Misinterpreting Intelligence: Praising Others for Self-Validation

Do our personal vanities, values and virtues provide us each with a skewed definition of what constitutes intelligence?

Last week I watched the Netflix series Evil Genius, which is about a woman who (probably) masterminded one of the most nefarious bank robberies in history. The most stunning part of it, for me, was the insistence by police and her associates that she is a highly intelligent person. While she certainly does not appear to me to be a dummy, neither does she appear to be a genius of any kind. She is crazy and manipulative and just smart enough to make those work well in her favor, except when she finally ended up in prison for life.

So then I had to ask myself, why did everyone keep insisting upon how smart she is? Inevitably the answer seems to be that it was their coping mechanism for dealing with the fact that they got duped by her. It was easier to call her a genius than to admit to their own shortcomings or failures.

Similar crooked reasoning goes into a lot of what we mistake for intelligence. Trumps supporters view his opportunistic and manipulative ways as a sign of intelligence. They mistake his effectiveness in some regards, along with his hubris and avarice, as signs of intelligence. At the same time they are willing to overlook or ignore the evidence that he is actually just a greedy loudmouth who won the birth lottery.

I often hear mistaken attributions of intelligence given in this manner. If a person symbolizes the desired outcomes of another, than they will also often symbolize intelligence to them. So in the same way that somebody might think Trump is smart because they want to be more like him, we might mistake someone as intelligent due to a specific talent, area of specialized knowledge or life outcome we admire.

One area in which I have seen this often is in science. Anybody who has a family member in a scientific career will almost inevitably tell everyone that their beloved labcoatist is a certified genius. Science and intelligence are equivocated as a result of modern values and virtues, and so all scientists must be smart, according to our dominant cultural narratives. Nevertheless, I have met many dumbass scientists, just as I have also met many dumbass doctors and lawyers. The ability to master specialized knowledge is not the same as general intelligence.

I would not even be comfortable with any definition or measure of what constitutes general intelligence. It may not even exist. Some people might just be having more generally useful delusions than others. In fact the complexity of our semantic mythos might make us appear more practical, efficient and confounding to others; but at the same time be obscuring some of the simplest truths that ‘dummies’ live by every day.

Is there a lesson here? For most people, I doubt it. But perhaps it would behoove us to think of intelligence and stupidity as individual non-absolutes that can only be spoken of relative to the person. Maybe our very concepts of intelligence hide the majority of it that is lying right in the open, while putting a spotlight on unscrupulous charlatans and the obsessively ambitious.