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In many cultures, including the United States, it is often asserted that there is a correlation between intelligence and social deficiency, though the source of this connection is controversial. While actual mental deficiency quite clearly interferes with social function, and there is little debate about how that comes about, this article specifically intends to discuss the linkage between high intelligence and social difficulties.
In order to discuss such a linkage in concrete terms, it is necessary to select a metric by which intelligence shall be measured, such as IQ. The results of studies on this topic-- of which there are presently few-- will vary depending on the manner in which intelligence is measured and interpreted.
This supposed linkage is seen in folklore in, for example, the character of the socially-inept genius in popular culture. This deficiency can range from harmless and endearing (see: nerd) to outright devastating, both in media and real life.
While intelligence and social ability are notoriously difficult to test and measure, it is generally believed that modestly above-average intelligence (1 to 2 standard deviations above the mean) correlates upward with social ability. In American high schools, for example, highly-active honors students have been shown to be quite popular in most cases. However, abnormally high intelligence, 3 or more standard deviations above the mean, tends to correlate strongly with poor social skills.
Not all highly intelligent people should be considered socially deficient, nor should all socially exceptional people be considered highly intelligent. A proposed correlation can only interpret a trend, not define an absolute.
In his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman presents a foundation for emotional intelligence, measured by EQ, as an additional dimension of "intelligence" (see: multiple intelligence) in which individuals' empathy and social skills are personal traits comparable to "intelligence". Whether it is possible for a person to possess intelligence of all sorts (intellectual, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, etc.) remains an open question: Some pose that there are inherent trade-offs between the different manifestations of intelligence. Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences deals with the relationships between these different forms of intelligence.
Possible causes of the connection
The cause of such a connection or trade-off between intellectual and social ability is unknown, but many hypotheses exist:
- Intelligent people are more likely to exhibit nonconformist or even anticonformist attitudes, and are also less likely to avoid conflict. While these traits often make people highly respected, they do not represent good social skills.
- Intelligent people may be more likely to be arrogant because of their abilities. However, this is an unlikely explanation, as (anecdotally) social deficiencies exist even in non-arrogant intelligent people.
- Self-confidence of so-called "intelligent" people may be misinterpreted or resented.
- The esoteric interests of intelligent people may be regarded by others as strange or abnormal.
- There may be an inherent genetic (or systemic) trade-off between social ability and intelligence.
- Individuals who spend their time on intellectual pursuits like chess, mathematics, and literature may be less likely to be engaged in group activities that improve social skills. Highly intelligent individuals may be raised to be more individualistic than others, therefore would have less social experience.
- Highly intelligent individuals may be traumatized, envied for their intellectual gifts, during childhood and thus resented by their agemates. Consequently, being often placed in disadvantaged social situations, they mature at a slower rate or, in severe cases, in a deformed manner.
Possible alternative explanations for an apparent connection
It is quite possible that no such connection exists. Many possibilities could have led to the common image of the reclusive genius.
- Eccentric but highly intelligent figures are often featured in drama. Mad scientists are a staple of popular entertainment. Therefore, the connection between intelligence and social ineptitude may only exist within the media.
- The only way to participate in society when one has poor social skills may be to be exceptionally intelligent. Those who happen to have poor social skills but not exceptional intelligence may simply disappear, becoming part of the largely ignored homeless population in most major cities.
- Some have posited that "intelligence", as the word is commonly used in the debate, has no meaning since, in this context, the term is usually used with the implied exclusion of interpersonal abilities, while there is no evidence that these abilities should not be considered a form of intelligence on their own right.
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