter-individual differences in using analytic evaluations; however, Stanovich regards the increased use of abstraction to replace traditional ‘common sense’ very positively, not as ‘silly’ but as a vital aspect of what he interprets as the higher status of modern social morality.
Yet, whatever else, to be a clever silly is a somewhat tragic state; because it entails being cognitively-trapped by compulsive abstraction; unable to engage directly and spontaneously with what most humans have traditionally regarded as psycho-social reality; disbarred from the common experience of humankind and instead cut-adrift on the surface of a glittering but shallow ocean of novelties: none of which can ever truly convince or satisfy. It is to be alienated from the world; and to find no stable meaning of life that is solidly underpinned by emotional conviction . Little wonder, perhaps, that clever sillies usually choose sub-replacement reproduction .
To term the Western ruling elite ‘clever sillies’ is of course a broad generalization, but is not merely name-calling. Because, as well as political correctness being systematically dishonest  and ; in relation to absolute and differential fertility, modern elite behaviour is objectively maladaptive in a strictly biological sense. It remains to be seen whether the genetic self-annihilation of the IQ elite will lead-on towards self-annihilation of the societies over which they rule.
Note: I should in all honesty point-out that I recognize this phenomenon from the inside. In other words, I myself am a prime example of a ‘clever silly’; having spent much of adolescence and early adult life passively absorbing high-IQ-elite-approved, ingenious-but-daft ideas that later needed, painfully, to be dismantled. I have eventually been forced to acknowledge that when it comes to the psycho-social domain, the commonsense verdict of the majority of ordinary people throughout history is much more likely to be accurate than the latest fashionably-brilliant insight of the ruling elite. So, this article has been written on the assumption, eminently-challengeable, that although I have nearly-always been wrong in the past – I now am right….