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Only Stupid People Have Lots of Friends

Mar 21 2016 6:30 PM
Only Stupid People Have Lots of Friends

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If you'd rather spend a weekend on your own than chilling with your girlfriends, a new study says that it's probably because you're smarter than they are. We spoke with a psychologist and the communications manager at MENSA (UK) to find out why smart people are loners.

If you've ever received a worried text from a friend who feels it's time for a "talk"—because you're too distant, too this, too that—then you have probably also asked yourself why you have friends in the first place. Maybe you'd rather be alone, capturing a selfie that gives Mona Lisa a run for her money, or writing the next great American blog. According to a new study, this desire to isolate may be a symptom of the fact that you're wicked smart: Satoshia Kanazawa and Norma Li, evolutionary psychologists in the UK, recently vouched for the genius of loners. Their data found that while most people's happiness increased in correlation to a decrease in population density (as well as with a high level of social interactions with loved ones) people who are "extremely intelligent" are actually happier when they don't spend time with their friends.

From their findings' abstract: "More intelligent individuals experience lower life satisfaction with more frequent socialization with friends." Lovely. I don't know about you, but when I think of genius, I think of Mensa—the world's largest and oldest high IQ society. Ann Clarkson, communications manager from their UK division, told me that these findings are "probably partly down to personality—you can have gregarious people with high IQ as well as introverted people with a high IQ."

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But, Clarkson didn't burst the bubble completely. "It is also recognized that very intelligent people can sometimes feel isolated from those around them just because they think and see the world differently. Finding someone else who processes information as you do can be difficult if your brain works the same as only two percent of the population," she said. That number, two percent, just refers to the layer of people that Mensa skims off the top of society to include in their collective of masterminds. It isn't, as Clarkson informed me, the number of highly intelligent people that a psychologist would necessarily cite to exist.

Dr. Robert Sternberg is a professor of human development at Cornell University specializing in intelligence and relationships. "There is no psychological meaning to the word 'highly intelligent,'" he said in an interview with Broadly. Psychologists, he explained, have many conflicting opinions on what constitutes high intelligence, and how many different "kinds" of intelligence there are. "In my own theory of successful intelligence, I distinguish among analytical intelligence (IQ), creative intelligence, and practical intelligence (common sense)," he said. "High IQ does not guarantee either of the latter two. Our schooling so rewards kids with high IQ that those kids have little incentive to develop high social/emotional/practical intelligence, with unfortunate results."


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Kanazawa and Li's so-called "savannah theory of happiness" is presented in terms of evolutionary psychology: The situations we experience today are seen in the context of our ancestral experiences. According to the Washington Post, the researchers "theorize that the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of our ancient ancestors form the foundation for what make us happy now." Smart people can likely deal with challenges better on their own than less intelligent people can, thus relationships may be less important—but, as Dr. Sternberg points out, "a challenge with evolutionary psychology is that it requires us to imagine what life was like in prehistoric times, and we have enough trouble imagining what it was like in the Middle Ages, or even the 1940s."

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He says that it's arguable that highly intelligent people desire fewer close friendships because they are exceptional and likely to be brought down by those around them, such as when bright students prefer to work alone than in a group of classmates who they feel are less intelligent. But, he explains, "it's not always the smartest kid (or adult) in a group who prevails (compare with our current Republican primaries), so the intelligent person may be forced to accept the direction set by the less intelligent people. Moreover, the highly intelligent person may be just too busy with career to spend the time talking extensively with friends."

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But that's just one angle. Dr. Sternberg also says that it could be argued that "highly intelligent people are the ones most in need of friends because their high (academic) intelligence does not always translate to high social/emotional/practical intelligence." This brings up the different "kinds" of intelligence that people possess. For instance, you might suck at tests but excel at manipulating your teacher into giving you a good grade anyway—or maybe you're a creative genius, bad at numbers, but brilliant with something... creative. There are people who are technically of high intelligence, but whose interpersonal abilities are so inadequate they mangle social interactions, therefore failing to achieve their goals. "The intelligent person may fail to get his or her way because he does not see how to interact with and successfully persuade others in groups of importance (again, compare with our current Republican primaries)," Dr. Sternberg explained.

"High (academic) intelligence is only poorly correlated with social, emotional, and practical intelligence," he continued. "Ironically, the smart person who does not want to interact with others may be the person who most needs to interact with others to succeed in life. There are just so many high-IQ people who can't translate that IQ into worldly success, or who do so in ways that are less than fully productive."

Like Mensa, Dr. Sternberg questions these findings, pointing out the inaccuracy in over-simplification. "Catchy headlines do not always strong science make," he said.

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