Are high IQ people socially inept?

Bruce Charlton has a long article (excerpted below) which says that they are.  It is of course a common stereotype but Charlton gives reasoning and references to back up his claim.  Going right back to the studies of Terman in the 1920's, however, research has tended to show that high IQ people are in fact socially more successful, so there is a conflict there.  I am not familiar with all the references Charlton uses but on the issues I am familiar with, I think every claim Charlton makes has been reasonably disputed -- his claim that religious people and conservatives are dumb, for instance, so I doubt that further reading would take me far.

So I think it might be useful for me to offer some thoughts that could explain what underlies Charlton's impressions.

I think that he is basically confusing high IQ people and academics -- or maybe also people with high academic qualifications. But academics are only one subset of high IQ people -- and probably the least generally competent subset. There's not much money in academe so really bright people tend to look more to the world of business -- with Bill Gates being the icon of that. And there are some high IQ people who are not ambitious at all -- becoming butchers, mechanics etc.

One thing we can learn from academics, however, is the nature of eccentricity. Academics are of course notoriously eccentric.  So why is that?  It is mainly that their high IQ causes them to see the world differently from others.  What seems strange and inexplicable behavior to mainstream man actually seems perfectly logical and reasonable to someone whose vision encompasses far more of what is going on in the world.  The high IQ person sees many more influences bearing on a given decision so must sometimes come to decisions that perplex those who have not taken so much into account.

High IQ is however a solver of almost all human problems so the non-academic high IQ person will see why people are coming to what he sees as wrong or sub-optimal decisions and will deal with that in some way  -- taking time to explain himself, pretending to go along with the herd or some other strategy.  So the non-academic high IQ person will be much less likely to be seen as strange.

But let me reiterate that High IQ helps solve of ALL problems so it can even generate social skills or at least an approximation to social skills.  The high IQ person should in fact be socially insightful rather than socially inept.

Anecdotes prove nothing but they can be enlightening nonetheless -- so let me describe briefly a high IQ lady I know.  She is one of the most popular people I have ever met.  Faces light up all around the room when she walks in.  How come?  Because she uses her brain to take an interest in other people. Because she understands them, she talks to them in terms of what interests them.  So people find her a very sympathetic person and like her for it.  She uses her IQ to smooth social interactions and does very well at it.  Almost anyone she meets wants her for a friend. She did at one time gain considerable academic distinction but did not persevere with it. She fell in love with an English poetry academic instead. What a fine woman!

There are many uses for a good brain and acquiring and using social skills is one of them

Another woman I have known since she was a child has made an unending string of good decisions in her life that resulted in her being very highly paid at one stage. But far from wanting a career, she just wanted a calm and peaceful life so retired very early to a green and pleasant place in the country and now has a big garden that feeds her and her family plus a sheep paddock that yields sheepmeat from time to time. She lives the sort of life that greenies (and urbanites generally) tend to idealize. But she would never show up on any list of anything much, let alone a list of high IQ people -- and that is exactly how she likes it. So there are many ways of using a good brain.

And the way academics use their brain is to focus on highly abstract things.  And academe is highly competitive.  So that focus has to be severe.  Taking an interest in people is just not a priority.  So people see them doing things that they don't understand and dismiss them as eccentric.  But the academic doesn't care.  He uses his brain in a way that pleases him and notices people only minimally.

A rather striking example of academic specialization is that it seems very rare for someone to be successful in both academe and in business.  Aside from myself, I know of only one other -- and he ended up in jail.  Because of the general usefulness of high IQ one might have expected that academics would be good in business too.  So it could well be that the high IQ people who are attracted to a life in academe are precisely those high IQ people who have inadequate personalities or who possess some other social limitation or emotional handicap.

So why do high IQ people tend to reproduce less? A glib answer would be that reproduction uses other organs than the brain but there does seem to be a rather deplorable effect there.  A lot of the problem lies with the educational system.  Because they are good at it, high IQ people mostly stay longer in education than others.  And a modern education has even managed to convince some of its victims that having children is bad for the environment etc. And there is no doubt that the emphases on feminism and homosexuality in a modern college education also militate against reproduction.  So it seems unlikely that reduced reproduction is an effect of high IQ per se.

It could also be argued that although they have fewer children, high IQ people invest more in them -- so gaining quality at the expense of quantity.  And those who know the story of Gideon (See Judges chapters 6 to 8) will know that it is not always quantity that wins the day.  Would you rather have your descendant  being the army officer directing operations from the rear or would you rather him being cannon fodder in the front lines?  Genetic survival can be more than numbers

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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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’); 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.

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’. 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.



  1. High IQ is usually going to lead to some difficulty socially (except around others with similar IQ), simply because people don't get you. I've been on both sides of this situation and it is definitely awkward when there's a big difference.

    Autism also has affected the stereotype of intelligent people I think...although there has always been the 'mad genius'.

  2. I have modified/ refined my views on the problems of 'high IQ' since I wrote the article you quote - the various ideas are dotted around my IQ blog, if you do word seacrhes for 'personality' or 'psychoticism' - in particular I make a distinction between ordinary high IQ people (who I regard as merely very intelligent versions of normal people), and creative geniuses (who I regard as 'designed' - by group selection - for creative innovation, with a specially 'wired' combination of high intelligence and an 'endogenous personality').

    Best, Yours, Bruce Charlton


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