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When we think of childhood bullying, we’re likely to conjure up images of either a vulnerable child being mocked to tears, or having to endure some form of sadistic physical abuse. But there’s also a more mental way of embarrassing or humiliating an innocent child — by "lording" one’s intellectual superiority over them.

This more insidious, and frequently sarcastic, form of bullying has received far less recognition than the two better-known forms. As Rohban Zahid puts it: “What seems to fall in between the cracks are bullies who ... torment students who are 'less smart.'” Zahid goes on to make a more sweeping comment (or condemnation) of our meritocracy-like culture. Individuals in society are placed into an “intellectual hierarchy” determined by the numbers and letters that come in the form of their grades and degrees. (See my post, "Are You Smart, or Smart Enough?") The problem arises when people at the top of this hierarchy are (wrongfully) permitted to belittle students at the bottom. This construct creates intellectual bullying, the emotional and psychological harassment one imposes on another based on his or her intellectual understanding. Intellectual bullying is no different than physical bullying: It can have devastating, long-term effects on one's sense of self-worth.

So, how might we best define this increasingly dominant mode of bullying? Here are some workable definitions:

     "By intellectual bullies, I mean people who are indeed smarter (have a higher IQ), who have more knowledge in a certain field, and generally carry the sense of entitlement to be dismissive, disrespectful, mean and emotionally abusive, and play tricks/pranks on others. [And, curiously] we glorify people like this in TV shows, and we don’t consider [it] a form of bullying." (Quora, “Do We Show More Leniency Towards Intellectual Bullies Than Physical Ones?” 2014)

Adding another dimension to this phenomenon is Joe Bouchard, who remarks:

     ""The intellectual bully specializes in condescension. Their insecurities are masked in large words and aloof, arrogant sentences. Their offense consists of a belief that they are smarter than the competition. They enjoy making others feel inferior." (“Ranking Bully Types,” corrections.com, 2010)

I might add that if such condescension isn’t intentional, if it‘s much more about interpersonal insensitivity or social obtuseness (versus a more calculated aggressiveness), then it can’t really be identified as bullying — though it may, in fact, have a similarly negative effect on the recipient.

Lastly, consider this piercing (and pithy!) definition offered by the Urban Dictionary: "A highly intelligent person who uses his/her intellect in a nasty superior manner."

As a psychologist, I’ve discovered that one way some of my more cerebrally gifted clients compensated (or, really, over-compensated) in childhood for feelings of athletic, social, or economic inferiority was to make fun of, or speak degradingly to, those who revealed scholastic inferiority. Such intellectual conceit and intimidation hardly made them popular. But it did help mask their insecurity in areas in which they plainly felt “less than” their peers. For instance, frequently they were slight of build and manually uncoordinated so, in terms of physical prowess, they felt painfully inferior. Or they came from a financially disadvantaged family and wore attire conspicuously reflecting a lower socioeconomic status.

As a coping mechanism, especially since they were often ridiculed as nerds, they at least had a way (or weapon) to mitigate this felt vulnerability and defend their tenuous self-esteem. Sensitive and highly reactive, they had neither the size nor strength to effectively retaliate against those inclined to bully them. Employing a superior intellect to reduce their self-doubt and protect their fragile ego, they managed to “outfox” adversaries through with and advanced verbal skills. Moreover, if they could find other so-called nerds to hang out with, they could elude the emotional hurt of being ostracized by their peers.

What’s the ultimate hazard in all of this? How might “brainy bullies” end up harming themselves as much as, or more than, their targets?

For many of the gifted clients I worked with — some of whom, initially, couldn’t resist trying to put me down — this verbal artillery, earlier so pivotal in protecting their easily splintered self-esteem, was now habitual, an essential attribute of their behavioral repertoire. And it was significantly impairing — at times destroying — their personal and professional relationships. However unawares, routinely demeaning others to feel one-up on them both offended and antagonized their (presumed) inferiors. In turn, these individuals, feeling deprecated by such intellectual bullying, all too often either left them or found ways to get back at them.

Particularly if those perpetrated against were in a subordinate or supervisee position, they could be driven to discharge their anger and resentment passive-aggressively — and so “turn the tables” on their abuser. And the final result of their acting out their frustrations was to compromise their superior’s "top-dog" status. In short, the intellectual bully’s victims contrived to make their bully a victim. Further, the intellectual bully, with such poorly developed empathy — having come to rely on their cerebral gifts to feel better than others — would find themselves facing an opposition their very intellect precluded them from dealing with effectively (almost like accidentally falling on their own intellectual sword).

The moral in all this? Anything that once may have been adaptive in compensating for one’s felt inadequacies can later become acutely maladaptive. Consequently, what’s called for isn’t merely developing better social skills, but adopting a totally different mindset toward those less intellectually gifted. These intellectual bullies must "evolve" some humility — a tall order. Not only do they need to stop linking a person’s core value to their intellect, they also need to genuinely accept — as equals — those whose genetically determined I.Q. didn’t afford them the “luxury” of high verbal acumen.

Just as important, the bullies need to realize that they never really earned their mental superiority. It was, without their having to make the slightest effort, simply “bestowed” upon them. So, if it’s in them to do so — a big “if” since many are sufficiently narcissistic that they’ll require counseling to effect such an attitudinal revision — they must grow their empathy, understanding, and compassion toward those who lack the cerebral advantages they, at birth, had the good fortune to receive.

It’s worth pointing out that, ironically, childhood physical bullies may be more likely to change their ways than intellectual bullies. Over time, the latter type of bullying can become firmly rooted in the very tissue of their personality. Consider this quote by Paul M. Jones (“Patterns of Intellectual Bullies,” November 7, 2008):

     "The athlete bully . . . begins with the idea that 'If I can beat you in a physical contest, then I am your master and I am better than you,' but eventually is conditioned to accept that physical domination is not socially acceptable. He grows up when he realizes he can’t get along with other adults by bullying them."

     "[In contrast] the intellectual bully . . . begins with the idea that 'If I can beat you in a mental contest, then I am your master and I am better than you.' However, the intellectual bully rarely learns that mental domination is similarly unacceptable in civil, adult discourse."

Quoting from Alan Cooper’s The Inmates are Running the Asylum (2004, p. 104), Jones concludes, "There is no maturation process to temper their exercise of that power."

Being born intellectually gifted is, indeed, a “gift.” So the proper response toward such good fortune is to cultivate a grateful, appreciative perspective — and considerable humility. Ultimately, intellectual bullies will be much happier if they can effect this change ... as, for sure, will those around them.

Because many intellectual bullies are narcissists, and I’ve written about a dozen articles on this controversial personality type, readers might wish to take a look at some of my earlier posts that go more deeply into the dynamics of narcissistic behavior — and their victims. Here are some titles and links:

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To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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