To adults, the idea of being silly seems, well, silly.  Having a chronically silly person around can be irksome if not downright counterproductive. The grown-up class clown, as an extreme example, is constantly interrupting others, making sarcastic intrusions into the flow of casual conversations or meetings, and generally doing everything imaginable to get attention.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that it’s never OK to share a laugh or joke. Humor can be a wonderful coping strategy for handling stress, and between partners in a couple, a relationship booster.  Silliness, though, may seem to be below the dignity of the adult, especially if you believe that maturity implies a certain gravitas.  Here again, though, in certain conditions it feels good just to do something un-adult like such as giggling over a shared joke with friends, donning a ridiculous hat or costume, or scampering through the backyard playing hide-and-seek with your kids (or paint ball with your buddies).

Being silly can also apply to ideas as well as actions. Perhaps you’ve had a silly idea that seemed a little more than thinking outside the box but instead, was a bit wacky. Maybe you suggest that your friend’s bridal shower incorporate an unusual theme such as paintball or roller skating. At work, you might see what people think about having everyone around the room at a meeting tell their favorite (PG-13) joke instead of getting right down to the agenda.

Silly ideas can obviously go much further than suggesting that people do silly things.  Some silly ideas can be truly creative if not downright brilliant. Finnish anthropologist Edward Dutton teamed up with Dutch psychologist Dimitri van der Linden (2015) to address the question of which type of people are the “Clever Sillies.” 

A clever silly idea is one that may ultimately prove to be the best idea of all even though it seems not to make sense at all at the time. However, the person who advocates the idea argues adamantly and eloquently in favor of it, selling it through brilliant and persuasive language: "This allows their originators to showcase their intelligence because, even if their idea is wrong, they have shown the capacity to entertain an idea which might possibly be correct and requires extremely high intelligence to comprehend” (p. 62). 

Dutton and van der Linden propose that there are personality traits associated with the tendency to adopt and defend clever silly ideas. These traits differ, though, based on whether you're the originator or follower of the idea. Originators are, by definition, non-conformists who are willing to take risks. The followers are just that, going along with someone else’s novel ideas and therefore not really distinguishing themselves in any particular.

There are prominent examples of clever silly idea originators. They include most famously Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Marx, who advocated ideas that went against the grain of the prevailing culture of their time. “Their intelligence and personality allow them to engage in such strategies as it helps them to out-compete their academic peers in this regard and have the ability to take such a gamble” (p. 63).

The personalities of the clever silly originators, according to the Dutton and van der Linden, reflect high “psychoticism” (tendency to have unusual ideas) but also high neuroticism, or a tendency to be anxious and worried. They are also above average in intelligence. These qualities allow the originators to originate, showcasing their abilities and creativity, and be willing to risk ostracism or rejection by others to achieve their long-term goals of success in the world.

If you’re a follower, not an originator, then your personality should include your being open to new ideas, high on empathy, and fairly neurotic. You’ll be agreeable, conscientious, and most likely high on intelligence as well. Dutton and van der Linden believe this describes the average academic because “the personality profile predicting academic success also seems to predict ideological conformity” (p. 63).

So, are you a creator or follower of clever silly ideas, and what does this mean about the chances of your achieving success? You can see from this analysis that bucking the prevailing views of your group can lead to come up with novel ideas but at the risk of being regarded as odd, or worse. If you always follow the ideas of others, you may succeed in the short term, because you’ll be accepted by the group, but you’ll never come up with anything that truly distinguishes you.

Interestingly, in the cases that Dutton and van der Linden present, the originators of clever silly ideas didn’t have much of a family life, lacking “sexual success” (p. 64). Like the caricature of the offbeat genius (think “Big Bang Theory” characters), these individuals may not know how to interact with others in a real world context, but only in the world of ideas.

Coming up with silly ideas in the context of your everyday life may not involve such grand rethinking of philosophy as the examples used by Dutton and van der Linden.  However, when you do want to suggest an idea that you're pretty sure no one else will have thought of, it may be at the cost of looking at least temporarily odd. Being able to explain your idea in compelling terms will help you gain followers, though, causing your stock to rise in the group. In other words, don’t just throw a bunch of random zingers out there. Be prepared to back them up if you truly believe in their validity.

The next time someone suggests doing the same-old same-old at a family gathering, office staff retreat, or community fundraiser, don’t be afraid to suggest something silly. You just might provide the stimulus needed to reshape the group’s thinking and give yourself a feeling of fulfillment that your unique contribution has made a worthwhile difference.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Dutton, E., & van der Linden, D. (2015). Who are the 'Clever Sillies'? The intelligence, personality, and motives of clever silly originators and those who follow them. Intelligence, 4957-65. doi:10.1016/j.intell.2014.12.008

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