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Can High Intelligence Be a Burden Rather Than a Boon? 385 writes David Robson has an interesting article at BBC on the relationship between high intelligence and happiness. "We tend to think of geniuses as being plagued by existential angst, frustration, and loneliness," writes Robson. Think of Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing, or Lisa Simpson – lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest." As Ernest Hemingway wrote: "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know." The first steps to studying the question were taken in 1926 when psychologist Lewis Terman decided to identify and study a group of gifted children. Terman selected 1,500 pupils with an IQ of 140 or more – 80 of whom had IQs above 170. Together, they became known as the "Termites", and the highs and lows of their lives are still being studied to this day. "As you might expect, many of the Termites did achieve wealth and fame – most notably Jess Oppenheimer, the writer of the classic 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy. Indeed, by the time his series aired on CBS, the Termites' average salary was twice that of the average white-collar job. But not all the group met Terman's expectations – there were many who pursued more "humble" professions such as police officers, seafarers, and typists. For this reason, Terman concluded that "intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated". Nor did their smarts endow personal happiness. Over the course of their lives, levels of divorce, alcoholism and suicide were about the same as the national average." According to Robson, one possibility is that knowledge of your talents becomes something of a ball and chain. During the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events in their 80-year lifespan. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported that they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations (PDF).
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Can High Intelligence Be a Burden Rather Than a Boon?

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  • by pla ( 258480 )
    Well now, this should end up a wonderful thread full of angsty "geniuses" whining about how they can totally identify with the Termites because no one "gets" them.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:12PM (#49500661)

      I do not know if I qualify as a genius, but I would like to think I am above average in intelligence. I topped my undergraduate class in engineering, scored near perfect score in my GRE (2380/2400, back when it actually included an analytical section with puzzles), and was a graduate student in quantum computing at a top school.

      I subsequently dropped out because I realized two things:

      1. Most of my classmates were really good at the subject (e.g., people who won International Math and Physics Olympiads). They started their PhDs at a really young age, and were almost bored by the coursework. Homework that I would spend a Saturday doing were completed while still in class by these bored teenagers.

      2. Most of them really loved the subject (i.e., people who loved doing physics at the expense of all else, such as dating, money, or having a social life). Or the subject was so easy that they had the time to pursue other things.

      I realized I neither loved physics unconditionally nor was I good enough at it to warrant the pursuit of a PhD, not to mention the subsequent post doc and so on. All this happened at the same time that I fell in love with my now-wife, started a company, and subsequently got into management consulting to make money instead.

      I do not mean to phrase this as a tautology (i.e., doing a PhD is mutually exclusive from making money or having a social life), but in my experience, the biggest sacrifice was watching classmates who were relatively mediocre (in my opinion) get "business" degrees and do exceedingly well in life in terms of money and relationships.

      Most of my cohort completed their PhDs and now have very successful academic careers. I still love math, theoretical physics, and computer science. I keep myself apprised of most of the publications in the field, and occasionally, write a paper or two myself, and I certainly miss the challenge of advanced math and physics. I still envy my peers, and I am sure some of them envy me. But now being in an unhappy relationship, being a parent, having the burdens of a pointless life (the hardest thing I do is a spreadsheet that just helps some fool company make millions of dollars), I question my past choices. So much possibility lay ahead of me, and I gave it all up for what? For a few bucks, beers, and a few lays?

      I'm probably considered successful by the measure of the quintessential American dream -- by ~30, I was a rising star at a top management consulting firm, had over 7 figures to my name, owned a large home in one of the best neighborhoods in Boston, and had a beautiful wife and son. I drove expensive cars, wore bespoke suits and expensive watches, spent time mountaineering in the Alps and the Himalayas, and traveled the world. But still, I always felt that I had missed something. That I will never come ahead of time. That no matter how successful I become in life, I will probably never have a theorem named after me or spend my days basking in the beauty of math.

      No amount of sex or expensive liquor or material goods can equate the joys of just proving a theorem. I will forever have this knowledge, that I could have been more, and chose less. My life now reminds me of a Pink Floyd lyrics -- "Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war for a lead role in a cage?".

  • The third factor (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bo'Bob'O ( 95398 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:41AM (#49500291)

    I surely wouldn't qualify as one of the 'termites' in the study, but there still things in my life I take to quickly. There is a third metric that I am in my coming to respect even more: motivation and inspiration.

    There is a big difference between having the ability to do something, having the need to do something, and having a want and drive to do something. That last one seems to get people much further then being at the very top in intelligence. It also provides a framework of interaction and social connection between peers, if it is truly a passion.

    So maybe it takes being the best and brightest to be first chair violinist in a prestigious symphony, but being brilliant alone won't get you there. Meanwhile hundreds of others have a long and successful career they make out of their perseverance.

    • by Bo'Bob'O ( 95398 )

      And just to be clear on my point, I do not think it's something more then just something that can be given, and may even be something that can be measured.

      Yes, fear of an authority figure is one motivation, or want of money, but I don't think that it's capital M Motivation.

    • Re:The third factor (Score:5, Interesting)

      by radtea ( 464814 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:57AM (#49500359)

      You've likely encountered this quote, but it bears repeating:

      Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. -- Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of US (1872 - 1933)

      • I can bang my head against a brick wall all I want, but all I will ever get out of it is a broken head.

        The trick is to pick a battle you can win, and then buckle down and win it.

        I've climbed high in my own life, but that is because my goals were achievable and I had the tools (both born with and the opportunities I needed) to succeed.

        There are many who work hard in life but don't get much of anywhere.

        That said, working hard is the only way to MAXIMIZE your opportunities and inborn potential. Praise your kids for their hard work, not their brains.


        • by E-Rock ( 84950 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:39PM (#49500767) Homepage

          Persistence doesn't mean trying the same thing over and over until it works. Persistence is trying to achieve your goals over and over again until you're successful. So you might bang your head on the wall a few times, realize that won't work and then try different things until you break it down.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Anecdote does not equal data, but please allow me to share one.

          I'm faiily intelligent, scoring way above average on tests and in daily life it is really apparent I'm not the slowest banana in the bunch. A friend of mine is quite, well, slow on the uptake. He's not really smart, but he has a certain type of tenacity or drive that keeps him going on and on. I, on the other hand, am quite lazy. Really lazy, just coasting along, I'd say.

          He's done things through just sheer mindless pushing on that I would never,

        • The trick is to pick a battle you can win, and then buckle down and win it.

          Every battle is winnable, it's all about the method. Banging your head against a brick wall endlessly is a sign of persevering with a failing strategy and not picking a battle which is unwinnable.

          Bang your head against the brick wall once. No effect? Move on to hitting, kicking it, running into it, smacking it with a hammer, and then working your way up to something that will eventually break the wall. That is the nature of determination.

    • by amiga3D ( 567632 )

      The ones with the drive and motivation generally exploit the genius of the highly intelligent. Knowledge is a tool but it takes someone who knows how to use that tool.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Who was a better engineer, Lee Felsestein or Woz? Hard to say. Woz was an unparalleled genius in getting less chips to do the same thing who designed the first popular computer system from chips to OS personally, Felsenstein did pretty much the same thing for one of the first trult portable computers.

        Who have the kids heard of? Woz, because he was attached to a genius salesman with the drive to succeed, and they brought in a really smart businessman (Markkula) to do the technical finance/manufacturing shit.

    • Re:The third factor (Score:4, Interesting)

      by NixieBunny ( 859050 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:08PM (#49500403) Homepage
      Happiness has a lot to do with attitude. I find that being generally happy is easy if you use your abilities to put yourself into situations that make you happy. I used to work for a place that got to be more and more like Dilbert. Instead of drowning in it, I broke loose and made a new life, using my brains to create interesting, fun things. I found part-time work in the sciences, and have extra time to make wacky inventions and volunteer with kids, teaching them how to do similar things. I am careful to take on projects only if they are likely to make me happier. The latest was building the red telephone for this []...
      • by Bengie ( 1121981 )
        If you have no peers, you can get lonely and no amount of attitude can completely help a human who is lonely.
    • I would tend to agree. I think that having kids take IQ tests early in life and putting stress on them to succeed purely because a number is a terrible idea, which has happened to a number of people I know. Several people I knew in highschool that had high IQ's and were expected to do great things went into fields they had no passion for (engineering, aeronautics, etc) just because they were pressured to and had the grades to do. Most (or maybe all) ended up dropping out, or switching to something they actu
      • I think it's pretty damned easy to tell how smart someone is, child or adult, after being with them for a few hours.
        Smart people don't really need to give tests to determine this (within a reasonable range).
        If you can't tell how smart someone is without a test, I'll bet I can predict your own IQ test score ;-)
    • i have to agree with your observations — i have a friend, who is very intelligent and gifted, yet he lacks motivation, and gets nowhere.
      without the fire within, none shines without.

    • Even worse, intelligent people may be more easily bored, and there is a whole boatload of boring things that are necessary for success.

    • Too much of being even moderately bright is banging your head against convention and a society that doesn't cater to you, but the lowest common denominator. A lot of motivation is simply having the will to work out a better method and hoping others will adopt it. Mostly they don't, and remember these are the same people by whom you judge your success. As one of my instructors put it, it doesn't matter if you are the smartest person in the world if no one else glimpses the horizon you see.

      Even the very brigh

  • Read "Outliers" (Score:5, Informative)

    by lkcl ( 517947 ) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:42AM (#49500295) Homepage

    this is nothing new: i believe the same study was the basis of the famous book "Outliers", which is a fascinating study of what makes people successful. if i recall correctly, it's completely the opposite of what people expect: your genes *do* matter. your attitude *does* matter. your circumstances *do* matter. working hard *does* matter. and luck matters as well. but it's all of these things - luck, genetics, circumstances *and* hard work - that make for the ultimate success story. bill gates is one of the stories described. he had luck and opportunity - by being born at just the right time when personal computing was beginning - and circumstances - by going to one of the very very few schools in the USA that actually had a computer available (for me, that opportunity was when i was 8: i went to one of the very very few secondary schools in the UK that had a computer: a Pet 3032).

    so, yeah - it's not a very popular view, particularly in the USA, as it goes against the whole "anyone can make it big" concept. but, put simply, the statistics show that it's a combination of a whole *range* of factors, all of which contribute, that make up success. just "being intelligent" simply is not enough.

    • > just "being intelligent" simply is not enough.

      ... or mandatory.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Although Bill Gates certainly had great opportunities and took advantage of them, one pair of traits that is often overlooked now (but not be people in the tech industry in the late '80s and '90s) was that he was 1) exceptionally ruthless; and 2) had the looks of someone who wasn't, just an introverted kid who'd rather be solving calculus problems on his pocket calculator. In fact, by his own admission (much later) he read many biographies of Napolean, and obviously managed to find and read many bios on th

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      If you plot the personal wealth curve of people who "made it big", it does not differ from the personal wealth curve of people who won the lottery. For nearly all of them, there is a big jump somewhere during their life, and before and after that, it's no different than for anyone else in the same wealth range.
    • If you ever came into contact with any of Gates' code, you would know he was a mediocre coder. Gladwell neglected to mention [SOP for that douchetard] that Gates' mom was on several boards with the IBM CEO, which is how Gates ended up with the greatest licensing deal in human history (DOS), that he hired someone to copy Gary Kildall's CP/M and call it DOS [MS would later pay $1 billion in out of court settlement to the holder of the license to it], and that Gates uncle was VP at First Interstate, where he
    • Re:Read "Outliers" (Score:5, Insightful)

      by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Saturday April 18, 2015 @02:27PM (#49500967) Homepage Journal

      bill gates is one of the stories described. he had luck and opportunity - by being born at just the right time when personal computing was beginning - and circumstances - by going to one of the very very few schools in the USA that actually had a computer available

      Yes, and by having rich parents. That is the single most reliable predictor of economic success. As such, it is anything but surprising that Gates was successful.

    • by Bo'Bob'O ( 95398 )

      it's not a very popular view, particularly in the USA, as it goes against the whole "anyone can make it big" concept.

      I think that is largely a mischaracterization, both by the well meaning and those looking to discredit certain notions.

      I think that firstly, people by a wide margin believe that people should not be -denied- a opportunity. Particularly for arbitrary, non-relevant factors.

      Secondly, many people also believe that we can, as a civilization, create opportunity. What efforts go into creating those

  • Some ten or fifteen years ago, Scientific American published an article about the positive correlation of "general intelligence" with virtually every measure of success in life.

    Like earning enough money to be comfortable, having the emotional intelligence to have a successful marriage, etc.

    They showed that "general intelligence" which is correlated with but not directly measured by things like SAT scores, was basically a ticket to (or highly correlated with) a good life, and even good health.

    And the article was mighty persuasive.


    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ColdWetDog ( 752185 )

      What is 'general intelligence'? (Anything like Colonel Panic?)

      Yes, if you can't read, can't figure out a bus schedule you are in a world of hurt in this society. It does not follow that being able to understand calculus gives you peace, happiness and longevity. There is going to be some broad mean that societal requirements dictate that you need. Other than than, you are at the mercy of lots of other vagaries of life.

    • Maybe this tells us more about intelligence tests than anything. IQ has mostly been dismissed as an end all measure. We now know we can measure a persons intelligence a number of ways. IQ may have been a measure of a very specific type of intelligence, but had little correlation with one's life happiness.
  • Even being above average means you're surrounded by (relative) idiots. Hell, just stay informed about world events, history, literature, and then stand there in disgust as all people can talk about is the latest episode of "Naked and Afraid". This is by no means a recent thing either; every generation throughout history has repeated the same sorry story.

    • by Dunbal ( 464142 ) * on Saturday April 18, 2015 @11:51AM (#49500335)
      It's not so much that others are idiots, it's that they actively resist any attempt at being enlightened. They rejoice in their stupidity.
    • by amiga3D ( 567632 )

      Reminds me of a quote, "In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king."

  • Unfortunately, this is largely the natural progression of society. Back then, we didn't know how to handle these kids, thus we ham stringed them from the get go. They had the unfortunate luck to be born at a time when we're just awakening to the idea that we should treat children differently than adults, and with absolutely NO awareness that different children require different rearing techniques.

    The good news is that, despite all the bullshit,we really have progressed quite far. I doubt, 80 years from now

  • by the_skywise ( 189793 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:03PM (#49500387)

    (See? I used per se, so I'm... oh never mind...)

    Intelligence and being highly observant are great skills both in society and from an evolutionary/survivalist standpoint.

    But in a society I've found it brings up two downsides:

    Guilt, because your intelligence allows you to avoid pain or achieve a higher level of comfort in society. You weren't "superman" you just made rational choices based upon your understanding of how the system works and now your friends and family are suffering because they didn't and you want to help them which requires more energy and effort or you can't which means your intelligence has limits and all you can do is watch them suffer.

    Stress and anxiety. Once you figure out that you can problem solve and improve your quality of life it's natural, like any athlete, to grow and push your boundaries. But intellectual pursuits aren't as cut and dried as physical ones - It's easy to know that you can only bench press 200lbs and that's what you need to work on - Less so when you're trying to solve problems like familial and social discord but nobody will listen or trying to improve your company's fortunes by making proper investment choices. More to the point, I'm an engineer and there's nothing more frustrating trying to solve a problem you've encountered with your design that YOU pushed for, can't figure out why it's not working, might not work AT ALL and the boss is breathing down your neck (oh and the company is on the line). There's plenty of days I've driven by a building crew and daydreamed about just running the earth mover or driving a dump truck.

    In an Agrarian society - in a pre-industrialized world these issues just didn't come about for intellectualism - Partially because it wasn't as much of a survival skill. (And that's probably why steampunk is so romanticized today)

    • by radtea ( 464814 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:34PM (#49500493)

      Intelligence in the intellectual, logical reasoning sense is a evolutionary epiphenomenon. It is only weakly selected for. We can tell this because its distribution in the population is so broad. There are no gazelles that run at half the speed of the fastest[*] but there is no shortage of people with IQs that are half the top and still manage to get along (putting "the top" at around 160 and "the bottom" around 80, which is the lower end of the "gets along OK in society most of the time" range.)

      Logical, linear reasoning is a trick we've managed to train our bear to dance.

      Some people happen to be really good at it. This can be a problem for them because so much of what humans do, and the accounts they give of it, make very little sense to the untutored mind.

      We live in the Age of Bayes, and the Bayesian Revolution over the past thee hundred years (which takes in a lot of time before Bayes himself or the recognition that what we were doing is fundamentally Bayesian) has taught us some really important lessons about ourselves. Mostly how damned stupid we have been, even the highly intelligent. We've spent centuries arguing nonsense, from how three is equal to one for large values of three to the dharma of the tao.

      In the past century or so we've been calling out the people who are most "intellectually gifted" and expecting them to solve our problems (in a past age it was the pious, or the people "of good family", etc). This has created a bind for them, because for most of that time we've also had no idea why people do what they do (spoiler: mate competition and selection play large roles, although we are still a long way from any kind of comprehensive understanding.)

      There are also ethical constraints on what can be done to solve human problems. The utopian projects of the 20th century, despite their profound irrationality in so many respects, were manifestations of this belief that the human intellect had all the right tools for the job of reforming the planet. It didn't work, and that leaves us in the situation we are in today, where intellect is suspect as well as desired.

      As such, it isn't necessarily a shock that people identified as "intellectually gifted" should feel less adequate after exemplary lives. Nor is it likely that's going to change any time soon, as we continue to look to the intellectually gifted to save us from ourselves, while steadfastly refusing to spend any time looking hard in a mirror for the source of most human problems.

      [*] this may be false... feel free to fact-check me!

      • The utopian projects of the 20th century, despite their profound irrationality in so many respects, were manifestations of this belief that the human intellect had all the right tools for the job of reforming the planet. It didn't work, and that leaves us in the situation we are in today, where intellect is suspect as well as desired.

        This is an interesting contention. My perception is that some of those great undertakings DID work, and some didn't, but people have become cynical because we've got an incredible amount of technology and yet all of the historical human problems are still with us (poverty, starvation, death from simple diseases, violence, crime).

        So perhaps it is the case that we've grown to distrust intellectuals because they overpromised. Or perhaps we've come to realize that technology is only part (and perhaps the easies

  • Duh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Livius ( 318358 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @12:24PM (#49500459)

    "We tend to think of geniuses as being plagued by existential angst, frustration, and loneliness."

    This I think comes from identifying 'genius' as someone with special ability but not a popular, cool ability. Exceptional athletes, musicians, and actors are just as much outliers as 'geniuses', but their talents are never liabilities, and only rarely does society genuinely encourage any humility on their part.

  • by Ryanrule ( 1657199 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:00PM (#49500603)
    As intelligence goes up, happiness often goes down. See, I made a graph! I make a lot of graphs...
  • There are many obvious advantages to high IQ, if the genes related to it weren't also linked to major negatives then the process of evolution would have selected for them more effectively than it has.
  • We have too many people in college / higher levels of the ivory tower some maybe very smart but at times in some fields when it comes down to real world work experience (out side of the ivory tower) they can be very dumb.

  • by redelm ( 54142 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @01:34PM (#49500737) Homepage

    If high intelligence were an unmitigated benefit, natural selection would have moved the IQ average to 130, 150 or whatever over the eons. There _must_ be commensurate down-sides. Depression? Slower reflexes? Go fetch!

    As it is, we just have the Flynn effect of average IQs rising about 1 pt per decade over the past century. That might [or not] be considered as fast evolutionary change.

    • Intelligence is a weaker selection trait in the wild then, say, strength, stamina, endurance and mate attraction.

      It only becomes worthwhile once you have a stable society and can then pursue such "luxuries" and, even then, it appears to take thousands of years to become critical to society in general and, even now, it's still not considered a "desirable" trait for mate attraction...

    • by Anonymous Coward

      If high intelligence were an unmitigated benefit, natural selection would have moved the IQ average to 130, 150 or whatever over the eons.

      Yours seems to be below the average, whatever number that is.

      The IQ is standardized such that the fiftieth percentile has an IQ of 100. It's a definition, nothing more.

  • . . . used to say, "It ain't what people don't know, it's what they think they know!"

    I've come in contact with at least one super genius that I know of, and it was a most humbling experience. I have solved technical problems which previous companies and persons have spent hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of dollars, to solve, to no avail. Perseverance prevails when intelligence is sometimes lacking . . .
  • by TheSync ( 5291 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @02:37PM (#49501013) Journal

    This study [] says "Each point increase in IQ test scores is associated with $202 to $616 more income per year...The median net worth for people with an IQ of 120 was almost $128,000 compared with $58,000 for those with an IQ of 100."

    • Did you even bother to read your own link?? The passage you quote was pointed out to be a problematic assumption once appropriate controls for possible confounding factors were taken into account. A couple sentences after your quote: "But when Zagorsky controlled for other factors - such as divorce, years spent in school, type of work and inheritance - he found no link between IQ and net worth. In fact, people with a slightly above-average IQ of 105 , had an average net worth higher than those who were j
  • Can High Intelligence Be a Burden Rather Than a Boon?

    Yes, absolutely.

    Society loves a genius, but only long after it is dead.

    • Oh, also: Genius is simply raw potential. What someone does with that 'potential' is a different matter entirely.

      As said long ago, "Genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration." I am loathe to quote that weenie, Thomas A. Edison, but the idea of his quote is accurate. It is what you do with that potential that matters.

  • Personally, I find defining achievement as wealth and fame as problematic.

    A cop might be a detective and be great at solving serious crimes -- both intellectually an achiever, and also benefiting his/her community; while still being not terribly highly paid or famous. Or what about someone who chooses a quiet life as a homemaker/parent, and raises smart, confident, self-reliant, happy kids? Just a couple of examples I can think of.

    There's a definite western capitalistic/materialistic bias in the study's ass

  • Next thing they'll tell us that not all the tall people are good at basketball.

  • The true burden (Score:4, Insightful)

    by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @06:15PM (#49501803) Homepage Journal

    The true burden lies in thinking a "high IQ" means you're better than other people. There are many valuable skills and talents which are not measured by an IQ test, including art, music, empathy, and so on.

    The burden is the arrogance of presuming IQ means intelligence. It does not. It is simply one metric for measuring skillsets.

  • This may be why (Score:5, Interesting)

    by reboot246 ( 623534 ) on Saturday April 18, 2015 @07:29PM (#49502135) Homepage
    The danger when you have the intelligence to do anything you want to do in life is doing nothing. You hesitate to focus narrowly on one field of study because that means you'll have less time for all the others.

    I won't say what my IQ is, but it's up there. My grades, especially in science courses, were practically perfect. People were expecting me to go into all kinds of careers, including medicine, chemistry, physics, computer science, etc.. But, I'm interested in everything! Always have been. I chose a career that didn't need much thought so I could keep up with what was happening in science and technology. It's worked. How many 62 year olds do you know who build their own computers? Or just bought two new microscopes? Or diagnose their own problems before going to the doctor?

    I know a lot of successful people. Most of them have very little time for fishing, hunting, camping, going to ball games, watching television, listening to music, playing with the children & grandchildren, or working in the garden. I have all the time in the world to enjoy life. Isn't that what it's all about?

The person who can smile when something goes wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.