Social Question

augustlan's avatar

Are relatively unintelligent people aware of their lack of intelligence?

Asked by augustlan (47715points) June 29th, 2012

I’m not talking about those with an actual intellectual disability, here. This is just about people who are… not-so-smart. Do they know they’re not? I’ve always wondered if I’m actually as smart as I think I am (reasonably smart, but no genius)... would I know if I wasn’t?

Would the not-so-smart individual recognize a higher level of intelligence in, say, a friend? Would they go out of their way to bounce their thoughts off the more intelligent friend, or go it alone? I guess what I’m wondering is if one in such a position would seek help and guidance with things that require complex thought, or does it simply not occur to them. I swear, I’m not trying to sound condescending… I’m having trouble wording this well. Maybe I am not so smart after all!

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45 Answers

athenasgriffin's avatar

I think there is this level of unintelligence between moderate and really dumb where someone knows they are not as smart as other people. They go one way or another. If they are prideful, they constantly try to prove themselves, generally with cruelty and by demeaning others, sometimes accusing everyone of talking down to them, etc. If they are humble, they can be really, really sweet, and ask for help when they need it, genuinely try to understand things, do things that they are good at.

It is like any other thing that people are below average at. If you are prideful, you never admit that you aren’t so great at [ ]. If you are modest or self aware, you try to be graceful about it.

For instance I am REALLY absent minded. For a long while I tried to hide it and got really angry when people brought it up. I try to avoid the pride now.

I’m probably one of the prideful unintelligent people.

jerv's avatar

Relative compared to… whom?

The thing about intelligence is that it is rather subjective. For instance, my stepfather has an IQ of 156 while is about 30 points lower, yet he marvels at my intelligence. In fact, he often asks for my advice on many things regarding engineering and technology despite his own engineering background which includes far more formal study and experience than I have. Then there is my boss; not terribly bright (not dumb, merely average and dyslexic) who likewise bounces ideas off of me. That right there shows how intelligence is relative.

Regardless, my experience is that whether one seeks help depends not on intelligence, but on ego. I have had many people less intelligent than me “know” that they know better, and many others that come to me. It’s more about personality.

tups's avatar

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
If people know what they don’t know, then they’re not that unintelligent, are they? If people think they know everything and claim that, then they’re not that intelligent, are they?
So is there really such a thing as uintelligent people, when they are aware of their ignorance?

whiteliondreams's avatar

I’m insulted for you. Think of what Socrates (Plato) said, “I know that I have no wisdom, small or great”. – Apology

rebbel's avatar


Ron_C's avatar

@the100thmonkey wow, good article, it’s like reading an evaluation of George Bush Jr.

ucme's avatar

It doesn’t take a genius to know you’re thick as two short planks.

bolwerk's avatar

My mind immediately went to Dunning-Kruger, as @the100thmonkey mentioned. However, incompetent people aren’t necessarily unintelligent. If anything, they can be the opposite, and I’m not sure the effect accounts for that.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Yeah, intelligence is knowing what you don’t know. Lack of intelligence is thinking you know it all.

marinelife's avatar

The not-so-intelligent do not feel that they are any different from anyone else. They would not seek out someone of higher intelligence to bounce something off of , because it would not occur to them to do so. They have no way of conceiving of the differences in their brains.

They do recognize greater intelligence in others in superficial ways. “Gosh, he’s smart.”

funkdaddy's avatar

I think it’s easiest to look for parallels that might hit closer to home and see how we (or those we know really well) handle our shortcomings.

I’ll just use myself as an example (it’ll get me in less trouble). I care a lot about people but constantly get surprised by what people take offense to or consider impolite. Friends call me “The Brick” because I seem to have a tendency to ask about things that others consider private. (How am I supposed to know they broke up if I don’t ask? What do you mean mentioning they live in an expensive neighborhood is impolite? Is that a secret?)

So I’m missing some part of the puzzle there, over time it’s become obvious.

So you’ll see a number of my questions here are about how people in general will react or think about interactions or perceived slights. I run things by my wife constantly to gauge what a normal reaction would be. I look for “safe” ways to cover my shortcomings. I still get myself in trouble, but not as much.

So I think it would be same for people who are well intentioned but maybe don’t have the mental aptitude of others. Eventually you find ways around your wall instead of constantly beating up against it.

thorninmud's avatar

It helps to look at this from a “two systems” perspective. There’s the intuitive, shoot-from-the-hip approach to problem-solving; and the carefully reasoned approach.

The intuitive system gets most garden-variety problems right, and it has the advantage of being fast and effortless. The downside of intuition is that it is a minefield of hidden biases, and the shortcuts it uses often lead to cognitive errors. We all rely heavily on it, but you have to know its blind spots and weaknesses.

The answers the intuitive system comes up with always feel right. That’s the problem, in a way. People are naturally disinclined to subject their intuition to further scrutiny. Not only does it feel so right, but gearing up the other system—the careful reasoning system—requires a lot of effort.

Evolution favors economy of effort, and reasoning consumes a lot of resources. It’s been estimated that championship-level chess players can burn up to 6000 calories in a game. So there’s a built-in laziness about using this system. We’d rather rely on the intuitive system whenever possible.

There are people who never really develop the tools of reasoning. There are others who have them, but rarely call them into service (Bush is often cited as an example of the latter; decently intelligent, but so confident in his intuition that he never looked further). Either way, the person is unlikely to feel in the least bit deficient because of the feeling of rightness that’s the hallmark the intuitive system.

wundayatta's avatar

I believe that most people know approximately where they stand with respect to others. Let’s say which quintile they belong in. Tell any group of kids from kindergarten on to line themselves up according to intelligence, and they’ll probably get it fairly accurately.

I have some data about myself. I know my SAT scores, although that was from a long time ago. I was a national merit scholar which means the scores must have been in the top quarter or so. Maybe higher. I went to grad school. I got As and Bs. I work in academia. So I’m guessing it is safe to say I am in the top quarter of the population as far as tested intelligence goes.

Of course, I’ve never really trusted that metric. I don’t really understand what intelligence is. It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it, but you can’t explain it very well. Is it about problem-solving, as @thorninmud suggests? Or is it some innate quality that people have, regardless of how they employ it?

In general, people have told me I’m smart, which is nicer than the alternative, but I do not have a good feel for how I stand in any more specific way than the top twenty-five percent. I am often dismayed with what passes for reasoning in other people, but that doesn’t make me right. I tend to think that “conservative” is synonymous with “misguided.” Although that’s not to say all conservatives are stupid.

I respect people who carry a lot of knowledge in their heads, especially if the trot out knowledge that is verified by other sources. But there are some smart people who seem to be clueless about things like human relations, and what do I do about that? They know a lot, but make poor decisions and don’t even recognize they are making poor decisions. It’s sad. I wish I could exile them somewhere until they learn to be a bit wiser.

Still, so many people seem so much more confident of their intelligence than I am. There are people who I think are not very wise, yet they proudly proclaim their intelligence. To me, they don’t seem very bright, and yet they are willing to say they are much smarter than I am. What the hell? It kind of makes me angry. How come they think they are smarter than I am with respect to the rest of the population, yet they are clearly not even close to me? I am pretty sure they have an exaggerated opinion of themselves, but it is possible that I underestimate myself.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. It is a stupid thing to think about. Ranking yourself is an exercise in making yourself feel bad. Or maybe people overestimate in order to avoid feeling bad, and I’m the idiot for caring more about accuracy than feeling good about myself.

It’s too late to learn how to fool myself, but I do have another trick. I ignore these kinds of thoughts about how I rank. Or rather, I look at them dispassionately. My ranking has nothing to do with me. And rankings really have nothing to do with real life.

What does have to do with real life is how people behave individually. It doesn’t matter if I think they are smart or stupid. What matters is what they do and the kinds of decisions they make. Smart and stupid might be summary terms for long experience with the kinds of decisions someone makes, but they really aren’t very useful terms. It is much more helpful if you can characterize people in ways that help you predict their behavior. For that purpose, intelligence or lack thereof are both pretty useless ways of characterizing people.

whiteliondreams's avatar

“At first he who invented any art whatever that went beyond the common perceptions of man was naturally admired by men, not only because there was something useful in the inventions, but because he was thought wise and superior to the rest. But as more arts were invented, and some were directed to the necessities of life, others to recreation, the inventors of the latter were naturally always regarded as wiser than the inventors of the former, because their branches of knowledge did not aim at utility”. – Aristotle on Metaphysics

mazingerz88's avatar

I asked someone. I got kicked in the groin. Ouch.

Keep_on_running's avatar

I’ve come to realise I just cannot assume anything about anyone and their level of intelligence.

The problem is when people take their incredible knowledge in one area and extrapolate it to mean they are more intelligent than everyone else. What makes someone “intelligent”? Their use of words and ability to express their points of view? Their broad understanding of many topics? Their profound and deep understanding of a few? Is wisdom intelligence? Are memorised pieces of knowledge intelligence?

I could go on all day, what I am trying to say is, uh… I don’t know.

ZEPHYRA's avatar

Nope, totally, utterly and unarguably oblivious to the fact!

linguaphile's avatar

I used to work in education and still work in academia. I can’t tell you how many unintelligent, unimaginative, system-happy, rigid-thinking, tunnelvisioned, paperwork-addicted sheep people exist in these fields. Doesn’t matter where or how good the school supposedly is, the education field is full of people who gravitate to, perpetuate and celebrate the current educational system. The new trend is to add numbers-crunching to all this… sigh.

I loved the job, but hated the system.

I’ve come to see intelligence as a combination of several qualities… the ability:
to see cause-effect and connect the dots,
to see more than one perspective,
to see outside the status quo,
to evaluate and determine best course of action,
to adapt and adjust,
to question and be curious,
to know there are many different types of intelligence, skills and brain power
to know how ones behavior affects others,
to withhold judgment and adjust perspectives when new information comes along,
to explain things in a way that’s accessible to others and
the ability to be introspective. Then there’s the knowledge that they don’t know everything.

Those aren’t measured by any test.

I am very aware of things I’m not as good at as others may be, like time management, standing up for myself, political savvy, focusing… these are proven by results. I can see where my deficits are and where my strengths are—but when it comes to more ambigious skills like the ones I mentioned above, I really believe that if people don’t know these skills exist, they don’t know the immense value of having those skills.


About awareness… I used to work for a monthly newspaper and created a yearbook from scratch using InDesign. My yearbook was recommended by the printing company for a competition, but couldn’t be submitted because it wasn’t student-created. My boss at the newspaper company had no idea that the quality of my work was exemplary- he couldn’t see the difference between low and high quality. The same went for my coworkers with the yearbook. Every year, my school puts on a shoddy, poorly run, poorly performed play. Everyone thinks these shows are excellent. They wouldn’t know quality if it fell in their lap and licked their face.

They’re not aware—whether by chance, choice or the inability to ‘get it.’ They think, because they have an extensive vocabulary, credentials, praise, numbers of papers published, position and status etc, that they’re smart. They’re measuring their intelligence by their results, but results are not always proof of intelligence—they’re one way to prove it, but not the only way.

To answer your question, @augustlan, I think it’s both. I think many people are not aware of their lack of intelligence because they have material, man-made and externally-approved things around them to prove their ‘intelligence’ to themselves and others. However, on the other hand, I do think many other people are introspective enough to know where their skills max out and when they need others.

Then there are the blowhards who ride through life taking credit for others’ work and skills… what about these folks?? Do they even know they aren’t doing the work or really think they had something to do with the results?

ratboy's avatar

No we are not. My momma always said, “Life was like a crock of shit. If it ain’t your own, you’ll never know who ate that corn.” The content of many of the previous responses belies the implicit claim of their authors to smarter than the average bear.

WillWorkForChocolate's avatar

No, I don’t think they are. I know two people in particular, who are about as sharp as a bag of marbles, but they think they’re really smart. It drives me insane to attempt conversation with them.

jerv's avatar

@linguaphile What do you think of this ?

For those that don’t want to click, here is the first paragraph:

“It seems more like a headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion, but the Republican Party of Texas recently published its party platform, a report that -among other things – calls for a ban on teaching critical thinking skills in Texas schools because of its “focus on behavior modification” that has “the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

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Coloma's avatar

I don’t think so, does a potato know it’s a potato? lol
Seriously though, I let go of a “friend” a year ago that was truly one of the stupidist people I have ever known. Stubbornly dogmatic, passive aggressive, manipulative with ZERO ability for rational thinking. A “feelings are facts” type.

Any attempt at logical communication was always met with irrational emotional outbursts that had nothing to do with the issue at hand. I am a bright woman, and being in the rather rare camp of NTP females I just couldn’t deal with this womans level of retardation for another minute. You can’t reason with a potato, just put it under the sink in the dark and leave it there til it grows eyes. lolol

Sunny2's avatar

There are at least 9 types of intelligence Knowledge of book learning is only one. My auto mechanic may not be intellectual or well educated, but he understands automobile diagnosis and problem solving better than anyone I know. I respect him greatly. I certainly know when I meet someone who is more intelligent than I am and I think others do too. A retarded person may know very well he is different from others and may even learn social strategies to cover it up. I think it’s up to the more intelligent person, who recognizes those with less intellect, to be patient with the less fortunate and respect their positive attributes when the situation warrants,

tinyfaery's avatar

I don’t think anyone wants to think of themselves as less intelligent than others around them. Some people can be very self-aware and realize that others are smarter than themselves and pride themselves on other things. Others will never know.

Blu's avatar

I am if that counts for anything.

woodcutter's avatar

They tend to make you aware if it if they think you are mocking them, huh?

flutherother's avatar

Some people are more intelligent than others but that doesn’t mean they are right. Everyone has a unique perspective on life and everyone believes they know what is best for them. There are many people who are more intelligent than we are each with a variety of views but which one of them should we believe?

Coloma's avatar

Low IQ and low EQ IS the killer combo for true stupidity. The cookies and milk of intolerable personalities.
Unreasonable and emotionally sloppy makes for some serious head banging.haha

augustlan's avatar

This question was inspired by watching several interactions on Facebook yesterday. Someone would post their thoughts on a topic, then be refuted by several other people who were obviously more intelligent, using facts and evidence in their posts (and not being condescending about it, just factual.) The initial poster would never waver from their original stance, but also never offered any facts or evidence to support their stance. Basically, the initial poster would just say, “Nu uh. I’m right.” And these interactions weren’t about faith-based topics, either, where facts and evidence don’t hold much weight.

It surprised me, because when someone smarter than I am presents a compelling argument against a stance of mine, I’m likely to decide it’s time to re-think my stance. Do more research and think more about it, you know? Not that I automatically assume they are right, but it will prompt me to think more about it before deciding.

Several of you have touched on pride, and that does seem to be a factor, along with the intuitive approach mentioned by @thorninmud and the Dunning-Kruger Effect mentioned by @the100thmonkey.

augustlan's avatar

@wundayatta Do people really go around telling you they are smarter than you are? Who does that?

@jerv They really want to ban teaching critical thinking skills? That’s crazy!

@linguaphile Your description of intelligence is an excellent one.

Paradox25's avatar

I’m not sure how to answer this. I understand that there are people who know alot more about certain things than I do, and I don’t fight it. I’m also aware that there are some things in which I’m alot more knowledgable in when compared to most other people as well. What really makes one more intelligent than another to begin with? Is it hands on ability, technical ability, lingual skills, writing skills, mathematical logic or even just plain old common sense?

jerv's avatar

@augustlan Yes, they really do. You can’t make this shit up!

funkdaddy's avatar

I’m amazed at much of what’s included with the Republican Party Platform, so this shouldn’t be construed as support… but

This is what the platform actually says

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Notice all the capital letters there, Higher Order Thinking Skills is a specific method of education, Outcome-Based Education is another education model. I believe collectively they are saying they don’t support “teaching to the test” but instead support covering a curriculum meant to educate in a general way.

There is so much that makes me sad in this document it doesn’t seem right to pick out one thing to misread and misrepresent. Especially an idea I think most folks would get behind if they just didn’t word it so contentiously, depending on the alternatives offered since really there’s just opposition expressed here.

Easy to be critical of others, much harder to solve the problems they face.

jerv's avatar

@funkdaddy Given their history, it’s hard to not think the worst. Then again, in this era of “Compromise is weakness!”, it almost seems that being contentious matters more than actually improving education. Oddly, they supported the system when a Texan Republican was in the White House :/

But enough of that. Let us return this thread to it’s regularly… scheduled… ummm… chaos?

Berserker's avatar

I guess, probably. I often see people understanding things way better than I obviously can, or talking about stuff that completely flies over my head, but it seems clear to me that they know what they’re into. Using myself as an example, I think it’s highly common that not so smart people can realize when their intellectual capacity is being surpassed. Unless everyone around me just pretends they know what they’re talking about lol.

mattbrowne's avatar

In general, no. There are studies investigating the issue, see for example

“One of the main effects of illusory superiority in IQ is the Downing effect. This describes the tendency of people with a below average IQ to overestimate their IQ, and of people with an above average IQ to underestimate their IQ. (...) This means that the lower the IQ of an individual, the less capable they are of appreciating and accurately appraising others’ IQ.”

wundayatta's avatar

@augustlan People often claim to be smart here. There have been any number of questions asked about it over the years. On these same questions, I would not claim I was smart. Therefore, I concluded that these people must believe they are smarter than I am. They are willing to say they are much smarter than I am (willing to say). This surprises me. But maybe they have reason to not use their intelligence for the benefit of the rest of us, but it sits there, ready for any moment they finally decide to trot it out.

I have yet to be impressed by anyone who claimed to be smart. On the other hand, a number of other people have quite impressed me with their intelligence, as demonstrated by their answers. It seems to me that there is an inverse relationship between what people say and what they are.

augustlan's avatar

@wundayatta I know how you feel about people claiming to be smart, but I’ve never seen anyone claiming to be smarter than you. Pretty sure we all know you are smart, whether you are willing to say so or not. ;)

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think so. I mean, I’ve had people ask me something because “You’re so smart,” which to me, implies they don’t think they’re as smart as me. Not sure how to take it, though.

linguaphile's avatar

A sidebar… I would quickly take the chance to socialize with a fun, friendly, non-judgmental, interactive, less-educated, “non-intelligent” person over an arrogant, condescending, educated and “intelligent” person. Without a doubt. Now, if I find a fun, friendly, etc person who is also mentally stimulating, I hang on with both arms and legs!

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