Don’t Call Me Smart

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People often tell me, I’m a “smart” guy. I have two beefs with this statement. It implies that there’s one type of intelligence, usually the logical, analytical kind, and that my smarts are an innate quality rather than an achievement.

The prevailing notion of intelligence is a narrow and limiting one that fails to embrace the multitude of human abilities. We define intelligence too often as the ability to analyze rationally and think deductively. Kids are increasingly, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, educated “from the neck up.” What about other types of intelligence like spatial or interpersonal? Logical and deductive thinking are important but we shouldn’t leave out the others. To do so would treat children as machines. This is how I write software for computers – I write explicit instructions – because they are incapable of independent thought. But human minds don’t work that way. Innovative ideas often arise from loose connections between disparate concepts. A calligraphy class at Reed College inspired Steve Jobs to have multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts on the first Macintosh computer.

Just as we suffer from the fallacy of a monolithic form of IQ intelligence, we’re hampered by the false authority of IQ tests. Today’s popular culture treats IQ tests as a way of identifying gifted people. The test originated with a French psychologist named Alfred Binet whom the French government commissioned in 1904 to develop a way of identifying intellectually deficient children for their placement in special-education programs. It’s not possible to design an objective test that measures an imaginary platonic concept of intelligence that doesn’t require cultural knowledge. For example, original Binet tests included questions like finding three rhymes for the French word “obéisance” and the question “My neighbor has been receiving strange visitors. He has received in turn a doctor, a lawyer, and then a priest. What is taking place?”1 Modern IQ tests have similar biases. Binet himself warned about his test’s limitations, the narrow way it measured intelligence, and the need to look at the whole of an individual’s abilities.

And while I’m the soapbox, let’s also discard the idea that the left brain is responsible for logic and the right for creativity. This is a popular misconception that has been clarified:

A seductive idea that has slipped firmly into popular culture. While there is some localization of function, there is no gene, no synaptic connection, no chemical, no area or region, no hemisphere in the human brain that is exclusively responsible for any specific behaviour.

In the future, this left-right brain dichotomy will be regarded as psuedoscience just like phrenology and astrology.

The second reason I chafe at being described as “smart” is because of a study that suggests this label causes kids to underperform. Researcher Carol Dweck gave two groups of children puzzles. One group was praised for their intelligence and the other for their effort. When given subsequently harder problems, the first group gave up easily and assumed they weren’t actually that smart after all. The second group weren’t afraid of the harder puzzles and performed better.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

But the introduction “This is so and so. He tries really hard” isn’t sexy. We want the fruits of our labor to appear effortless and inborn. It’s strange to see sketches of prized artwork and manuscripts of canonized books because we fantasize about the masterpiece springing full-fledged from the mind of its creator. Long nights of revisions and elbow grease aren’t sexy. Final art pieces and polished writing are.

  1. My instinct tells me the man is dying. He calls the doctor to try to cure himself. When that fails, his lawyer draws up his will. And then the priest blesses him on his deathbed. What do you think?