Blinded by Brilliance

We are awed, intimidated, annoyed—but rarely unmoved—by great minds. How to stand on the shoulders of giants, rather than skulk in their shadows.

By Richard Johnson, published March 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

But you don't have to be Bill Gates to intimidate. There are brainy types everywhere who bend discussions and meetings to their will: getting off the best laugh lines, asking the seminal questions, puncturing bad ideas and thinking up most of the good ones.

For some mere mortals, a bout of self-examination might follow: "Why didn't I think of that?" For others, the experience is an invigorating intellectual romp. The way we react to dazzling intellect reveals something of our individual personalities as well as much about humans in general. People who cower in the presence of great minds are more apt to be deficient in self-confidence than in brainpower. And those who relish the experience are likely learning from (rather than sparring with) the luminary in question.

Being in the presence of genius causes people to change their behavior, their body language and the way they speak. We tune in to the pitch of their voice, the steeliness in their eyes, while always looking for a hint of irritation.

"A lot of people are intimidated and don't say much at all," says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. A senior Microsoft executive once said of Gates: "People worry, 'If I take a nanosecond more to explain something, will Bill get impatient?'"

But it's not just anxiety about our own performance or bruised ego that causes us to be acutely aware of the brainpower of others. Tracking the star performer allows us to build the right alliances, to learn new tricks and to avoid making mistakes.

Beginning in the Pleistocene era, as our ancestors competed for limited resources, the more intelligent beings, not just the biggest and strongest, moved to the alpha position in the group, argues Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis who studies genius, creativity and eccentricity.

The rest of the group did well to attend to the bright light in their midst. "We do a great job of intuitively recognizing intelligence," affirms Seligman. Brainpower can be signaled in a variety of ways: as wit, wisdom or withering criticism. There are also objective cues to intelligence—speed of reaction time, fluency of speech, spontaneous humor.

Peter Borkenau, a professor of psychology at Martin-Luther University in Halle, Germany, has shown that study subjects are able to estimate the mental capacity of persons videotaped reading short sequences of standard text aloud. "It was sufficient to hear how fluently others spoke," he says. Let them open their mouths, even to read someone else's words, and their level of intelligence could be discerned. When the individual spoke extemporaneously, the correlation between perceived and actual intelligence was higher still.

Extraordinary ability is even more noticeable in small feats. James Udall, a shipmate of Lt. Richard Nixon on a World War II troop carrier, remembered card games with the future president, calling Nixon "as good a poker player as, if not better than, anyone we had ever seen." Bob Kavesh, who worked at Chase Manhattan Bank in the 1950s, remembers a young consultant, Alan Greenspan, at various gatherings of economists. "He was the ultimate anatomist of the system," said Kavesh. "He knew how the whole thing fit together. He knew the bones, muscles and blood. By the late Fifties, nobody knew the numbers better than he did."

Teachers are often especially attuned to and impressed by giftedness. Hillary Rodham's sixth-grade teacher Elizabeth King was so taken by the child's ability that, when Hillary moved on to junior high school, she got herself transferred to the new school so that she could continue as her teacher. Chief Justice John Roberts's eighth-grade math teacher, Dorothea Liddell, never removed his birth date from the student birthday book she had kept for decades. His was the only one she retained. "I like to think that was an omen for wonderful things to come," she told Time.

But not everyone is as taken with raw intellect as are schoolteachers. Associating with the supernaturally smart has a chilling effect on many people.

"There is a mixture of reactions," says Borkenau. "On one side people may feel admiring of the person and on the other they may feel inferior and intimidated." No one wants to play the fool in the presence of those who don't suffer fools gladly.

Robert Oppenheimer, who helped unlock the power of the atom, had a remarkable ability to absorb information rapidly. Physicist Lee Dundridge told Oppenheimer's biographers that the hero of Los Alamos "could read a paper—I saw this many times—and you know it'd be 15 or 20 typed pages, and he'd flip through the pages in about five minutes and then he'd brief everybody on exactly the important points."

But Oppenheimer could be unsettling, especially in his arrogant youth. He was intolerant of anyone who he thought was mediocre and did little to hide his contempt. He would interrupt a colleague and finish the sentence for him. At age 9, he told an older cousin: "Ask me a question in Latin and I'll answer you in Greek."

Edward Condon, a young American physicist who knew Oppenheimer as a graduate student in Europe, said: "Trouble is that Oppie is so quick on the trigger intellectually he puts the other guy at a disadvantage. And dammit, he is always right, or at least right enough."

The vast majority may be intimidated by the brilliant few, but those on the far right tail of the bell curve have their own woes. Domineering geniuses fail to see why the rest of us just don't get it. One of Ayn Rand's biographers, Barbara Branden, wrote of those with "vast intelligence": "Such men and women stand alone, cut off from the world by a sense of distance from other people that is not an illness and cannot be cured... They endure the loneliness of seeing rather more clearly than others see, of understanding what others do not understand."

Reacting positively to such people depends on one's own goals and sense of self-worth. To Condon and Dundridge, Oppenheimer shone a light on the possibilities of the mind. Robert Wilson, a brilliant physicist himself, said of Oppenheimer: "In his presence I became more intelligent, more vocal, more intense, more prescient, more poetic myself. Although normally a slow reader, when he handed me a letter I would glance at it and hand it back prepared to discuss the nuances of it minutely." University of Michigan psychologist Chris Peterson was overwhelmed listening to eminent psychologist Steven Pinker speak a few years ago—and remains convinced that the experience enhanced his own performance.

"I know a lot of smart guys and some are inspiring," says Peterson. "I do feel that I speed up, try to say interesting things, try to think of things I've never thought of before." Seligman says it brings out the best in him. "I've only met three geniuses in my life—writers Carl Sagan and Michael Crichton and philosopher Robert Nozick, and each time I tried to think more clearly and say things that made sense," he says. "I watched my step very carefully."

We will be scared or stimulated depending on whether we feel that we're in direct competition, says Simonton. "Certainly in leadership positions, a highly intelligent person can represent a potential challenger. On the other hand, we often feel inspired if we are viewing that individual as a potential role model."

Those who turn deerlike in the headlights of a dazzling intellect are often afraid that they will be toyed with or not taken seriously. The young Gates awed Jim Towne, Microsoft's first recruited president in 1982 and briefly the company's chief operating officer. Rather than argue with the most intelligent man he'd ever met, Towne would retreat—in effect telling Gates that he could win by intimidation. (Towne, a professional manager accused of caring too little about computers and software to satisfy Gates, was gone by the summer of 1983.) "When someone appears brilliant and is dominant in a meeting, others often back off and become more reticent, which elevates the difference between them," says Simonton.

Supreme intelligence is also alienating because it is, in fact, alien to us. We don't often come across a mind manifestly superior to our own. "We live in a pretty intellectually segregated society," says Doug Detterman, editor of the journal Intelligence and professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "Smart people talk to smart people." Plus, we tend to overestimate our own intelligence, one of many domains in which we unconsciously inflate our abilities (we also overestimate our love-making, driving and comedic abilities). So it's something of a jolt to realize that someone else is much smarter than we are.

If the ability to easily gauge a peer's intelligence allows us to navigate our social world, the ability to successfully assess a love interest's brainpower is just as critical: Wooing a high-wattage mate ups our chances for a competent partner and smarter-than-average children. In fact, evolutionary psychologists contend that intelligence evolved as a way to assess the quality or "fitness" of a potential partner.

Says Borkenau: "Perceived intelligence is certainly important in interpersonal dealings. Competence seems to be one of a few core dimensions underlying judgments of personality, and it is important for the overall evaluation of a person."

Whether we're in search of a brilliant mate or cowering in the presence of a too-smart colleague, Simonton cautions that we can be fooled. We may think we are chatting with a blindingly clever individual, when we are actually just talking to someone who knows his or her stuff.